On Darwin's Daemon...

The name of this website was inspired by Darwin and a famous gedanken experiment posed by James Maxwell involving an omniscient demon (or daemon); quoting Wikipedia:

"[Consider] a container divided into two parts by an insulated wall, with a door that can be opened and closed by what came to be called 'Maxwell's demon'. The demon opens the door to allow only the 'hot' molecules of gas to flow through to a favoured side of the chamber, causing that side to gradually heat up while the other side cools down, thus decreasing entropy."

This supposed violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (ignoring the possiblity that the demon actually does "work") was used to emphasize the profound relationship between information and thermodynamics.

By analogy, Darwin's concept of Natural Selection may be viewed as the biological equivalent to Maxwell's Demon: an agent that "filters" for the fittest and gradually increases the complexity of biological forms and functions.

While 'Darwin's Daemon' could connote Natural Selection, I use it to suggest a more egregious idea: that I—and others like me who do synthetic ecology or experimental evolution—play the 'demon' in purposefully altering ecological/evolutionary trajectories of organisms in the lab. We are in the business of Experimental Selection.

A more naughty take on 'Darwin's Daemon/Demon' is that I focus on subject matter that either troubled Darwin (i.e., cooperation) or that apparently go contrary to his view of "slow evolution" as articulated in The Origin of Species (chapter 6):

"...'Natura non facit saltum' [nature does not make jumps]...natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps."

While "slow" evolution by mutation/drift + selection is clearly a fundamental rule, I believe the formation of symbioses provides a natural (and now demonstrated) means for "leapfrogging" evolutionary novelty and catalyzing rapid evolutionary change. (Although some folks like to claim that Darwin was wrong, the truth is: Darwin was incredibly prescient and right on most things. It's been >150 years since Chuck wrote his prophetic masterpiece; fine-tuning should be expected, folks, not blown out of proportion.)

N.B. I prefer the using 'daemon' over 'demon' since it has less negative connotations; also, it's meaning and overtones are more in tune with the concept of selection as a continuous process.
(for even more on 'daemon')



dae·mon   /ˈdēmən/

  1. an attendant, guiding spirit or inspiring force
  2. an underlying background process that works tirelessly to perform system chores
  3. a program that lays dormant until particular conditions are met

Ancient Greek root: δαίω (daio), “to divide, to distribute destinies, to allot”