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Technological Evolution Prize Competition — ANNOUNCEMENT


Comment #2 is the winning entry. It’s the closest to what I was looking for, though it’s still a long way from the indirect Darwinian pathways that supposedly led to the highly integrated molecular machines of the sort described by Michael Behe. Most of the entries focused on evolving a structure to improve a given function. The point of this exercise, however, was to document evolutionary pathways in which functions and structures change over time. I awarded the winning entry $150.

Biological evolution is supposed to describe a gradual process that can produce marvelous adapations from simple precursors (e.g., the mammalian eye from a light-sensitive spot). But what about technological evolution? In the history of human technology, what is the longest chain of gradual changes that transforms one system into another.

I’m not talking about hypothetical histories in which it is imagined how some final piece of technology might gradually have evolved from simpler precursors (for such a bogus hypothetical history, consider John H. McDonald’s evolving mousetrap: go here — McDonald is responding to Behe’s use of the mousetrap as an example of irreducible complexity).

I’m talking about an actual history of invention in which an initial technology does A, and then a small change allows it to do B, after which a further small change allows it to do C, after which co-opting an existing system (without extensive modification) allows it to do D, etc. The evolution of a motorcycle from a motor and a bicycle is not a good example in this regard because the motor and bicycle require extensive design-work to adapt them to each other.

Thus, I’m looking for

  1. An actual case study from the history of human invention.
  2. At least five steps in the specific case of technological evolution being proposed.
  3. Each of the steps must be gradual in the sense that no extensive change of the immediately succeeding system(s) was required (in the case of co-option, no extensive retooling or adaptation of parts was required).
  4. At least five contestants.
  5. Example of technological evolution must be submitted as comment to this blog entry by December 1, 2005. (Note that a simple link to another webpage is sufficient.)

If these conditions are satisfied, I’ll award a prize of not less than $100 and not more than $1000 (the amount will depend on how interesting I find the winning sequence). Note that I am the sole judge.