When Biology is Computation

Other Talks
Tuesday, October 21, 2008 - 11:00
1 hour (actually 50 minutes)
Klaus Building, 1116E&W
Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University
We argue that computational models have an essential role in uncovering the principles behind a variety of biological phenomena that cannot be approached by other means. In this talk we shall focus on evolution. Living organisms function according to complex mechanisms that operate in different ways depending on conditions. Darwin's theory of evolution suggests that such mechanisms evolved through random variation guided by natural selection. However, there has existed no theory that would explain quantitatively which mechanisms can so evolve in realistic population sizes within realistic time periods, and which are too complex. Here we suggest such a theory. Evolution is treated as a form of computational learning from examples in which the course of learning depends only on the aggregate fitness of the current hypothesis on the examples, and not otherwise on individual examples. We formulate a notion of evolvability that distinguishes function classes that are evolvable with polynomially bounded resources from those that are not. For example, we can show that monotone Boolean conjunctions and disjunctions are demonstrably evolvable over the uniform distribution, while Boolean parity functions are demonstrably not. We shall discuss some broader issues in evolution and intelligence that can be addressed via such an approach.