May 3, 2009

Developmental v.s. Evolutionary

My current research looks into the growth of city road networks and land use and the distribution of human resources in an urban context. One popular word in the complexity science community to describe this process is evolutionary, which dates back to Dawin's theory of evolution. It is worth mentioning that this year is the 150th anniversary of the publications of On the Origins of Species and 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Undoubtedly, the Darwinian Theory impacts tremendously on science, arts, philosophy, religions, and even people's worldview. To name but a few.

Some of my Christian friends did not quite like the word "evolutionary" when I tried to describe my research to them. some people argued that the networks are at most "developmental", indicating that they are still in the process of developing. when I looked into the implication of evolution, it seemed that their argument was not unreasonable.

The basic premise of the theory of evolution is that all life is related to a common ancestor. Complex creatures evolve from simplistic ancestors over time. In this process, only the fittest survive --- known as the natural selection ---- where the advantages of genetic mutations accumulate in some members but in others due to a variety of reasons. My research aims to find out why and how today's road networks and land use patterns come to being? Is the trend very clear-cut in the beginning or does it include obvious phase changes? In terms of research approach, it is similar to Darwin's -- studying time-series phenomena through inductive reasoning. Honestly speaking, however, I don't quite know to what extent we can really justify the behind-the-scene mechanisms.

Some simple online research will easily help us realize that the word "evolution" has been overused in scientific papers. What many authors have discovered de facto is the different stages of development of cities, communities, and infrastructures, without much evidence really pointing to the conclusion of being evolutionary.

They (me included) use the word more often than it is needed, I believe, largely because it is a popular jargon in the emerging field of complexity studies. But interdisciplinary research, in essence, instead of being just about borrowing words from other domains, is more about combining different perspectives and approaches from different disciplines. This is hard work. Moreover, it calls for our special caution about the conclusions we make when attempting to explain what has not been sufficiently studied before.