Degeneracy, Evolution and Language

Having had several months off, I thought I’d kick things off by looking at a topic that’s garnered considerable interest in evolutionary theory, known as degeneracy. As a concept, degeneracy is a well known characteristic of biological systems, and is found in the genetic code (many different nucleotide sequences encode a polypeptide) and immune responses (populations of antibodies and other antigen-recognition molecules can take on multiple functions) among many others (cf. Edelman & Gally, 2001). More recently, degeneracy is appreciated as having applications in a wider range of phenomena, with Paul Mason (2010) offering the following value-free, scientific definition:

Degeneracy is observed in a system if there are components that are structurally different (nonisomorphic) and functionally similar (isofunctional) with respect to context.

A pressing concern in evolutionary research is how increasingly complex forms “are able to evolve without sacrificing robustness or the propensity for future beneficial adaptations” (Whitcare & Bender, 2010). One common solution is to refer to redundancy: duplicate elements that have a structure-to-function ratio of one-to-one (Mason, 2010). Nature does redundancy well, and is exemplified by the human body: we have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, and so on. Still, even with redundant components, selection in biological systems would result in a situation where competitive elimination leads to the eventual extinction of redundant variants (ibid).

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