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Simple unity among the fundamental equations of science


The Price equation describes the change in populations. Change concerns some value, such as biological fitness, information or physical work. The Price equation reveals universal aspects for the nature of change, independently of the meaning ascribed to values. By understanding those universal aspects, we can see more clearly why fundamental mathematical results in different disciplines often share a common form. We can also interpret more clearly the meaning of key results within each discipline. For example, the mathematics of natural selection in biology has a form closely related to information theory and physical entropy. Does that mean that natural selection is about information or entropy? Or do natural selection, information and entropy arise as interpretations of a common underlying abstraction? The Price equation suggests the latter. The Price equation achieves its abstract generality by partitioning change into two terms. The first term naturally associates with the direct forces that cause change. The second term naturally associates with the changing frame of reference. In the Price equation's canonical form, total change remains zero because the conservation of total probability requires that all probabilities invariantly sum to one. Much of the shared common form for the mathematics of different disciplines may arise from that seemingly trivial invariance of total probability, which leads to the partitioning of total change into equal and opposite components of the direct forces and the changing frame of reference. This article is part of the theme issue 'Fifty years of the Price equation'.

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