Carl Zimmer in The Loom:
Eric Raymond, one of the founders of the official open source movement, puts its origins four decades ago, in the hacker culture of the 1960s. Back then it was expected that each hacker would share his secrets with the rest of the hacker tribe.
I’d suggest that Raymond is not be thinking big enough. The open source movement is a wee bit older. Instead of four decades, try four billion years.
Biologists have long recognized some striking parallels between genes and software. Genes stored information in a language of DNA, with the four nucleotides serving as its alphabet. A genetic code allowed cells to translate the information in genes into the separate language of proteins, which used an alphabet of twenty amino acids. From one generation to the next, mutations introduced slight tweaks to the software. Sex combined different versions of subroutines. If the software performed better–in the sense that an organism had more reproductive success–the changes might become incorporated into the genome across an entire species. This was only a metaphor, but it was a powerful one. One example of its power is the rise of genetic algorithms. Rather than trying to find a perfect solution to a problem–the ideal shape for a plane, for example–genetic algorithms create simulations and tweak them through a process that mimics evolution. The algorithm can seek out good solutions very effectively.
This sort of evolution resembles old-fashioned, closed-source software. All of the innovations happen in-house–that is, within a single species. None of the solutions from one species can be incorporated into the operating system of another. While this process has indeed been an important one in the history of life, a number of scientists have argued for an open-source side to evolution.