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24 Feb 2013

Fast Food as Maladaptation

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Maladaptation is a trait or property required by adaptation that is (or has become) more harmful than helpful. Fast food and addictive junk food can be considered as a consequence of maladaptation. It is not suprising that we crave for sugar and fat. DNA and RNA are made of sugar (they both have a sugar phosphate backbone), and cell membranes are made of fat (i.e. lipids), and both sugar and fat are basic energy sources for the metabolism of the cell. The brain would not work without sugar at all. As carbon based life-forms we need to take in our basic building blocks – carbohydrates and hydrocarbon chain compounds – to maintain our physical integrity. The problem is that the drive to consume sugar and fat was the best genes could construct when food was sparse and hard to obtain. In modern times where food is pervasive and plenty, it is no longer a good adaptation. One could speak of a maladaptation. Genes selected and adapted to survive undernutrition in ancient environments produce overnutrition in modern environments [1]. This maladaptation to the modern world leads to obesity, diabetes and metabolic diseases. And fast food makes money of it. We all know that too much of a good thing makes you sick. Companies naturally produce what sells and tastes well, and not what is good for us. A recent NYTimes article says “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing. And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco.” [2]

References

[1] Metabolic syndrome: maladaptation to a modern world, Terence J Wilkin and Linda D Voss, J R Soc Med. 2004 November; 97(11) 511–520

[2] The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, NYTimes.com article from Michael Moss

9 Feb 2013

To be an adventurer

Posted by jofr. No Comments

We have seen earlier that the most difficult question in philosophy, the what it is like to be question of subjective experience (Thomas Nagel), the explanatory gap (Joseph Levine) and the hard problem of consciousness (David Chalmers), is connected to the most obvious things in everyday life: to ordinary things such as watching films and going to the cinema. By watching films or reading books about the life of a certain person, we can get a glimpse of what it is like to be that person, because we can experience directly what it is like to be in a certain situation or environment. Why hasn’t this been noticed clearly before? Maybe philosophers don’t do what ordinary people do, like going to the cinema for example. Or people who go to the cinema do not think about deep philosophical questions. Or maybe it is just too obvious?

However, while philosophers continue to ponder over deep philosophical questions, technological progress goes ahead and enables people to witness extraordinary things never seen before. Modern versatile compact cameras that can be attached to helmets allow observers to immerse themselves in the world of the actor. They show what it is like to be someone in every detail. Of course we don’t want to know what it is like to be a loser or a coward (although that can be funny, too). We want to see what it is like to live the exciting life of a hero, athlete or adventurer.

This video for example, which is an ad for the GoPro camera, shows adventurers in various extreme sports. Suddenly, it seems very easy to see what it is like to fly down a mountain, to have a Kayak aventure, to be a surfer spending your day at the beach, to be a ski champion, to meet a white shark during diving, to take part in an ocean race or even to swim with dolphins. All you have to do is watch a short film. We can experience flying, diving, racing, surfing, etc. in high resolution while sitting on a comfortable couch at home.

These short clips are useful to understand the excitement and the arousal which can be experienced during sports in spectacular and splendid surroundings. They reveal what it means to be a sportsman in extreme and extraordinary environments. To understand more complex emotions which involve the self, like anger, fear, pride and gratitude, it is necessary to follow the individual on a longer path. If we do this, we begin to understand what it is like to be this specific individual person. The principle is simple: we can understand and reproduce path-dependent behavior if we follow the path that led to this behavior – which is why the CV of a person is so important for the human resources department. The deeper we immerse into the history of the person, the better we understand the behavior.

For example if we want to understand what is was to be an outlaw in the adventurous wild West, say Billy the Kid, it is helpful to take a look at his story. If we read a book or to view a film about the life of Billy the Kid, we learn that he had no parents and no home, and was more or less a fugitive. He began to steal because he had nothing to eat. Later he rustled cattle to make a living. He lived in a lawless time of the wild West, surrounded by other outlaws, gunmen and cowboys, and participated in the Lincoln County War. Like other soldiers in wars, he killed people because he was scared that they would kill him. When he was in prison and killed two guards in a jailbreak, he was acting out of fear, since he should be hanged. Viewed in this way, even the life of a legend becomes less mysterious, but still remains fascinating.

25 Dec 2012

Multicellular life and the origin of cancer

Posted by jofr. 2 Comments

We had an interesting discussion in the mathematical oncology group (co-)founded by David Basanta in the last days. David is interested in studying cancer as an evolutionary disease, knows a lot about the evolutionary aspects of cancer, and drawed our attention to some controversial articles from Paul Davies.

Paul Davies suggested last year that cancer might be an evolutionary throwback to the dawn of multicellular life. This year he has proposed again that cancer may be an throwback to ancient biological age, this time together with Charles Lineweaver. While this has caused refusal and anger, especially among professionals and biologists, some of his ideas are fascinating. Can cancer be considered as an “evolutionary throwback to the dawn of multicellular life, when single cells began cooperating and forming rudimentary aggregations”, as Davies argues in his 2011 article? Is, as Davies suggests in his 2012 article, the fact that “cancer cells thrive in low-oxygen conditions” a sign that they are “reverting to an earlier, albeit less efficient, form of metabolism known as Fermentation” used in the ancient era before multicellular life?

The idea that cancer might be an evolutionary throwback to the dawn of multicellular life sounds odd, but maybe it is not completely wrong. Cancer is a genetic disesase and an evolutionary one. Cancer evolves. It’s obvious that the ability of individual cells to proliferate is essential for life, and any deregulation of this process will have dramatic consequences in form of cancer. It is also clear that there is a certain similarity between early multicellular life, embryonic development and cancer: in all cases a single cell develops into a cluster of multiple ones. So where is the evidence? Well, for one there are many other evolutionary systems as well which are subject to evolution. And we do have these kinds of throwbacks in forms of cultural evolution. I wrote about it earlier here and here. Maybe there are indeed some common grounds between different evolutionary systems. I think that some of the ideas mentioned by Davies are not completely wrong. If we consider cultural evolution, there are indeed cases of ‘cultural cancer’ which are like a backslide, throwback or fall-back to earlier, more primitive forms of organization. Some forms of organized crime for example can arise from the ‘stem cell’ of the family. Fascism can emerge from the ‘stem cell’ of the religious or ideological group (think of the Nazis, WWII, etc.). These forms of organization are more primitive and have a lower degree of Differentiation than the surrounding environment, but also much more aggressive. There are indeed some deep similarities.

We know a lot about cancer and carcinogenesis. We know that it takes 5-7 independent mutations until a tumor develops. One of these mutations for instance often deactivates the tumor suppressor protein p53 or its regulator mdm2 (see picture, p53 controls a certain phase in the cell cycle and acts as a brake which prevents uncontrolled growth and cell Proliferation. This connection between cell cycle and cancer is well known. The p53 Family of proteins is indeed very old, at least 700 million years old). If cancer would be caused simply by a reactivation of ancestral silent genes, then this would have been found out and reported by now. And yet we are powerless against the most aggressive forms of cancer. It would be wonderful if we finally make some progress, especially because the search for a “unified model” of cancer biology has been an elusive goal so far.

The idea that cancer is based on a evolutionary throwback to the dawn of multicellular life, when single cells began cooperating and aggregating, fits also well to the hypothesis of cancer stem cells. Scientists have found some striking parallels between “evil” tumor inducing cancer cells cells and “good” stem cells – both have indefinite potential for self-renewal (see Reya et al. Stem cells, cancer, and cancer stem cells). And both have tremendous power, either to re-create or to destroy the system (since self-rejuvenation and cancer are linked). Cancer stem cells are similar to “selfish” single-celled organisms, as they must have existed at the onset of multicellular life.

Yet some biologists are upset that the solution to one of the most difficult problems is so simple. It is indeed a bit like presenting the name of the problem as its solution: a failure in the regulation of multicellularity is a description and more or less a definition of cancer, but not a solution or cure. And of course the genes for multicellularity are as old as multicellular life itself. Obviously the oldest genes will perform the most fundamental tasks in the cell, such as replication and regulation of multicellular development. Therefore it is not difficult to understand why biologists are angry about Paul Davies, he makes wild speculations and lofty conclusions in their playground, claiming to have identified trivial facts as the root cause of cancer without the willingness to make his hands dirty by formulating a full theory and presenting evidence for it. Somehow his “theory” is a bit like Anne Elke and her brontosaurus theory (which is possibly a parody of Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium” theory). Yet I like dinosaurs, and most biologists agree that there is indeed a relation or at least a similarity between the evolution of multicellular life, embryonic development and cancer. Cancer belongs to life like explosions to rockets. It is a fundamental property of genes to reproduce and proliferate, just as it the fundamental property of rockets to burn and to explode in a controlled way. If Davies is at least partially right, then “cancers” maybe are the rule, and highly organized biological life-forms are the exception.

Unlike Paul Davies Guadian article from 2011, the Guardian article from 2012 places emphasis on an earlier, less efficient, form of metabolism known as fermentation. Do we have any evidence for an altered metabolism in the majority of cancer cells? This would indicate that some malicious cancers are indeed similar to an alien or ancient life-form based on a distinct type of metabolism. In our discussion, Joe Juliano mentioned a paper from Mark Vincent, Cancer: A de-repression of a default survival program common to all cells which supports this views. According to the hallmarks of cancer paper from Hanahan and Weinberg (2011) the answer seems to be yes: reprogramming of energy metabolism seems to be a hallmark of cancer. It is one of the two new hallmarks proposed by Hanahan and Weinberg to extend the classic hallmarks of cancer, the ‘six organizing principles’: an altered form of metabolism and a kind of immune or defense system.

  • Sustaining proliferative signaling
  • Evading growth suppressors (insensitivity to anti-growth signals)
  • Activating invasion and metastasis
  • Enabling replicative immortality (limitless replicative potential)
  • Inducing angiogenesis (blood vessel growth)
  • Resisting apoptosis (cell death)
  • NEW: reprogramming of energy metabolism
  • NEW: evading immune destruction (resistance immune system)

Both are typical properties of systems, sub-systems for self-maintenance and self-protection. Will the (evolutionary) system approach be helpful in our attempt to understand cancer? Can evolutionary theory help us to understand the essential aspects of cancer? I think no theory or idea is too weird or too odd if it it helps to fight this terrible disease. At least we should follow every path, even if it turns out to be a blind alley in the end.

Literature

American Scientist articles:

Guardian articles by Paul Davies:

(the Image of the p53 Tumor Suppression protein is from Wikipedia)

11 Nov 2012

As far as thought can reach

Posted by jofr. No Comments

As far as thought can reach is a play in the book Back to Methuselah from the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). It plays in the year 31,920 AD and imagines a world where short-lived people are a mere footnote in ancient history.

How will life in the future look like, when organisms are no longer short-lived? What is the burden of eternal life? Maybe eternal life would be boring, since “everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough”, as Shaw argues. Or maybe quite the contrary, life would be infinitely interesting: “If you should turn out to be a person of infinite capacity, you will no doubt find life infinitely interesting”.

Maybe such long-lived life-forms will try to seek perfection in art and science. They would scan all available webpages and books and absorb the contained knowledge. Maybe they will have a curious, playful attitude and play with artificial worlds and artificial life-forms just as our children are playing with dolls. Shaw argues “ever since men existed, children have played with dolls”. Wait – a playful entity that crawls all webpages and scans all books – we have got that already, do we?

In Shaw’s play, the characters finally create artificial men in a laboratory, who soon kill their creator. What do you think, if we create real artificial intelligence and synthetic life-forms one day, would it be like Skynet trying to kill us? Would it be bored like Marvin, the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Or would it find life infinitely interesting?

H.G. Wells said in his article “The discovery of the future” (Nature 65, 326–331, 1902) that the question what comes after man would be “the most fascinating and the most insoluble question in the whole world”..

“This fact that man is not final is the great unmanageable, disturbing fact that arises upon us in the scientific discovery of the future, and to my mind, at any rate, the question what is to come after man is the most persistently fascinating and the most insoluble question in the whole world.”

..and he continues to say that the best is yet to come and humans as we know them are only the beginning of a beginning:

“It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening. We cannot see, there is no need for us to see, what this world will be like when the day has fully come. We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring, that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes.”

(Picture of the Stanford Torus is from Wikipedia)

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27 Oct 2012

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

Posted by jofr. No Comments

The October edition of Scientific American has an article named The Wisdom of Psychopaths from Kevin Dutton [1], which is an adapted excerpt from his book of the same name [2]. Prof. Kevin Dutton is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK.

The article and the book argue that traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers – an exaggerated sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of empathy and remorse and the skilled manipulation of others – are also shared by many successful business leaders. Are psychopathic attributes like amoral behavior and zero degrees of empathy indeed helpful to be successful in business, sports and politics?

The story of Lance Armstrong comes to mind: he denied any claims of doping for years and continued to say that he is innocent, and yet used one of the most systematic forms of doping ever. He lied, cheated and doped repeatedly, for years. Although he used doping in the most sophisticated, systematic and professionalized way that sport has ever seen – the official USADA doping report talks of a systemic, sustained and highly professionalized team-run doping conspiracy – he even sued others that accused him of doping. And won. And yet after the truth was finally unearthed and the world recognized what really happened, he showed no sign of remorse or guilt, as it is common among psychopaths.

His German competitor Jan Ullrich is not better, he has done the same things: intensive doping, repeated lies and law suits against people who accused him of doping. He broke the rules to win (he cheated and doped continuously), and to hide the cheating he broke even more rules (he betrayed and lied). It looks like it was not possible to win without cheating. As we argued earlier, fraud, cheating and betrayal can be seen as an adapation to certain situations: fraud is an adaptation to domains where it is impossible to achieve a goal with honesty and truth. They happen in science as well, although honesty and truth are among the highest values here.

So what can psychopaths teach us about success? They tell us that honesty, selflessness and friendliness are not helpful if you want to be successful in business or sports. If you really want to win then psychopathic qualities can be useful and advance your career. As Dutton argues, psychopaths have a certain set of mental attributes and personality traits that gives them a crucial advantage, including complete ruthlessness, fearlessness, and shamelessness, as well as massive egocentricity, superficial charm, and surprising persuasiveness, combined with a total lack of conscience, remorse and empathy. Together with physical aggression, violence and impulsivity this leads to law-breaking criminal behavior on the one hand, together with intelligence to success in business and sports on the other hand. In the end, the truth may be unearthed, though.

So it seems like business leaders, world champions and serial killers share a mindset. If you meet someone who is spectacularly self-centered and repeatedly caught lying over and over again, then you might have encountered a successful business man, a world champion – or a serial killer.

References

[1] Kevin Dutton, What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed, Scientific American, October 2012

[2] Kevin Dutton, The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

( The Flickr Photo is from Victor1558 )

1 Aug 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy

Posted by jofr. 1 Comment

A few weeks ago we examined the relation between the mysterious (the hard problem of subjective experience) and the obvious (the core of show business is the creation of exactly these subjective experiences). Unlike philosophers in academic ivory towers, people are usually able to imagine what it is like to be someone or something.

The process is named empathy: empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. But there are exceptions. People who are not moved at all by the short film above are rare, but they certainly exist. There are also people which are unable to feel any degree of empathy at all: people who struggle with autism or have an antisocial personal disorder. Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, argued in his book ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy‘ (Penguin, 2011) that autistic people have difficulty with cognitive empathy, while sociopaths, extremely selfish people and other people with antisocial personal disorders have difficulty with experiencing affective empathy.

The difference between cognitive and affective empathy is as follows: Cognitive empathy means a person is able think others’ thoughts, to imagine how another person might be thinking in a certain situation, and how the inner thoughts of the person might look like. It is possible by perceiving a situation from another person’s perspective, thereby replicating another’s mental states. Affective empathy adds an emotional component, it means a person is able to feel others’ feelings, to imagine how another person might feel in a certain situation, how the inner emotional world of the person might look like, and how to respond with an appropriate emotion.

Maybe this empathy approach is a way to understand human cruelty. According to Baron-Cohen, autistic people struggle to understand other people’s thinking and find others confusing, but rarely hurt them. On the contrary, psychopaths and people with antisocial personality disorders understand and manipulate others, but often hurt them. These people may never experience true empathy, and the subjective experience of others will remain partly a mystery for them – either because they can not understand others, or because they do not want to. The rest of us can continue to enjoy good books and movies – for instance the ones from Pixar.

References
Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty
Simon Baron-Cohen
Penguin Books Limited, 2011

28 Jul 2012

Friendliness as adaptation

Posted by jofr. No Comments

If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.
~ John Steinbeck

According to John Steinbeck (1902-1968), the great American writer, helpfulness is a phenomenon that naturally accompanies or follows poverty. You may have experienced this yourself, people in poor countries, areas and environments are often much friendlier than those in rich ones. Why is that so?

Maybe one reason is that poor people and have-nots have nothing to lose, contrary to rich ones. Rich people fear that they may lose their wealth, their social position, or other material benefits. They do not tend to give it away for free, and want to keep it for themselves. This selfish behavior is of course the opposite of the Christian virtues such as kindness and friendliness. In the bible there is the metaphor of the “eye of the needle” in Matthew 19:24: “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Poor people are different, they are not in situation where they can lose much. Quite the contrary, bad behavior can only make their situation worse. But good behavior, for instance kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, and helpfulness, can improve their situation by improving relations to other people, which may return the favor sooner or later, either directly (themselves) or indirectly (by others they know). Kindness and friendliness tighten the bonds in a social network. Already Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said “Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together”.

It is the opposite phenomenon of arrogance among rich people, which we mentioned earlier. Friendliness, kindness and helpfulness can be seen as adaptation to poverty, poorness and unfortunate conditions. They can draw the attention of the unconcerned environment to oneself and compensate the lack of resources by direct or indirect reciprocity.

Bad conditions may produce bad or even criminal behavior, but more often they do not. It is quite remarkable that bad conditions apparently produce sometimes good behavior. As Steinbeck observed, the things we perceive as good – success, prosperity and richness – are often accompanied by bad behavior, while the things we perceive as bad – failure, poverty, and poorness – are followed by behavior which we consider as good.

It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
~ John Steinbeck

( The Flickr image which symbolizes help is from user zilverbat )

12 Jul 2012

Cats With Captions

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Cats are smarter than you think. They can calculate..

funny cat pictures - Lolcats: My budget needs an increase NOW.

..and read..


what do ya think this article about tuna looks interesting

..and they know what they want: bottles of milk and cans of tuna. Cats love milk and tuna. If it is good for them is another question.

if you want a term paper  it'll cost you ten cans of tuna

They like care and attention..

funny cat pictures - Lolcats: Hey, Human!

They also know that they do not want: dogs and other unpleasant fellows..


Nope. No matter how I figures it, you can't afford a dog.

see more Lolcats and funny pictures, and check out our Socially Awkward Penguin lolz!

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30 Jun 2012

What it is like to be

Posted by jofr. 2 Comments

The Mysterious and the Obvious

Sometimes the most mysterious object in one area can be the most obvious thing in another. One of the most mysterious things in Philosophy is the hard problem, see for example [1]. As anything else in Philosophy, the existence of a “hard problem” in the first place is controversial and has been disputed by some philosophers. Yet generations of scholars, professors and philosophers have tried to solve it more or less in vain. One of them was Edmund Husserl, who argued that experience by itself is not science, although he founded phenomenology, the study of the structure of subjective experience.

The term hard problem of consciousness refers to the difficult problem of explaining why we have qualitative, subjective and phenomenal experiences. It is closely related to the problem of qualia. For the common sense it is quite obvious that we can not access subjective experience: we can not experience what others feel directly, since subjective experience is always private experience. Subjective experience is concealed and confined to a particular person, as opposed to objective reality which is accessible and open to public examination.

So everything is lost? Will we never understand and solve the hard problem? Private experience arises from private life, because each life is individual and unique, but the course of life is again only know to the particular person in full detail. It is obvious that we do not know everything another person does, since they have their own private life. If the person does not tell what his particular subjective experience is like, it is indeed hard to know.

Yet if the person tells his story, the chance is much better. We can now understand his life simply by listening the corresponding story. We can understand subjective experience and solve the hard problem of consciousness by experiencing similar emotional patterns and feelings. There is indeed a whole industry which knows how to arise emotions and feelings, the things that determine and color our experience. It is the entertainment industry and show business.

The Tragic and the Comic

The entertainment industry and show business tell us all the time what it is like to be something, especially for certain archetypes: the hero, the lover, the loser, etc.

* Action films tell us what it is like to be a hero.
* Romantic films tell us what it is like to be in love.
* Fantasy films tell us what it is like to live in an imaginary or virtual world.
* Comedies tell us what it is like to win, to rise and to be happy.
* Tragedies tell us what it is like to lose, to fall and to be sad.

While comedies show how others fail harmlessly, describe the rise of an ordinary person, and have a happy ending, tragedies show how others fail severely, describe the fall of a hero, and have a sad ending. Comedies tell us what it is like to win, tragedies what it is like to lose. Of course we like the former more than the latter.

Here is the surprising point: the most mysterious thing in philosophy, subjective experience, can be revealed by the most obvious thing in entertainment and show business: by watching films or reading books about the life of certain person, by watching actors or being an actor yourself. Actors act as if they would be someone else. We understand the life of others by following their story in stories, books and films: our own subjective experience while watching films or reading books is an approximate representation of the subjective experience from the person described by the main character.

A bit funny, isn’t it? The smartest philosophers have not been able to crack a problem which is obvious for the most stupid visitor of a cinema or reader of a book: we can understand what it is like to be someone or to have something  by viewing life from the same perspective. As Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee’s book “To kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. ” It is (only) possible to understand path-dependent behavior and subjective experience of particular persons by following the same path.

The Private and the Public

The border between the private and the public is often associated with a creative process. Experience and creativity are two sides of a coin: perception turns objective reality into path-dependent subjective experience, while creativity turns subjective experience into objective reality.

Because we can understand others by following their footprints, at least to a certain degree, we can turn subjective experience into objective one by being creative: by creating a story (i.e. making the private story public or imaginary story real), and finally by showing the course of life described in this story to a wider audience through a book or a film. To understand someone completely, one has to look at the whole story, i.e. follow his or her whole life up to the present, for example by reading a complete biography or by watching an extensive biographical film.

In a sense, each of us is creative: by living his life along a unique path, each person creates a unique course of life, generates a special personality and develops a particular subjective experience. Some are of course more creative than others. But all of them master the most creative process: the creation of the self, accompanied by this startling, surprising, dazzling, mind-boggling and confusing perception of oneself in a society of other selves.

References

[1] Jonathan Shear (Editor), Explaining consciousness – The ‘Hard Problem’, The MIT Press, 1998

( The Flickr photo is from Flickr user bikehikedive )

 

19 May 2012

Union Stations of Evolutionary Systems

Posted by jofr. No Comments

“We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection.”
~ E.O. Wilson [2]

Richard Dawkins introduced in his book “The selfish gene” [1] the ORGANISM AS VEHICLE metaphor: he argued eloquently that biological organisms can be considered as survival machines of genes, used by them to lever themselves into the next generation.

If this vehicle would be a train, i.e. if we consider evolution as a railway, then biological organisms can be compared to trains, which carry their genes from one generation to the next. The genes would be the passengers, the organisms the trains, and the different generations of organisms would be like stations – stations where the passengers of the next generation are shuffled, arranged and selected by natural selection. This means the station would correspond to the common place or time where the organisms meet and where natural selection takes place. The place would be the nest, territory or city, the time would be the common generation.

Human generations in particular are not like a normal station, they are more like a union station. They contain a population of replicators from different places and different systems (genes, memes, or abstract replicators like ideas in general) waiting to be processed. They are not only subject to natural selection, they are also affected by group selection.

In North America, a union station is usually owned by a separate corporation whose shares are owned by the different railways which use it, so that the costs and benefits of its operations are shared proportionately among them. Stations are places where different people and passengers meet. Union stations are moreover stations which are owned and used by different systems.

The human mind is in fact like a joint venture whose shares are owned by the different evolutionary systems that use it, whether genes or memes, a product of interacting and often competing evolutionary systems. A product of a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions, or, as E.O. Wilson puts it [2]: “Right now we’re living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilisation but we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That’s dangerous.”  Humans are a bit like union stations where all kinds of different characters meet, from Star Wars to Stone Age. And all these people struggle with each other to get the next train. Wilson writes [3] “the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be”.

It is this duality of Star Wars and Stone Age that is so specific and characteristic for us. One reason is that multilevel selection was our origin in the first place. In the words of E.O. Wilson [2]: “Humans originated by multilevel selection – individual selection interacting with group selection [..] We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection. Individual versus group selection results in a mix of altruism and selfishness, of virtue and sin, among the members of a society.”

References

[1] Richard Dawkins,  The selfish gene, Oxford University Press, 1976

[2] E.O. Wilson, The full-blown American Optimist, New Scientist 21 April 2012 (34-35)

[3] Natalie Angier, Edward O. Wilson’s New Take on Human Nature, Smithsonian magazine, April 2012

 

(The picture of a union station in L.A. is from Wikipedia)

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