Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

What is Darwinian evolution?

by das monde Tue Oct 9th, 2007 at 10:40:08 PM EST

This is a quick (though long) response to a discussion in this thread. The subject jumped suddenly to Darwinian evolution. I am responding to this comment of ThatBritGuy:

I suspect there's a Darwinian bottleneck which means that species intelligence always tends towards the lowest limit needed for immediate gratification, competition and survival. In most environments that's usually going to be too low to make good species-wide strategic planning likely.

What seems to have happened with humans is that the limit rose a bit higher than usual, probably through reproductive competition - but not high enough to be truly smart.

Darwinian solutions are always short-term and instinctive, and more effective in the short term - which is fine as far as it goes, but creates a reproductive cost for the more strategic kinds of intelligence which are capable of planning ahead.

Long term solutions are likely to frustrate any number of hard-wired tendencies, and that's not going to make them popular, or likely, with individuals who don't have the cognitive or empathic skills needed to understand why they're necessary.

And so - most species won't make it. You may get a sudden die-off, or you may get cycles. But breaking out of that pattern is going to take a lot of luck, and some stray well-intentioned randomness.


My thesis is provocative. Bluntly: Darwinian evolution offers more possibilities than straightforward imagination allows.

In particular, you don't need high intelligence, perception of long-term problems and long-term planning ability to avoid collapses. All a species or a population needs is to follow behavior that is sustainable and robust.

Now, Dawkins would immediately say that such wise behaviors are not stable, any greedy selfish individuals would destroy them.

But first of all, we need to distinguish forethought strategies and behavioral strategies. We can assume that all species except humans (and perhaps, in some restricted situations, some other primates) are not able to plan prudently - though that does not strictly mean that animals cannot have perceptions of greed & altruism, and they could not react diversely.

Behavioral strategies can be greedy and can be "wise", whether animals are aware of that or not. They are just programmed reactions to frequently arising situations - and the pool of frequent situations depends on the behavior, by the way. Dawkins would insist that selfish (behavioral) strategies would be prevalent at any time. But... it is worth to be skeptical and imaginative here!

First of all, what is greed? What is selfishness? Ok, greed is just a behavioral algorithm that grabs everything, or grabs the best. Selfishness is a tricky notion: most broadly, it is the strategy of self-sustainability. In the long term, altruism can be more selfish than greed. What Dawkins and many others think is that short term interest always beat long term issues. Or is it really always?!

One point is that short-term "greedy" strategies should deal with consequences of themselves. They should work well not only at times of abundance, but they should overcome crises of their own making as well. For this reason, a successful greedy strategy can get more complicated than less aggressive behavior. An unsuccessful greedy strategy can be eliminated by a single petty aspect of a crisis.

Even if mediocre greedy strategies survive crises, there might be subjects (other species, even ecosystems) exploiting the cycles of boom and bust in some manner. Those would thrive on periodically occurring collapses of greedy fools.

Generally, less exploitative behavioral strategies would enjoy long periods in the same environment... except that they have to deal with breakaway growths initiated by new fools re-discovering riches of greed.

But who says that the only way to deal with greed (and violence) of others is to be greedy (or violent) yourself?! Alternative counter-measures would be more complicated behaviors (too complicated for modern electoral campaigns, so to speak) - but they could evolve nevertheless. I do not have myself enough imagination to describe alternatives, but I suspect that usually there are enough resources to slow down or fool greedy bastards, or manipulate their collapses.

Behavioral strategies (and memes) of greed and violence are nothing but viruses within respective "ecosystems" of behavioral strategies and memes. They are very contagious, undoubtedly. They seem so effective that they should rule the world.

But the biological world is not dominated by viruses, is it? There are not so many species enjoying the luxury of grabbing and eating whatever they come across. Surprisingly or not, sub-optimal behavioral strategies, be it "irrational" or "ineffective", can make living pretty nicely... unless some really big and strong fools come and destroy almost everything... But regimes of destructive competition last probably very shortly, compared to "naive" sustainable periods.

Coming back to us humans, our exceptionality is in the brain size. We have superior capabilities of social, economic and ecological perception, and we can react knowledgeably. But the intellectual evolution is thousands times shorter than the biological evolution. Our intellectual advances have high risk to be follies. In particular, the understanding of superiority of greed is probably such a folly. Our intuitions and "natural" inclinations are probably not competitive at all, but much more compassionate and peaceful - that must be the proud result of Darwinian evolution. But we are prone to persuasion from authorities and "alpha" individuals, which can drag us into unsustainable rat races and senseless wars.

Display:
I think you do Dawkins a disservice. He's a subtler thinker than you portray and the wider stream of evolutionary theory is [i]very[/i] interested in how altruism vs selfishness plays out. No credible evolutionary theorist (Dawkins included) would assert that 'naive selfishness' is a viable strategy in all circumstances.

They would say that you can't get to the long term if you cut your throat in the short term, but they would allow that there is spectrum of altruism-to-selfish responses and that stable mixtures of different behaviours in a population are entirely viable.

Regards
Luke

-- #include witty_sig.h

by silburnl on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 05:38:29 AM EST
I read Dawkins, and I know that his theory is more subtle than publicly perceived. But he did much disservice to himself with choosing metaphors and stressing their unsubtle interpretations.

For example, he says in the 1st chapter of "The Selfish Gene":

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.

Yet, the point of his theory is that genes must be necessarily selfish in their own "ecology"; as his nice examples show, that does not mean that the organisms would be uncompromisingly selfish.

Metaphors aside, I do not think that Dawkins' theory is complete. In particular, niche construction theories might complement Dawkins' extended phenotype view in substantial ways. Dawkins' public image would likely improve if rival ideas would be met with more respect.

Short-term necessities exist, but they are not that much absolute. I can challenge the following "basic" views:

  • That tiny selfishness advantages grow big with time. The social or ecological environment might "fight" tiny selfishnesses with a variety of "tricks". Say, if you grab much food, you may get less reproductive chances for some "accidental" reasons.

  • That you don't have much chance of successful survival if you are less selfish than competitors. If you are strong (somewhere or everywhere) enough, you may have the freedom to be suboptimally greedy - with various positive upshots. Most species are apparently only as much greedy as it is necessary. Natural life does not look to be stressed of escalating competitions. Can you really see conspicuous supremacies, dominant control of resources, or emphatic struggling for life in a jungle? Even rats do not look stressed of anything similar to "rat races". Destructive competitions must be occurring not so often or lasting for long. You can "know" how to outlast and feast on them.

  • That you can't get to the long term if you cut your throat in the short term.. Extreme situations are true, but on the statistical scale they might be far less important. Very often, you can only do so much to avoid damage to your throat and tail - the luck decides a lot. Dealing (even gambling) with repetitive risks might be a more useful skill than an extra jump inch. And when it comes to (emergent) handling of risk, long term risks are probably no less manageable (and important) than short term risks.
by das monde on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 07:45:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... if you cut your throat in the long term.

This is a point that people sometimes lose track of when looking at evolved behavioral strategies from a tacit perspective of consciously worked through strategies ...

... which is that not only are long term successful strategies winnowed out in terms of what can survive the short term, but the initial starting point for short term strategies are those strategies that survived the long term.

And so, indeed, it is not necessary for every long term strategy to out-perform every short-term strategy in all circumstances, but rather only necessary to hold onto some share of the population long enough for the short term strategies to burn themselves out.

And further, there is a hierarchy of viability ... something must be physically possible before it can possibly be a biological variation subject to biological evolution, and biological evolution determines the substrate upon which behavioral evolution works itself out.

If genes are selfish, and if having a carrier that exhibits group altruism is an advantage to the genes in an animal that lives in roving bands with stable female kinship groups and adult males recruited from outside the band, and if that was us for a hundred thousand years or more, then the last 5,000 years would certainly not be enough time to substantially modify a biological substrate predisposed to group altruism.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 10:08:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A myth.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 08:56:23 AM EST
A narrative.

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 10:43:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Another myth.. human myth describing animal activity where we project our cultural cathegories.... selfishness is not an universa conceptl.. because it s a very complex concept linked with a bunch of other concepts in a coplex networks of links (narratives).

Evolution works at different scales and has a very complex dynamics at each scale. One of the variables in this dynamics is the energy.. roughly half of the animals we see take energy that could be used by other animals.. the other half take energy only if another animal takes energy. Competition or symbiosis in food is one aspect of the network.. and of course we project our meaning to those dynamics as selfishness and cooperation...but animals do not act because of... they just act...

Furthermore the dynamcis of the network is much more complex and actually this variable is not particularly relevant regarding the cahnge in the landscape of species and its internal change....

So..e volution probably has to do more with genetetic-proteic interaction that arieses in the development of the fetus than with the large scale energy in take of the animal already formed....in any case..behavors are probably just one aspect of evolution and not necessarily the most relevant.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 09:04:20 AM EST
but animals do not act because of... they just act...

Do you mean

--animals have no reasons for their actions

--animals have reasons but as humans we cannot fathom them (except by inaccurate anthropomorphism)

--animals do not rationalise their actions to themselves

--animals may rationalise their actions to themselves, but humans could never know about/comprehend any such rationalisations

or something else?  My experience is that animals have good reasons for their actions; and the more complex the animal and/or environment the more its visible (including humans), so I think I have not understood


Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 11:16:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
animals do not perform activites with human mind structures... here by animals I mean from virus, bacteria to dolphins... for any one of them you can be sure that they do not have any human concept on their mind when acting.... so from our point of view.. they just do.. from their own point of view... I have no idea.One would guess a virus and a bacteria do not have nay partiuclar point of view... onc eyou ahve a central nervous system.. well who knows how perception works... even for monkeys (although in this last one we may know a bit)

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 01:04:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not really a selfishness vs altruism issue, more about the cost of intelligence required for long-term planning vs the tendency for evolution to select the minimum intelligence required to survive in any niche.

Intelligence is expensive - running a big brain takes a lot of energy - and it only propagates when there's obvious selection pressure for it. In all of the billion years we've seen of evolution, intelligence has only evolved to what might be considered a reasonable level exactly once. And so far, only for a short time. (The jury is still out on how long that time will be.)

So my suggestion is that because strategic intelligence is always close to the minimum level needed to deal with immediate challenges and survival issues - because otherwise the energy costs outweigh the immediate benefits - the likelihood of any species evolving the cognitive capacity to deal with wide-scale issues is much smaller than it's usually assumed to be.

I'm assuming we're talking about species that are competing in their niches - 'competing' really meaning 'apapting to selection pressure' and not necessarily 'beaten each other over the head with antlers and rocks.' In fact I think of cooperation very much a competitive strategy in the widest sense.

I'm also assuming that this is happening in an environment which requires some effort for resource management and extraction. (You can imagine a planet-wide non-competitive colony organism which lives off photosynthesis - and if such a thing exists anywhere, obviously this suggestion won't apply.)

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 09:10:32 AM EST
I agree with you that puting emphasis on selection by beating is stupid.. and most animal (slight majority) adapt to pressure by cooperating). Still I would nto be so sure that this behavoral pressure is the most important drivng force of evolution...I would go for changes int he genetic-proteic strucutres whcih suddenly play with the devleopment of the fetus gnerating quite bigger jumps that are put to test in the environment (for example one animal suddenly gets an extra leg... can he survive with this extra leg?... stupid example but visual).

The only thing I would like to ask you is why evolution has the to select the minimum intelligence required to survive in any niche. You based that on the fact that it is expensive.. but the animal and bacteria kingdom is full of examples where very energy expensive  solutions are given to particular problems... for example why to become bigger and get/need a mitochondria? Once a cell gets it ..it can be bigger... but getting bigger means more energy.. and only once you have the mitochondria you can get that big... so they seem to go ahnd in hand.

The same goes for the broken symmetry problem of fetus... very expensive to break the symmetry.. buy you need it if you are going to create a hole where the food can pass...

And there are other less "strategic" examples... of things that could be made more efficient.. but they are not because they already work (if it ain't broken don't fix it theory of evolution).

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 01:14:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
kcurie:
The only thing I would like to ask you is why evolution has the to select the minimum intelligence required to survive in any niche.

That's mostly evidential. Most animals aren't smart. The dinosaurs don't seem to have been particularly smart, and they had a long time and a free run to develop intelligence in what should have been ideal conditions.

Admittedly we only have negative evidence - it's possible some of them developed space flight, left the planet, and happened not to leave a fossil record of that. But since there's no record of that happening we have to assume that they spent 160 million years charging around and eating other rather brainlessly. (In comparison we've been around for a million or so in our current physical form and a couple of thousand in our current socialised form.)

So big brains are still an extra leg, and one that hasn't yet been proved to have long term survival value. And since we know that adaptations tend to devolve unless there's selection pressure to keep them - e.g. cave dwelling animals tend to lose their eyes, because eyes are expensive too - it's reasonable to assume that brains are evolved to match the bare minimum required by selection pressure +/- some random amount of genetic and socialised variation.

In fact what's unique about humans is that we have evolved beyond single brains to collective problem solving and collective memory - in effect most brain power is no longer individual.

In the short term this has been a fantastically successful development. But maintaining it is even more energy intensive, to the extent that we're now edging up against the energy budget of the entire eco-system.

My point is really that this is an inevitable barrier for any evolving species. The bare minimum of evolved brain power will always be too small to get over the barrier, and what makes success likely - or not - is pure luck and random variation.

There have been plenty of cultures that reached a similar barrier on a smaller more local scale, and didn't make it. There's no reason to assume that we will either. I'd guess most species and cultures don't, and only a lucky few make it through.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 05:16:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Brains did not evolve a lot before before humans, that's true. Humans are clearly on a new line. Humanoid lines were near extinction for most of the ~1-5 million years. Most lines did go extinct (most of the fossil evidence can be firmly attributed to sidelines), except actually one. The result was a larger brain, hence it was our main tool of survival in the bottleneck times - we had no other viable option. Herewith, I do not deny the evidence (that Millman mentions below) that the brain grew even larger (for mating games, apparently) when better times arrived. That can be expected from evolution - attraction to new savior attributes can easily persist beyond previous necessity.

Generally, larger brains probably offer exceptional functionality beyond some critical mass - and the need for that kind of functionality should be desperate enough to overwhelm alternatives through all evolution path. In that sense, intelligence is a way too long shot for non-human species. Even for humans, collective intelligence had "overshot" downsides - the escalating ecological crisis is the result of our collective "intelligent" conclusion that greed is very ok, no matter what deep senses say.

But marginal intelligence gains could still be relevant in the Nature. Once weasel-you got genes for slightly bigger brain, you cannot exchange them for more efficient "investment". But you can still manage to survive and reproduce if the brain will help you with a few tricks, though probably less amply than your fellows. Still, that would be enough to keep a line of more philosophical weasels in existence. Smart weasels could have a valuable role within their community. It is hard to say what "minimal level" must be.

But maintaining it is even more energy intensive, to the extent that we're now edging up against the energy budget of the entire eco-system.

The energy overconsumption is obviously not for maintainance of (individual or collective) brains. We just consume more energy because we can.

by das monde on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 01:43:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
At some point we turned ourselves into a colony organism, where most of the evolution happens in the information exostructure that surrounds humans.

Maintaining that organism is very energy intensive - far more intensive than keeping an equivalent number of disconnected humans alive.

We could always devolve to something much simpler by running out of energy - and that may be what happens.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 09:58:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... I think that the point where we evolved into an organism where most evolution happens in the information exostructure that surrounds humans would have to be on the order of 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, if not earlier.

In the Journey of Man (Wikipedia) thesisNote, in the original diaspora, we spread out along the sea coasts ... which is not clear from the fossil records, since the seacoasts of that time are currently underwater, but is argued from genetic evidence combined with the timing of humans first appearing in Australia.

The second diaspora, accounting for a much larger percentage of the world population, spread out as inland hunter-gatherers ... its not clear to me whether that diaspora started later, or started at a similar time and just took longer to break out of Africa due to the dispersion across a two-dimensional field rather than the linear field of a sea-coast niche.

In any event, in sending out the seacoast diaspora and the inland diaspora, humans populated the world by constantly developing the appropriate technologies to exploit the new bioregions that they came into, resulting in such massive differences in technologies as those of the Pacific Islander seafarers, those of the Inuit, and those of the nomadic horse peoples of the Mongolian steppes.

So this characteristic of most evolution happening in the information exostructure that surrounds humans appears to be at least half as old as modern humans, and plausibly as old as modern humans.

And of course, there certainly would appear to be no such thing as "disconnected humans" ... we are a social organism, evolved toward operating as a band in a territory in the neighborhood of other bands of humans.

It is not being a colony organism that can be reversed by running out of energy, but rather some level of density above the level of the nomadic territorial band. Its unlikely that the agricultural revolution will be reversed, but the fossil-fuel driven industrial revolution has only been around for a few centuries, so it is certainly unproven which elements will remain and which will be ditched. I am certainly more optimistic than Kunstler, but in terms of social evolution it is at least a fair question to pose.

(Note: The Journey of Man entry in Wikipedia is fairly weak ... it seems anyone with some expertise and who has worked through it could improve the entry.)

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 10:37:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The first time I encountered this idea of evolution being transferred to the "information exostructure" was when reading Carl Sagan's Cosmos, specifically Chapter 11, The Persistence of Memory. Of course, when I read this 20 years ago I wasn't in the habit of reading the endnotes to see what original sources the chapter was based on.

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 10:43:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... evolution has been transferred, or whether biological and social evolution are simply proceeding on parallel tracks, and its just the dramatically different pace of social evolution that creates the optical illusion of biological evolution coming to a standstill.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 12:02:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The energy for objectively maintaining the information colony-organism (called Civilisation) is just a small fraction of the energy we waste. Say, recently there was a strong earthquake in Japan, and a nuclear plant was shut down. To ease stressful redistribution of energy, the local population was asked to conserve on air conditioning and other things. The energy demand dropped upon request, and there was no substantial redistribution needed at all!

Planetwide, we "consume" quite a few nuclear reactors just for keeping computers switched on overnight.

The can be attributed to the relatively young age of the evolution within information exostructure, as you call it. That evolution still has to prove its robustness. But more likely, modern humanity just stop worrying about its collective impact and functionality recently - everything is based on individual excitements, the libertarian philosophy is no less effective than a global religion. Even if humanity never worried much (a questionable if), the modern zealotry to consume everything is qualitatively new. That won't last for long...

I don't think that civilisation complexity is a particularly substantial reason to high energy demand. Rather, run-away complexity is a symptom of our futile "innovations" to cope with finite capacity and boundaries of the environment.

by das monde on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 04:46:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Wasting resources builds status (as per the status thread) so keeping computers on all night makes perfect sense...

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 11:51:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A small piece of software that switches off unattended PC's is saving us in the region of £40,000 a year at my place of employment.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 12:12:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So my suggestion is that because strategic intelligence is always close to the minimum level needed to deal with immediate challenges and survival issues - because otherwise the energy costs outweigh the immediate benefits - the likelihood of any species evolving the cognitive capacity to deal with wide-scale issues is much smaller than it's usually assumed to be.

Selection pressures due to male - female competition in sexually reproducing species can have a negative effect on overall fitness, though. I do like the theory (among many, I know) that our big brains are the result of recursive sexual competition (both in terms of manipulative skill and for "entertaining" members of the opposite sex) along the lines of the peacock's exaggerated tail. The overall benefits of sexual reproduction seem to be positive despite these sort of "excursions," though (strongly suggested by the mere existence of sexual reproduction, I think).

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Oct 10th, 2007 at 01:27:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In fact I think of cooperation very much a competitive strategy in the widest sense.

I rather think the other way around: Competition is a robust way of cooperation. You either be good in some cooperative ways, or die. In effect, many people now believe only in cooperation enforced by competition. But on the functional level, it is the effect of cooperation that is paramount.

by das monde on Thu Oct 11th, 2007 at 01:50:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]