Evolution, Reloaded

Today I’m gonna ask a simple question: if we were to rerun the film of life a given number of times, pretty much like rerunning a program, would most things happen identically? Of course the program of life has many non-deterministic variables. Would we all still develop eyes and limbs? Would the same music be considered good music? Would we develop the same mental and social faculties? How different would we be?

The answer to this question may shed light on how variable organisms really are and just how selective the environment is. It is believed that ecosystems have many intricate and subtle connections, often maintaining a brittle balance. Take an ecosystem and change one of the players slightly—chances are that all other participants will tend to change as a result. Replaying the film of life would result in not one, but virtually all the participants evolving differently, changing the dynamics of the system dramatically. So the question is warranted—would the same patterns emerge?

At some point, I will have to come up with a simulation that may provide some answers to this question. But not just yet.

Anti-Virus Panaceum Elusive?

Have you read any of Frederick Cohen’s books on computer viruses? I for one have read his “Computer Viruses”, (the title here is taken from the Romanian translation of the book) and was henceforth fascinated by the idea of creating an operating system immune to viruses. The idea was by no means new. Dr. Cohen himself had already gone through the trouble of proving that there is no such thing as perfect anti-virus defense. The foundation of Dr. Cohen’s argument was based on the observation that the virus can inspect the answer of the anti-virus tool and act such that the answer becomes false.

Here’s an illustration. Let AV be the anti-virus program heroically defending your system and V be the virus program that just sailed on to your domain, in other words, the culprit. When V executes, it asks AV “do you, deep in your heart, feel that I am this bad, nasty program that they call a virus?” AV may be in a really bad mood and reply “Yes! you are a mean nasty bad virus, you!”. V’s strategy being to cause AV to report a false situation and make our tasks of detecting all viruses difficult, it will say to itself “You know what, I’m fed up with this stigma that I have to carry, I refuse to replicate any further.” Thus AV has reported a non-virus.

But AV may well feel happy due to recent events of which the nature reaches the beyondness of this article and reply “Nah, ye’r but an occasional pain in the butt, mate, arrr!”, in other words, “No, this program is not a virus”. But V still being nasty, will decide to go ahead and infect programs, again fooling good ol’ AV.

This is all nice, but in practice we need not perfect detection in an inherently imperfect system. Virus programs should not have unconditional access to your average antivirus. The computer environment is not a soup in which all components can become conjoined or come into contact. On the contrary. We define and employ policies that limit access to the system for all but the most important programs. And in time we have learned to choose those policies which have matured the best. Computer security is continuously improving.

So with all the techniques we have at our disposal, where should we look for the panaceum? There’s scanners, integrity tools, heuristic scanners, vaccines, resident shields. Unfortunately, scanners are bound to fail in the face of novelty. Heuristics are a leap forward, but not nearly one big enough. Short of the artificial human brain itself, the heuristic tool is open to treachery by a smarter virus, and smarter viruses are not an issue as long as it’s humans writing them. Evolution unfolds in the arena of malware’s and defense’s deadly dance as well.

What about the operating system that prevents executables from accessing other executables’ data. I remember the moment I told Jolly about my idea, while on a crowded bus number 35 in Cluj-Napoca, bound for Zorilor neighborhood and his question equally well: “Why would you not allow this? Why? I want to be able to do all this with my files.” And although I could not articulate the answer, I knew at that moment that the computer is not meant to be a soup, except maybe for a select few. Instead we look for and try to endorse structure. I still believe the idea is feasible, and there is software out there implementing forms of access control. The resident shield restricts access to various types of files and warns the user when a program performs dubious actions. The shield, I believe, is on its way to becoming the antivirus solution. The more advanced versions of the resident shield will grow to encompass principles of automatic access control. Some maturing will be in order, in particular, one must automate the decision process and make this an integral part of the operating system.

Some implementation issues remain. First, how to address those mini-operating systems generated by macro languages, such as Excel, or interpreted languages, running and infecting directly source code. Second, how to treat files with dual purpose — files serving both as programs and writable data containers. Perhaps this feature serves better as the proverbial exception rather than a pragmatic problem and we should dismiss such files altogether. After all, we are moving away from the primordial soup, and have learned how to cook.

The Selfish Gene

A while back, while struggling with the final chapters of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” book, I had the opportunity to borrow a small and apparently dull book from an acquaintance. The acquaintance is a Russian person who had worked in Biotechnologies for decades and the book is Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. The contents of the book proved to be anything but dull, as it provided some insights into what might be the case in nature, and it certainly provided a merituous shift of perspective.

Here is an compilation of selected quotes and excerpts from the book, retrieved from elsewhere. The book has been inspiring, spawning for me interest in Sir Maynard Smith‘s Evolution and the Theory of Games, or the prisoner’s dilemma, as well as many other interesting pointers. It is also a good source of arguments against the group selection theory.

Chapter 1 – Why are people?

Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. [‘Why are people?’] We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems; Is there meaning to life? What are we for? What is Man?

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.

This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. … If you wish to extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.

I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.

Chapter 2 – The replicators

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for their improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are the past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

Chapter 3 – Immortal coils

Our DNA lives inside our bodies, It is not concentrated in a particular part of the body, but is distributed among the cells. There are about a thousand million million cells making up an average human body, and, with some exceptions which we can ignore, every one of those cells contains a complete copy of that body’s DNA.

The evolutionary importance of the fact that genes control embryonic development is this: it means that genes are at least partly responsible for their own survival in the future, because their survival depends on the efficiency of the bodies in which they live and which they helped to build.

The definition that I want comes from G. C. Williams. A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially last for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection.

Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled to oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever.

Genes are competing directly with their alleles for survival, since their alleles in the gene pool are rivals for their slot on the chromosomes of future generations. Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances in the gene pool at the expense of its alleles will, by definition, tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.

No doubt some of your cousins and great-uncles died in childhood, but not a single one of your ancestors did. Ancestors just don’t die young!

Chapter 4 – The gene machine

Opening paragraph:

Survival machines began as passive receptacles for the genes, providing little more than walls to protect them from the chemical warfare of their rivals and the ravages of accidental molecular bombardment. In the early days they ‘fed’ on organic molecules freely available in the soup. This easy life came to an end when the organic food in the soup, which had been slowly built up under the energetic influence of centuries of sunlight, was all used up, A major branch of survival machines, now called plants, started to use sunlight directly themselves to build up complex molecules from simple ones, re-enacting at much higher speed the synthetic processes of the original soup.

The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. Why this should have happened is, to me, the most profound mystery facing modern biology. There is no reason to suppose that electronic computers are conscious when they simulate, although we have to admit that in the future they may become so. Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain’s simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself. …Whatever the philosophical problems raised by consciousness, for the purpose of this story it can be thought of as the culmination of an evolutionary trend towards the emancipation of survival machines as executive decision-takers from their ultimate masters, the genes. Not only are brains in charge of the day-to-day running of survival machine affairs, they have also acquired the ability to predict the future and act accordingly. They even have the power to rebel against the dictates of their genes, for instance in refusing to have as many children as they are able to. But in this respect man is a very special case, as we shall see.

The genes are the master programmers, and they are programming for their lives. They are judged according to the success of their programs in copying with all the hazards that life throws at their survival machines, and the judge is the ruthless judge of the court of survival.

Whenever a system of communication evolves, there is always the danger that some will exploit the system for their own ends. Brought up as we have been on the ‘good of the species’ view of evolution, we naturally think first of liars and deceivers as belonging to different species: predators, prey, parasites, and so on. However, we must expect lies and deceit, and selfish exploitation of communication to arise whenever the interests of the genes of different individuals diverge. This will include individuals of the same species. As we shall see, we must even expect that children will deceive their parents, that husbands will cheat on wives, and that brother will lie to brother.

Chapter 5 – Aggression: stability and the selfish machine

To a survival machine, another survival machine (which is not its own child or another close relative) is part of its environment, like a rock or a river or a lump of food. It is something that gets in the way, or something that can be exploited. It differs from a rock or a river in one important respect: it is inclined to hit back. This is because it too is a machine that holds its immortal genes in trust for the future, and it too will stop at nothing to preserve them. Natural selection favours genes that control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and of different species.

This interpretation of animal aggression as being restrained and formal can be disputed. In particular, it is certainly wrong to condemn poor old Homo Sapiens as the only species to kill his own kind, the only inheritor of the mark of Cain, and similar melodramatic charges.

If only everybody would agree to be a dove, every single individual would benefit. By simple group selection, any group in which all individuals mutually agree to be doves would be far more successful than a rival group sitting at the ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy) ratio…. Group selection theory would therefore predict a tendency to evolve towards an all-dove conspiracy… But the trouble with conspiracies, even those that are to everybody’s advantage in the long run, is that they are open to abuse. It is true that everybody does better in an all-dove group than he would in an ESS group. But unfortunately, in conspiracies of doves, a single hawk does so extremely well that nothing could stop the evolution of hawks. The conspiracy is therefore bound to be broken by treachery from within. An ESS is stable, not because it is particularly good for the individuals participating in it, but simply because it is immune to treachery from within.

But there are other ways in which the interests of individuals from different species conflict very sharply. For instance a lion wants to eat an antelope’s body, but the antelope has very different plans for its body. This is not normally regarded as competition for a resource, but logically it is hard to see why not. The resource in question is meat. The lion genes ‘want’ the meat as food for their survival machine. The antelope genes want the meat as working muscle and organs for their survival machine. These two uses for the meat are mutually incompatible, therefore there is conflict of interest.

Chapter 6 – Genemanship

Note: Descriptions of behavior are intended to mean general animal behavior. Human behavior may not be so clear-cut due to cultural influences. See chapters 11 & 13.

Opening paragraph:

What is the selfish gene? It is not just one single physical bit of DNA. Just as in the primeval soup, it is all replicas of a particular bit of DNA, distributed throughout the world. If we allow ourselves the licence of talking about genes as if they had conscious aims, always reassuring ourselves that we could translate our sloppy language back into respectable terms if we wanted to, we can ask the question, what is a single selfish gene trying to do? It is trying to get more numerous in the gene pool. Basically it does this by helping to program the bodies in which it finds itself to survive and to reproduce. But now we are emphasizing that ‘it’ is a distributed agency, existing in many different individuals at once. The key point of this chapter is that a gene might be able to assist replicas of itself that are sitting in other bodies. If so, this would appear as individual altruism but it would be brought about by gene selfishness. It still seems rather implausible.

Are there any plausible ways in which genes might ‘recognize’ their copies in other individuals.’ ? The answer is yes. It is easy to show that close relatives–kin–have a greater than average chance of sharing genes. It has long been clear that this is why altruism by parents towards their young is so common.

To save the life of a relative who is soon going to die of old age has less of an impact on the gene pool of the future than to save the life of an equally close relative who has the bulk of his life ahead of him.

…individuals can be thought of as life-insurance underwriters. An individual can be expected to invest or risk a certain proportion of his own assets in the life of another individual. He takes into account his relatedness to the other individual, and also whether the individual is a ‘good risk’ in terms of his life expectancy compared with the insurer’s own. Strictly we should say ‘reproduction expectancy’ rather than ‘life expectancy’, or to be even more strict, ‘general capacity to benefit own genes in the future expectancy’.

Although the parent/child relationship is no closer genetically than the brother/sister relationship, its certainty is greater. It is normally possible to be much more certain who your children are than who your brothers are. And you can be more certain still who you yourself are!

One sometimes hears it said that kin selection is all very well as a theory, but there are few examples of its working in practice. This criticism can only be made by someone who does not understand what kin selection means. The truth is that all examples of child protection and parental care, and all associated bodily organs, milk secreting glands, kangaroo pouches, and so on, are examples of the working in nature of the kin-selection principle. The critics are of course familiar with the widespread existence of parental care, but they fail to understand that parental care is no less an example of kin selection than brother/sister altruism.

Chapter 7 – Family Planning

It is a simple logical truth that, short of mass emigration into space, with rockets taking off at the rate of several million per second, uncontrolled birth-rates are bound to lead to horribly increased death-rates. It is hard to believe that this simple truth is not understood by those leaders who forbid their followers to use effective contraceptive methods. They express a preference for ‘natural’ methods of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.

Wild animals almost never die of old age: starvation, disease, or predators catch up with them long before they become really senile. Until recently this was true of man too. Most animals die in childhood, many never get beyond the egg stage.

Individuals who have too many children are penalized, not because the whole population goes extinct, but simply because fewer of their children survive…. There is no need for altruistic restraint in the birth-rate, because there is no welfare state in nature. Any gene for overindulgence is promptly punished: the children containing that gene starve….Contraception is sometimes attacked as ‘unnatural’. So it is, very unnatural. The trouble is, so is the welfare state. I think that most of us believe the welfare state is highly desirable. But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birthcontrol, otherwise the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature.

Chapter 8 – Battle of the Generations

Note: Descriptions of behavior are intended to mean general animal behavior. Human behavior may not be so clear-cut due to cultural influences. See chapters 11 & 13.

I am treating a mother as a machine programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the genes which ride inside it.

Now look at it from the point of view of a particular child. He is just as closely related to each of his brothers and sisters as his mother is to them. The relatedness is 1/2 in all cases. Therefore he ‘wants’ his mother to invest some of her resources in his brothers and sisters. Genetically speaking, he is just as altruistically disposed to them as his mother is. But again, he is twice as closely related to himself as he is to any brother or sister, and this will dispose him to want his mother to invest in him more than in any particular brother or sister, other things being equal. … Selfish greed seems to characterize much of child behaviour.

…But they certainly do not lack ruthlessness. For instance, there are honeyguides who, like cuckoos, lay their eggs in the nests of other species. The baby honeyguide is equipped with a sharp, hooked beak. As soon as he hatches out, while he is still blind, naked, and otherwise helpless, he scythes and slashes his foster brothers and sisters to death: dead brothers do not compete for food!

The sight of her child smiling, or the sound of her kitten purring, is rewarding to a mother, in the same sense as food in the stomach is rewarding to a rat in a maze. But once it becomes true that a sweet smile or a loud purr are rewarding, the child is in a position to use the smile or the purr in order to manipulate the parent, and gain more than its fair share of parental investment.

Chapter 9 – Battle of the Sexes

Note: Descriptions of behavior are intended to mean general animal behavior. Human behavior may not be so clear-cut due to cultural influences. See chapters 11 & 13.

The strategy of producing equal numbers of sons and daughters is an evolutionary stable strategy, in the sense that any gene for departing from it makes a net loss.

Each individual wants as many surviving children as possible. The less he or she is obliged to invest in any one of those children, the more children he or she can have. The obvious way to achieve this desirable state of affairs is to induce your sexual partner to invest more than his or her fair share of resources in each child, leaving you free to have other children with other partners. This would be a desirable strategy for either sex, but it is more difficult for the female to achieve…

Of course in many species the father does work hard and faithfully at looking after the young. But even so, we must expect that there will normally be some evolutionary pressure on males to invest a little bit less in each child, and to try to have more children by different wives.

By insisting on a long engagement period, a female weeds out casual suitors, and only finally copulates with a male who has proved his qualities of fidelity and perseverance in advance. Feminine coyness is in fact very common among animals, and so are prolonged courtship or engagement periods.

Chapter 11 – Memes: the new replicators

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosylable that sounds a bit like “gene.” I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to “meme.” If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memor,” or to the French word “même” (which means “same”). It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream.”

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as gene types propogate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propogate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process, which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears or reads about a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propogate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: “Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propogation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subversient to the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided the “soup” in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only ne of the many possible kinds of evoluton.

Some memes, like genes, achieve brillinant short term success in spreading rapidly, but do not last in the meme pool. Popular songs and stilletto heels are examples. Others such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propogate themselves for thousands of years, usually because of the great potential permanence of written records.

At first sight is looks as if memes are not high fidelity replicators at all. Every time scientist hears an idea and passes it on to somebody else, he is likely to change it somewhat. I have made no secret of my debt in this book to the ides of Robert L. Trivers. Yet I have not repeated them in his own words. I have twisted them round for my purposes, changing the emphasis, blending them with ideas of my own and of other people. The memes are being passed on to you in altered form. This looks quit unlike the particulate, all-or-none quality of gene transmission. It look as though the meme transmision is subject to continous mutation, and also to blending.

When we say that all biologist nowadays believe in Darwin’s theory, we do not mean that every biologist has, graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact worlds of Charles Darwin himself. Each individual has his own way of interpreting Darwin’s ideas. He probably learned them not from Darwin’s own writings, but from more recent authors. Much of what Darwin said is, in detail, wrong. Darwin if he read this book would scarcely recognize his own theory in it, though I hope he would like the way I put it. Yet, in spite of all this, there is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory. The meme of Darwin’s theory is therefore the essential basis of the idea which is held in common by all brains who understand the theory.