Category Archives: evolution

Groundhog Day

Today, tyrannies of the majority are facing off. The collective cultural consciousness is full to overflowing. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, the Superbowl will be played, and gifted actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died at a young age. Is there much room for anything else?

That is the question that runs through my mind a lot lately. As the world becomes smaller through communication, our collective culture shrinks. There are fewer writers per reader, fewer actors per movie/play-goer, fewer singers per listener, fewer artists per viewer. There is more and more overlap. There are fewer professionals per capita. Most artists are hobbyists, which is nothing new. The hobbyists just have more exposure now, so we might individually see more culture while the sum total, particularly of the professional variety, shrinks. The gap between huge successes and those toiling as glorified hobbyists is occupied by fewer and fewer individuals. The middle class is vanishing from art.

This is nothing new. Television and movies replaced stage performances. However, the reduction in stage performances reduced the need for artists, actors and producers, but potentially eliminated repetition that might be viewed as wasteful. This can be viewed as a win for the collective, less talent is wasted on plays and performances that would see a limited audience. Those talents are probably better used in an amateur capacity, at least from the perspective of the collective.

On the other side of the ledger, there is the cultural change in China as rapid urbanization occurs. China’s long-standing, massive agrarian culture is in a lot of ways similar to the Galapagos Islands made famous by Darwin’s studies. China has been a massive network of loosely connected communities that have developed their own local cultures, much like the Pacific island group was for varied species.

As the centralized government in China and the collective popular culture of the West dominate a greater portion of the lives and mind space of individuals, our total cultural capacity goes down in proportion to our population. This can be seen in writing, art and film as more chase after the latest hot topic, sound, look or genre. Everyone wants to be relevant, so they rush to what is popular.

This phenomenon isn’t new. Bigger brains proportionally have more white matter, the long-distance connective neurons. Computer processors also require more layers of wires as they accumulate more transistors. The moral of the story is that a large network needs to spend more resources on highways to facilitate the wide distribution of information. As much as this trend is inevitable, it would be nice to see the bumper crop of hobbyist artists on the internet spend less time chasing after the pack and more time producing something new and interesting.

BlogWriMo: The Long Winding Road

In conjunction with Katherine’s efforts this month on NaNoWriMo, I have decided to write some blog entries which provide a look into our novel creation process from my point of view using the work she is working on this month as an example. I will be posting about the fiction and science that have inspired my ideas as well as some of the content from my notes and our conversations on the world and the story.

This project is in many ways very raw since Katherine first bugged me to get something together maybe two weeks ago when I was working on a paper for my cellular and molecular neuroscience course. As a result, I started work in earnest on Thursday the 29th, a few days before NaNoWriMo started. It also is a very old project, derivative of many failed attempts to bring coherent science to a gritty post-apocalyptic world where the mind and body can do things that would seem like magic to us.

In the past, I have been left unsatisfied with my efforts to define such an environment because it is very difficult to justify radical changes that just aren’t possible with any reasonable derivative of human physiology. In a nutshell, mutation through radiation, biological agents, or natural processes aren’t going to suffice. The leap from here to there is just too large. Drastic physiological changes would need to occur at the sub-cellular level, which would completely derail the organismal developmental process, which is very sensitive to small changes in fundamental characteristics such as the structure of a protein or the presence of an engulfed organism such as mitochondria or chloroplasts.

Almost two years ago, I had an idea that was a result of a discussion about spirituality, which convinced me that the only way the things I wanted to have happen could occur was through influence from outside our universe. Therefore, I would introduce supernatural phenomena through the influence of another universe with completely different physics colliding with ours. Beings and phenomena from that universe, the alterverse, could physically influence ours in ways that defied the laws of physics. Further, some individuals in our universe were magnets for beings of the alterverse and could influence their actions, which would give them the potential I wanted. The phenomena from the alterverse could also have a cataclysmic effect upon civilization.

It seemed like I’d created something that might provide me with what I was after. However, the more I worked on the specific dynamics of the alterverse and my local environment, Phoenicia (what remained of Phoenix, Az), the less satisfied I was. I’m prone to get bored with ideas as I work them out, but this idea was getting away from me, becoming less and less what I’d set out to create. We were about three years into the Weordan project, which still needed a lot of attention, so I just dropped the project.

It’s been churning around in my head ever since.

The solution to my problem may have been hanging around in my head since the first post I made to this blog. Interestingly, this site and blog are a product of what was going on with the alterverse project, which was also called the continua project. Therefore, it seems appropriate that this project has come full circle to the idea that evolution for homo sapiens is primarily occurring through changes in social organization rather than biological changes. Here are the first words I wrote on the blank sheet I started with on Thursday.

Homo Sapiens was constrained by developmental parameters that no longer applied with the development of advanced medical technology and the support systems of modern civilization. Through natural mutation outside of previous survival parameters, new developmental sequences might emerge, eventually being radical enough to cause speciation. However, the same medical technology that enables survival during abnormal development cycles also allows manipulation of genetic and epi-genetic factors to produce novel development cycles and radically different phenotypes.

From this, it should be evident that I like to think about systems to get the ball rolling on an idea. In this case, I had already decided that the source of my unusual capabilities would be a result of human engineering, a process that I’ve come to realize is more complex than just genetics. There has to be an allowance for an organismal development cycle to build exotic structures capable of producing novel capabilities.

This is related to my earlier posts on the singularity in that the continual evolution of social systems would necessitate specialization of humanity into highly specialized, genetically enhanced species that might not resemble the original and would become increasingly insulated from other specialized groups by economic and communication protocols designed to enhance the efficient exchange of information, goods and services. Further, at some point, the system would become so interdependent that a small group of disruptions could cause a cascade that could lead to the collapse of the whole system. This might give me the kind of environment I’ve been looking for, though there are a multitude of complications still to be dealt with.

Apocalypse, Now Evolution

I have always found the heroic attempts to conserve endangered species to be a puzzling practice. The purported reasoning behind the practice is that we want to maintain genetic diversity in the species that inhabit our planet. I’m inclined to think that there is a substantial emotional component associated with a fear of loss. Fear of loss is particularly irrational in light of the fact that most every species that has ever existed on Earth is extinct. The ecological system can handle extreme temperature changes and killer asteroid strikes. It is the mass extinction events like these that have forced new species to emerge. The only way for a significant change to occur is to wipe out most everything and find out what makes it through the adversity. The status quo doesn’t produce new behavior.

There is no question that we are causing a major extinction event. We are consuming more of the world’s resources. We are changing the environment by digging up minerals and fuel, which leads to higher levels of these compounds in the surface environment. We transport species from one ecosystem to another because they are useful or because we are careless. All of this causes disruption, which most animal species can’t deal with. They are behaviorally hardwired to a much greater degree than we are. When they can’t find a niche, they are marginalized and face extinction.

This isn’t entirely bad. New niches open up in the ecosystem and allow new species to develop and thrive. Fortunately, there are biologists that agree with me, at least to some extent.

Instead of wasting effort trying to save failed species, we should be concentrating on studying the evolution associated with the extinctions that are occurring. We need to understand how to maintain an ecological equilibrium that is not hostile to us. We need to maintain populations of species we use as food, advantage microbes that protect us against those that are hostile and find ways to keep the populations of nuisance species down, or find a use for them.

An Evolutionary View of Economics

I recently became aware of an article on the Singularity in the IEEE periodical Spectrum. It resembles to some extent my previous post on the topic, but misses some fine details. The key attribute of the explosions in growth is hierarchy, which is powered by specialists collaborating. The Industrial Revolution was a case of collaboration in a factory. What Hanson mistakes as an “agriculture” revolution was actually the beginning of civilization, which is collaboration in a town or city. Previous to that was collaboration between different regions of higher thought to create a complex world model. The next earlier step was collaboration between the internal and external senses to produce learning. The next earlier step was the collaboration of cells to produce a multi-cellular organism. And the first step was the collaboration of molecules to produce a single cell organism. There are the nasty little exceptions like mitochondria and chlorophyll, which are technically subsumed in the cell of a larger organism. However, those can be reasonably lumped in the cells collaborating category.

This makes six generations instead of five as mathematically estimated by Hanson. It might be argued that there is very little value in the human’s ability to model their environment that doesn’t merely lead to civilization. This would lead to five steps, and considering that there need to be changes previous to the actual addition of a new level of hierarchy, the 100k-200k years is probably not too long a preparatory step considering the previous step was hundreds of millions of years earlier. As a result, I can accept that there have been five hierarchical events.

The growth graph from Delong suggests that we are on the cusp of another growth explosion. I think it is already happening. It is being driven by modern communications which enable the worldwide scientific community to collaborate. As an example, even though designing electronics is getting harder, the rate of advance is speeding up. Electronic agents perform more complex tasks for us every year. They do searches for us, manage our computer hardware, gather items for shipping in warehouses and many other things. Clearly, hordes of electronic specialists will be a big part of the next level of hierarchy, just as will the communication system we use to communicate with them. Beyond that, it will be rather difficult for an individual human to comprehend the next hierarchy, even if it is staring them in the face.

The Singularity is Occurring and We Don’t See It.

Reading articles at the New York Times about Ray Kurzweil and his notions regarding the evolution of intelligence have, along with recent discussions and the themes of the Weordan novels Katherine and I are working on, stirred up my evolving view of evolution, which is similar in many ways. The primary difference between our points of view is that while Kurzweil is more interested in looking at the evolution of specific technologies within the context of this pattern, I’m more interested in the underlying mechanism that causes the greater complexity. The power of evolution is hierarchy.

In biological systems, more complex systems are composed of multiple components that perform specialized tasks and communicate with one another. These individual components are usually systems in and of themselves that in turn are composed of multiple components that perform specialized tasks and communicate with one another. As hierarchies of systems stack on one another, they become more capable of regulating their interior and changing their environment to suit their needs. This difference in capability is evident in a comparison between a squirrel and the bacterium that reside in its GI tract. The bacterium is highly specialized such that there are thousands of different species that inhabit the GI tract of any given animal because they each need a very specialized environment to prosper. The squirrel doesn’t need as specialized an environment. It maintains body temperature when it is cold or warm. It can handle a lot of moisture or very little. It is able to actively search for food and store it for use later when there is a shortage. The squirrel is more adaptive as an individual than is the bacterium.

Hierarchical evolution can be seen in a series of steps. Some of these steps are molecule to cell, cell to multi-cellular organism, lack of nervous system to nervous system, reactive nervous system to learning nervous system, and conditioned learning to emotion driven learning. Each successive system stacks on top of the other to the extent that the higher system consists of the components of the previous hierarchy with enhancements at the next level that rely upon the functionality of the previous. Clearly, these transitions didn’t happen overnight. A large number of small changes happened where specialized roles and communication methods developed. These allowed the power of the new hierarchy to be realized.

This leads one to question what has been going on with the evolution of hierarchies over the most recent ten millennia and what is happening presently. My answer is that the hierarchies have evolved beyond biology. Human civilization is merely a collection of task specialists and communication systems that function to adapt to the environment. Initially, people settled down and created communities to change the environment so it would produce a more plentiful and reliable food source. They cooperated, individually taking on portions of the task. They discussed their plans for the future. They created systems for trade so that individuals could specialize. Conceptually, this is no different than the specialization of cell types to create organs in the body where special communication proteins called hormones communicate needs from one type of cells to another. Civilization is more adaptive than the individual person much the way the squirrel is more adaptive than the bacterium.

While there are a number of very important advances that have allowed civilization to flourish, they are merely tools that either allow an entity to fulfill a role performing a specialized task or they are tools for communication that allow a number of specialized entities to work in concert. As one can see from the list I linked to above on Kurzweil’s Singularity site, advances in tools for specialization and communication often come roughly at the same time. Writing and the wheel appear in roughly the same period, as do telephone, radio and electricity, or printing and the scientific method. The Industrial Revolution was entirely about specialization and communication in the workplace improving productivity.

Unfortunately, neglected from Kurzweil’s list are advances in trade and banking. Currency and accounting greatly streamlined trade by allowing individuals to acquire goods or services from someone that didn’t want anything they personally had to offer. It might be said that the invention of writing was necessitated by the business of keeping accounts. Likewise, banking has evolved from the personal account to the business of lending one’s own capital, to the collection of capital for lending to others, to trade markets where ownership is bought and sold like any commodity. Banking enables resources to be applied where civilization at large deems is the best place for them to be used based upon the information available. Prioritization of the use of resources is a very important mechanism to the future prospects of an entity.

I have implied what we refer to as civilization is merely a continuation of evolutionary hierarchy. It is the only arena of evolution that is currently producing greater complexity. Biological evolution has reached its limits in producing humans, whose metabolisms are already largely devoted to keeping the brain functioning. If any biological evolution is occurring, it is related to conforming to civilization, not nature. The evolution of the social system isn’t just one level of hierarchy. There have clearly been a number of steps made throughout history. There are clearly multiple levels of hierarchy within our governments with a spectrum between local government and nations and the bodies they create to regulate international law. Likewise, business is the same. Seldomly does a business produce a product all of the way from extracting raw materials to selling that product to a non-business consumer. These hierarchies are enabled by our ever advancing communications systems, which all hinge on the notion that an idea or object can be represented by a symbol, which is the essence of language and writing. Our tools are advanced by our learning system, the scientific community and by our financial and governing systems which select which ideas get resources. It is a complex, deep hierarchy. The burden of individual human survival is embedded in this system much the same way that a cell is embedded in the body.

Vinge, when he coined the term “Singularity” was convinced that there would emerge a super-intelligent computer intelligence that would be able to improve itself at a staggering rate such that humanity would become irrelevant. To some degree, the definition of the term has been softened by the community at large to be a more general definition that a system will evolve that is capable of advancing at a rate beyond human comprehension. The problem with Vinge’s super-humanly intelligent computer taking over is that it has to do more than just compete with the intellect of an individual human. It has to compete with the combined capability of all the organizations of civilization powered by billions of humans. There will have to be substantial work done in organizing the vast arrays of processors to take on specialized roles an communicate the proper information to the right processor. Needless to say, we aren’t nearly as good at making groups of processors work together as we are at making a single processor. This will put off the machine driven vision of Vinge for a good part of a century if Kurzweil is correct. While the art of automated computation is a century old, cluster computing is closer to a decade. The Cray computers of the 80’s were not multiple processor systems. The notion was new in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

The important idea behind the notion of the Singularity is that humanity as a species is not at the top of the intellectual hill. The capabilities of the evolved social hierarchies we have created have transcended our individual capabilities. While the individual scientific advances of the past century are attributed to individuals, they don’t belong to them. The ideas were already in the community. They just put on the finishing touches. This is becoming more the case every year. There are no more Da Vincis because the game is a lot harder. There is a lot more to learn just to get started and the problems are more complex. Cutting edge science and engineering are increasingly taking more and more manpower to get done. The system acts and solves far beyond the individual’s capacity. We have been working our way toward the Singularity for over five thousand years and I suspect Kurzweil is counting down how long it will take before an individual human will no longer be able to comprehend what is going on at the highest levels of evolved hierarchy. That day might have already arrived.