Sunday, March 18, 2012

Growing life: Gene Selection vs. Meme Selection vs. Group Selection

There has been a long, on-going, healthy debate in the evolutionary biological community about the merits of the theory of group selection, the theory of meme selection, and the theory of gene selection. Genes are chains of DNA that, when acting in concert with other genes and when there is both an energy source and sufficient materials, have the capability of reproducing. Gene selection is also known as kin selection, i.e. genes that have the tendency of helping kin survive have the tendency of propagating. Memes are certain cultural fads/actions/songs/beliefs/etc that are self-propagating. An example of a meme is the following: the belief that you can go to heaven if you succeed in convincing 5 other people that they can go to heaven if they each convince 5 more people of this belief. The theory of meme selection is the following: memes that have the tendency of helping people survive with the same meme have the tendency of propagating.

One difficulty in studying human beings and their social interactions is that both gene selection and meme selection are going on at the same time, and it’s often hard to tell if certain actions have an underlying genetic disposition, an underlying memetic disposition, or both. For example, religious leaders in many human cultures give up their rights to procreate in order to be a leader of their culture’s religion. Is there a gene or a set of genes that propagates well in the kin of those who take a vow of celibacy? Or is this a meme that’s propagating? If it is a meme, what exactly is propagating? (Is information propagating?) Or this is a part of what biologists used to call group selection? 

The scientific ‘consensus’ used to be in favor of group selection, and then moved towards gene selection, and now seems to be heading in the direction of multi-level selection with the new work by E. O. Wilson. Multi-level selection is a relatively new concept that is still being defined; it appears to be an attempt to reconcile gene selection and meme selection.

Group selection went out of favor in the second half of the 20th century because a) it’s hard to define the level of self-propagation for a group; and b) there has been a lot of success in understanding social behavior in terms of kin selection (i.e. gene selection) and in terms of meme selection (i.e. viral-like self-replication of information in the human mind.) For example, Hamilton’s equation [Sum (r*b) > C  where “b” is the benefit of an action,  “c” is the cost of an action, and “r” is the kin relatedness] has been quite successful in describing social behavior, even in eusocial species such as bees and ants. Some researchers, like E.O. Wilson, would like to include another term into Hamilton’s equation in another factor for benefit to the group. But the question for those researchers who favor group selection is the following: what specifically is self-propagating when they say ‘group’? What piece of code or information is actually self-propagating?
That which is self-propagating in the case of genes is easy to see, and it’s fairly easily to see in the case of some memes, i.e. information that self-propagates like a computer virus. But what are true examples of self-replication for groups?  Is Capitalism self-replicating? How about Communism, Democracy, Europe, the U.S., Constitutional Monarchy, Prussia, the Declaration of Independence, the Iroquois, or China?  Are any of these a group that is capable of self-propagation and that is capable of group selection?  It seems hard to believe that any of these are self-propagators because they are each lacking a code for self-replication? They are just concepts. An example of a non-biological self-replicator would be a solar-cell and solar-cell factory on the Moon that was capable of making new solar cells and solar cell factories. (See the post on self-replicating solar auxons) In this case, what is self-propagating is the code that encodes in itself how to make more of the code. Each name in the long list of groups mentioned above fails the test for self-propagation because there is no specific code that encodes for the self-replication, let’s say, of only Chinese people, of only Iroquois people, of only democratic people, or of only Communistic people. So, how do we account for social behavior such as Communism, Democracy, Europe, the U.S., Constitutional Monarchy, Prussia, the Declaration of Independence, the Iroquois, or China? Hamilton’s equation alone seems unable to describe social behavior like Communism.
Many people have argued that, just as there are sets of genes that encode the self-propagation of those sets of gene, there are sets of memes (like the Communist Manifesto combined with other memes) that encode the self-propagation of the Communist Manifesto and the other memes. In other words, if you are studying evolutionary biology, look for the self-replicators because the self-replicators are what either grow, stagnant, or die off based off of natural selection. If you can’t pinpoint what exactly is self-propagating, then there’s no point in arguing that it has evolved via natural selection. 

One problem is that these current theories of evolutionary biology seem to be painting a bleak picture about human nature, i.e. we seem to be just vehicles for the propagation of genes and memes.  Is this our goal in life? To just replicate our genes and memes? This view of the world seems to leave out the crucial question: what's the underlying purpose in having genes or memes self-propagate?

Luckily, human beings have the ability to step back and look at what’s gone on in the past, and then to change their actions. So, now I’d like to switch gears and discuss the philosophical implications of gene selection and meme selection. The question is: does knowledge of why certain social behavior existed in the past tell us anything about how we should act in the future. (As asked by Hume, can ‘is’ lead to ‘ought’?) For some people like Richard Dawkins, there is no way to go from ‘is’ to “ought”? [As Dawkins states in the Selfish Gene, "We actually provide the purpose in a universe that would have none.”] Therefore, according to Dawkins, since there is no ‘ought,’ there is no shared meaning life. Each person has to find their own meaning in life. However, the idea that there is no shared meaning is absurd because in nearly every culture there is a basic respect for human life.

I think that there is a way out of the ‘ought’-from-‘is’ conundrum. The way out is to recognize that the world is not deterministic. We can’t predict the future, even with the best computers. [i.e. not all problems in physics are as simple and as analytic as a spring&mass or a pendulum.] We have to make approximations; we have to anticipate future actions with built-in uncertainty; we have to make choices on the fundamental axioms; and most importantly, we have to develop game theory strategies on how interact with our fellow human beings. We are left with ‘ought’ questions because human beings and other self-conscious species have the capability to act in ways that are self-referential and reflective.
For example, when it comes to genes, we now have the capability of altering genes; we do not have to wait for random changes due to UV radiation or due to copying errors in order to make changes to the DNA of ourselves and/or other species. How do we decide whether to change DNA and what changes should we make? I don’t see anything in the theory of gene selection to answer the question: how should we change DNA? In fact, the idea of changing one’s DNA seems to be totally against the ‘purpose’ of DNA. But this is a question that many of us are faced with everyday.
And for that manner, how are new memes created?  We have the capability to make new memes. So, what criteria should we use to generate new memes? We are at the point in which we have the capability to create new genes and new memes. What should be the guiding philosophy behind what types of new genes and memes we should generate?  

I think that it’s easy to get caught up in the gene or meme view of the world and it’s easy to forget that the genes and memes are part of a larger system. It is the system that is self-propagating; it is life itself that is the self-propagator. Here, I define life to be dissipative structures that exist far-from-equilibrium that consume gradients in chemical potential (or other potentials) and that are self-replicating. It is life itself that is self-propagating.   

One problem with the gene theory and meme theory is that sometimes researchers present the theories as if the purpose of the gene or the meme were to reproduce for its own sake, as if the gene or meme were conscious of what is going on. A gene can't be selfish in the same way that a human being can be labeled selfish. The problem with assigning a purpose to the code is that it focuses on the code rather than the results.  I think that this "code-over-results" bias in some researchers (such as Richard Dawkins) is part of an underlying philosophy of anti-entropy that has been mistakenly propagated over the last 50 years or so. It’s a focus on information (negatropy) as a good thing and entropy as a bad thing. This anti-entropy philosophy is based on some mistakes in applying concepts (such as mistakenly applying the Principle of Minimum Entropy Production to biological species) and also based on the misrepresentation of entropy as disorder (as opposed to entropy correctly being equal to the number of symmetry permutation between possible microstates.)

Once we remove the anti-entropy bias in the scientific community, we’ll see that life is actually trying to increase the entropy of the universe, and that this is best done by growing life. So, there is a purpose to life: to grow and, in the process of growing, to generate entropy (i.e. to increase the underlying symmetry of the universe.) This also means that there is a shared common purpose. The purpose of life is not up to the individual. What is left up to the individual is the strategy on how best to grow life. There is no right answer on how best to grow life, so we have to respect those strategies which aim to grow life, and we have to respect all forms of life, especially self-conscious life forms, such as humans, apes, and dolphins. In other words, there is individual choice in how best to grow life, but we all should share the common goal of growing life. Some people may want to grow life by planting trees; some might want to grow life by having lots of children; others might want to grow life by building self-replicating solar cells on the Moon. We ought not get in the way of other people who are trying to grow life, as long as the attempt to grow life doesn't harm the life of other people, apes, dolphins, etc...

So, I’ll reiterate for emphasis, the reason that genes replicate is more than just to make more genes. The gene is replicating as part of a process of growing life and generating entropy. The gene is not aware of what’s going on, but a human being can be aware of the purpose of life. Therefore, when faced with the question “What should be the guiding philosophy behind what types of new genes and memes we should generate?”, we can answer as following:  we should create new genes and new memes that we think can grow life as fast as possible. We are not confined to just the genes or the memes of the past. We do not have to wait for new genes or memes to form. This means that we can create new forms of life (such as self-replicating solar auxons), even though this might not have any benefit to our own genes or memes.

But now that we know what is the purpose of life, we are left with the hard work, which is actually growing life. It's not enough to just know the purpose of life. You also have to follow through with your knowledge. You have to turn your knowledge into action. And it’s not easy to grow life precisely because it takes hard work. This means making guesses on how best to expend the resources at hand and how best to make a return on work invested. What’s worse is the fact that, as self-conscious beings, we are aware of what makes us happy and what makes us feel pain. What’s hard is that, in order to grow life, we often have choices that are painful. We often have to undergo painful experiences in order to grow life. Likewise, we often have to delay gratification in order to help grow life. And in this sense, life will always be painful. Trying to avoid pain is like trying to avoid life.

So, while the theory of gene selection and the theory of meme selection do a fairly good job of explaining most of evolutionary biology, human being are now capable of going beyond the application of the theory and are now capable of creating new genes, new memes, and new self-replicators. Furthermore, we can design these new self-replicators so that we grow life in general. We can go beyond our own genetic or memetic selfishness by creating life-forms that don’t share our genes or memes. In fact, not only can we do this, but we ‘ought’ to do this. We ought to grow life. We ought to expand life throughout this solar system, and then hopefully beyond this solar system, even if it is not genetically or memetically related to us.


  1. The end of your post sounds a lot like "The Road Less Traveled"
    Is this something that you've read? If so, what do you think about the book?

  2. Living systems do indeed maximise entropy. However entropy is well characterised as being disorder...

  3. Entropy is defined as a constant times the natural logarithm of the number of equivalent microstates in the macrostate with the largest number of microstates.
    The 'purpose' of living systems is to increase the entropy of the universe.
    Would you agree or disagree with what I've stated above?