September, 2007

Genotype, Phenotype, Schmenotype

The distinction between “genotype” and “phenotype” is an artificial one that obfuscates understanding past a certain point. As Dawkins points out in his selfish gene argument, from the standpoint of the gene, the gene is the phenotype and the organism is the genotype. This is not to say that we should go overboard and anoint the gene as supreme. “Genotype” and “phenotype” are concepts. From a complex system’s standpoint, they are two frozen snapshots (stages) in an ongoing autocatalytic cycle. Other stages between could be singled out and studied (e.g. ontogenesis), but we are not good at conceptualizing dynamic processes and prefer to look at relatively stable forms. We forget that these stable forms are a part of the autocatalytic process, which is ongoing.…

The Logical Necessity of Group Selection

There has been a long-standing debate about the notion of group selection, the idea that populations of organisms can be selected for en masse over competing populations.  The Darwinian “purists” claim that natural selection (NS) only acts at the level of individuals.  But if that’s true, then how can multicellular organisms be subject to NS?  After all what are multicellular organisms if not a group of single cell organisms?…

Types of Emergence

Stability can be thought of as a measure of agency. That is, the more stable a system is, the better we are able to recognize it as a distinct agent, a system that actively, structurally or by happenstance persists through time, space and/or other dimensions. Burton Voorhees defines a concept of virtual stability as a “state in which a system employs self-monitoring and adaptive control to maintain itself in a configuration that would otherwise be unstable.” He clarifies that virtual stability is not the same as stability or metastability and gives formal definitions of all three.* By making a distinction between stability, metastability and virtual stability, we can gain further clarity on agency itself and the emergence of new agents and new levels of organization.…

On the Brink of True Distributed Computing

[ The following is a repost from my MySpace blog, which is not accessible unless you have an account there. Also, the audience there isn’t really interested in this stuff :-) ]

The notion that the “network is the computer” – or at least that it could be – has been around for a while. But all actual implementations to date are either too specialized (e.g. SETI@home) or simplistic (e.g. p2p file-sharing, viruses, DDoS attacks) to be used for generalized computation, or are bound at some critical bottleneck of centralization. To this latter point, search engines hold promise, but the ones we are familiar with like Google are reliant on both central computational control (for web crawling and result retrieval) and central storage (for indexing and result caching). Lately social bookmarking/tagging has been used by those opting in to distribute the role of crawling, retrieval and indexing. It remains to be seen whether keyword tags and clusters thereof are semantically strong enough in practical terms …

Is Obesity Contagious?

Science News reports that a 2005 study of obese and normal-weighted people found that “30% of the obese group showed signs of previous adenovirus-36 infection, while only 11 percent of the lean group did”. Recent research showed that the virus induces long-term changes in how stem cells develop, causing some that were slated to form bone cells to turn into fat cells instead. Researchers are quick to point out that you shouldn’t avoid fat people for fear of infection because the infectious phase only lasts a few weeks, and would have ended long before obesity set in.…