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.…

Dangerous Ideas

Daniel Horowitz just forwarded me an interesting article in which Steve Pinker is debating and defending the merits of exploring dangerous ideas even though they may threaten our core values and deeply offend our sensibilities. What struck me most interesting (and laudable) was Pinker’s willingness to play devil’s advocate to his own argument and suggest that maybe exploring dangerous ideas is too dangerous an idea itself and thus should not be adopted as a practice:

But don’t the demands of rationality always compel us to seek the complete truth? Not necessarily. Rational agents often choose to be ignorant. They may decide not to be in a position where they can receive a threat or be exposed to a sensitive secret. They may choose to avoid being asked an incriminating question, where one answer is damaging, another is dishonest and a failure to answer is grounds for the questioner to assume the worst (hence the Fifth Amendment protection against being forced to testify against oneself). Scientists

Cooperation and Competition

It is well-understood that the primary relationship between agents in an evolutionary system is that of competition for resources: food, mates, territory, control, etc. It is also recognized that agents not only compete but also cooperate with one another, sometimes simultaneously, for instance hunting in packs (cooperation) while also fighting for alpha status within the pack (competition). If we look at inter-agent behaviors as existing on a continuum of pure competition on one end and pure cooperation* on the other, it is clear that there is broad range both within species and between agents of different species. Originally, cooperative behavior was explained away as an exception to the general competitive landscape and happened only when two agents shared enough genetic code (such as between parent and child) that cooperation could be seen as a form of genetic selfishness. While this true in a narrow sense, it misses the larger point which is that cooperation between any two or more agents can confer advantages to all …

Mechanisms of Agency

The following is a non-exhaustive catalog. Note that these mechanisms are in fact emergent properties of the system under study, a fact which has some fairly profound consequences when considering the lowest known levels in physical systems. Read Ervin Laszlo’s chapter, Aspects of Information, in Evolution of Information Processing Systems (EIPS) for more theoretical background.


The most trivial form of stability we can think of is an agent existing in the same place over time without change. This may only make sense as you read on, so don’t get caught up here.


Keeping time in the equation but allowing physical location to vary, we see that agents can move and continue to exist and be recognized as the “same”. This is obvious in the physical world we live in, but consider what is going on with gliders in the Game of Life. The analogy is more than loose since cellular automata are network topologies which mirror physical space in one or two …

Cultural Agency

Talking about culture from a complex systems standpoint requires a bit of inductive leap of faith as follows. If you buy the argument that agents emerge from agents (and interactions thereof) at lower levels, then it is clear that there is some level of agency above individual humans.* What we call this level varies according to who is telling the story and what the thrust of their thesis is: population, culture, society, memetics, economy, zeitgeist, etc. The reality is that all of these levels (and more) co-exist, and we are talking about interlocking systems at varying “partial levels” with dynamic, and only loosely constrained, information flow. Nonetheless, there are common elements and properties that we can discuss that are at the very least distinct from the realm of an isolated individual human being.