Response to "Thoughts on Ants, Altruism and the Future of Humanity"

[ This is an edited version of a blog comment on Brandon Kein’s Wired Science post here ]

The question of whether we will “break through” to a superorganism or collapse through any number of spiraling cascades or catastrophic events is the subject of Ervin Laszlo’s book, The Chaos Point, which I highly recommend.  In it, he gives a sweeping view of the complex evolutionary dynamic (focusing on human society), and makes a solid argument that we are at an inflection point in history right now, similar to the “saltation” that begat multicellularity.…

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

Complex Links: TED

I attended the TED Conference this year for the first time.  It was a transformative experience, one that I hope everyone can have in some form or another before too long.  One way to simulate being there is watch as many of these incredible talks from past TED conferences as you can in a short period of time.  If you are inspired, check out the TED Prize and how you can be a part of a growing global meta-movement for positive change in the world.

I will be blogging about things that piqued my interest at TED, but below are some cool links that I came away with:…


I posted earlier on emergent causality. One aspect that needs to be elaborated on is the concurrent, self-interdependent nature of emergence, or in other words the chicken and egg problem.…

Evolution Favors Cooperation Over Competition

There is a myth in evolutionary biology, as well as in the zeitgeist, that evolution by natural selection is all about competition.…

Three Kinds of Cooperation

Ecologists speak about two types of cooperation — mutualism and commensalism — which distinguish whether both or just one of a pair is benefiting. I’d like to look at a different dimension of cooperation that has to do with communication. There are at least three different types of cooperation along this dimension, though perhaps you can distinguish more (if so, please post a comment!)…

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 …

Generalized Evolutionary Theory

Over the years evolutionary theory has itself evolved to encompass new and more disciplines: social Darwinism, genetic algorithms, co-evolution of biology and culture, evolutionary psychology, economics, psychoanalysis, and more. Attempts to formalize evolution typically have focused on several elements or preconditions for natural selection:

  1. a POPULATION of individual agents
  2. a REPRODUCTION mechanism
  3. a MUTATION mechanism that yields differential fitness of agents
  4. a SELECTION mechanism which favors highly fit agents over others for reproduction