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

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.


To understand the concept of agency and emergence thereof, it helps to think about very pure systems that exhibit agency emergence. One such system is Conway’s Game of Life, a kind of cellular automata system which exhibits some uncanny life-like behaviors. You should read the synopsis of Life as well as watch various simulations of it unfold so you get an understanding and an intuition about what’s happening. A remarkable aspect of Life that the rules that govern everything that happens in the system are extremely simple and only apply to a local neighborhood on a grid. What emerges as a run of Life unfolds could hardly be called simple though.…

Evolution & Emergence

Evolution and emergence are not the same thing. Evolution is the process of change within a particular level. Emergence is the creation of a new level of organization through the coming into existence of one or more self-sustaining systems, or agents. These agents often co-exist in populations of other agents which are more or less similar to one another, for instance a species, a tribe, or an ecology of organisms from a variety of species.…

Emergent Causality

For whatever reason, perhaps a pervasive simplicity bias,* we as humans like to think of causality in very basic terms: each event has one and only one cause. Multi-causal explanations seem unsatisfying. We like to know who (or what) to blame or credit. Shared responsibility seems somehow not as real. In cognitive psychology experiments it is well-documented how a crowd of people will stand by watching someone else in distress without anyone offering to help. Yet any one of those same witnesses would invariably take action if nobody else were around. The literature explains this as a sort of “tragedy of the commons” in personal responsibility, i.e. each individual in a crowd of 20 is only 1/20th responsible. Furthermore, everyone assumes that somehow the other 19/20ths of the responsibility will take care of it, if they haven’t already.…

Parts of the Elephant

There is a story about several wise men fumbling around in the dark trying to understand the nature of an elephant by each feeling different parts of the body (leg, trunk, etc). This strikes me as analogous to an approach to understanding the mind that tries to isolate mental functions by mapping them to physical regions of the brain.

Sure, we’ve known for years that regions of the brain are correlated to mental functions like language, vision, controlling distinct parts of the body, et al. And we observe that gross damage to these areas correlates to loss of function. But the observations show many exceptions and edge cases, such as functional compensation during brain damage. An illuminating aspect of brain damage is the continuous (as opposed to discrete) loss of function, which contrasts sharply with damage to human-engineered systems like cars and computers. With technology, generally speaking if a physical region gets damaged, the function it was serving is totally gone. With biological systems, and …

Eliminating Political Parties

This is a repost from my MySpace blog, but it really belongs here.

Why Political Parties Exist, Why they are Bad, and How to Eliminate Them

Voting blocs are an emergent property of representative democracies wherein each new voting issue carries with it an automatic right for each representative to vote. In other words, when votes are treated like a continually renewable resource, there becomes incentive for each representative to give away votes on issues they care less about in exchange from something of greater value. When that thing of greater value is money we call it corruption. When the thing of greater value is a promise of future support from an outside agency, we call it lobbying. And when groups of representatives agree on an ongoing basis to trade away votes in exchange for membership, we call it a party.…

Levels of Organization

One of the paradigms in complex adaptive systems thinking that has great explanatory power is the idea that there are distinct systems organized hierarchically in various levels of complexity. So, for instance, you can look at atoms as being a system at one level of organization, on top of which sits the next level of atomically bonded compounds (aka molecules), on top of which sits the next level of molecular reactions (e.g. chains of enzyme reactions), and so on. It’s well-understood that within a given level, the individual elements (i.e. atoms at the atomic level, molecules at the molecular level, etc.) interact with one another and can be thought of as passing messages or sharing information. At the atomic level the interactions (mainly) come in the form of atomic bonds: two hydrogen atoms bind to an oxygen atom in a particular configuration in a standard and repeatable way. Incidentally — from the standpoint of the atom — we come to recognize this pattern and classify …