Evolutionary Systems

Origin of Wealth
Evolutionary Riches

I read Origins of Wealth about 2 years ago and got introduced to the idea of complexity, which was elaborated for markets (specially that of financial markets) by Benoit Mandelbrot in The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets. Below is a discussion about the wider applicability of the concept of evolution I’ve learnt about from the book and some insights I’d like to share with more academic audiences. These ideas relates to the stuff Kevin Kelly was talking about on TED.com I introduced in a reading package. This long piece was penned during the time I read Origins of Wealth:

Reading Eric D Beinhocker introduced me to the concept of Evolutionary Systems, which I hope to talk about. It’s definitely a great book and I am so glad I bought it (despite the price – my price elasticity of demand for books is very very low). The reason I have decided to pen this short piece on Evolutionary Systems is that I see its application in a wide spectrum of reality and I would like to demonstrate how this idea can help weave ‘Man & Nature’ with ‘Science & Technology’, domains that our General Paper is currently delving into.

Evolutionary systems obeys certain characteristics of evolution – a process that can proceed infinitely without an equilibrium (in the traditional sense though you have no problem isolating periods of time and define them as a moment of equilibrium, albeit one that vanishes rather quickly). In Beinhocker’s words, the system is governed by the ‘evolution algorithm‘ that searches for the fit ‘interactors’ in the ‘fitness landscape’. I hope this is not too overwhelming for general interest readers. I’ll deviate briefly from my main focus on ‘Man-Nature & Science-Technology’ Argument (MNST) to explain the terms I have just introduced. ‘Interactors’ are basically agents within the system, like man within nature, technology within society and so on. ‘Evolution Algorithm’ refers to the seemingly systematic formula in which interactors constantly evolve to adapt to changing conditions within the system (whether the changes are results of endogenous or exogenous factors). Finally, the ‘fitness landscape’ refers to how fit the different characteristics the interactors can possibly assume would be given that they really manifest in the system. This is a little complex but just take it that the ‘landscape’ refers to a library of collection of strategies for interactors to survive within the system. How good the strategies are is constantly changing and what evolution does is to pick out the best of all these strategy constantly, occasionally eliminating some lousy ones and so on. This process is essentially what quantifies evolution.

Having established this, I must propose that it is nature that has created this process of evolution, and this mindless but innovating process – it is no different from the laws of physics laid down by the very same nature, as well as the interactors of systems, and even systems itself. I shall not engaged in any quarrels on intelligent design right here and mindlessly assume all my readers to be intelligent followers of the idea of ‘design without designers’. In my MNST argument, I believe that nature lays down the ground rules for things to happen and whatever happens is part of nature, and the natural order. Therefore, Science & Technology is not only part of nature but relies on the laws and forces that nature has laid down in order to work. Man, has essentially leveraged on the evolution algorithm to construct ever increasingly sophisticated stuff.

Okay, now you are saying Man is emulating nature, so isn’t he trying to play God or something? Well, yes and no. Evolution, all these while, have only searched through all the possible lifeforms, object shapes, idealized forms, whatever you can conceive, using a very crude method of trial and error that closely resembles the perturbation that cutting edge physics theorist use to approximate Unified theories. Whatever characteristics that the agents may have that can help him given the existing conditions would be played out and then depending on what characteristics survive the conditions, the evolution process duplicates or eliminates the characteristics according to the fitness assessed. As such, evolution have so far been a slow and extremely painful process of extinction, disasters. The intensification of the use of deduction by man has allowed the evolution to speed up. Logical deduction has allowed quicker elimination of flawed characteristics or strategies for interactors and so they are not even played out in reality. Technologies are products of elimination both by deduction and by the market. The residual stuff that remains are basically what’s left after evolution has stripped it of its unfit cousins. Nature has essentially created man, who in turned, emulated the same innovation (ie. evolution process) that spawned the specie of homo sapiens itself in an attempt to ground its kind in the entire of a new reality – a science-tech reality.

The problem (a sort of disequilibrium occurs) when the changes in fitness landscape triggered by endogenous factors (in this case the emergence and proliferation of products of deductive evolution) has arisen a little too fast for the evolution algorithm of nature itself to catch up. Evolution is on-going because the emergence of a new strategy or at least the manifestation of it can easily alter the fitness landscape and changes the fitness of existing strategies that may have worked well for a long time (and thus harder to fade away).

The appearance of technology – a product of deductive evolution sent out ripples across the fitness landscape that radically altered the fitness of individual characteristics because products of deductive evolution are often able to extract itself from existing manifestations (all the intermediate evolving stages were transversed in the minds of the innovator). This made it hard for the other interactors, with strategies that are rendered useless, to be able to adapt quick enough. Because of that, man has taken a big bold step to dictate the paths of evolution, to alter genes, to tailor species to the new fitness landscape after the rise of technologies that caused the original patterns of existence to undergo an overhaul. I must say, this may have been one of the natural pathways evolution has decided to assume. Mankind have been selected through this mindless innovating algorithm to further its function. Nature overseen the process and will continue to oversee it. Nature cannot cease to be.

Nature, is essentially just a set of laws, forces governing everything. That carbon was chosen to be the main elemental building block of life is perhaps a result of evolutionary process itself. The rest that we classify as nature are mere manifestations of these laws. Man’s being is part of this algorithm, and so is Science & Technology, a subset of man, and thus Nature itself.

The original entry I wrote on my personal blog can be accessed here.

Programming Reality

Lego of Life

Saul Griffith is an inventor, not many people would have this as their main identification occupation/tag today; but when you read up his profile, he really fits the title of an inventor, basically a scientist who problem-solve through inventions. In one of his talk on TED.com, he talks about programming self-assembling systems, very much like creating life itself.

There’s is already what we call biohacking taking place in homes of people, much like the geeks of the 1970s who were assembling computers in their garage. Already, The Economist points out how this parallels the beginnings of the computer age where the geeks had their kits consisting of basic chips for computers.

Going back to mechanical stuff, objects can be ‘programmed’ to build themselves based on sequencing their materials in a certain way like what is shown in the presentation by Saul Griffith. A 3-dimensional object, in this sense, can be defined by a sequence of bits (in a digital sense). Seeing the universe – reality – as a compiler, changes the way we think about our world; it helps us see how everything contains information and how properties of objects are able to convey additional information about things they are interacting with.

Griffith also co-writes Howtoons, cartoons that teaches people how to build/make stuff.

Decaying Plastics, Melting Ice

Dripping Off
Dripping Off

We are dependent on oil not only for energy but something almost as ubiquitous in modern day products. Shaking off other aspects of our dependence on oil is thus as important as diversifying sources of energy. And some Koreans just found out how to make an alternative kind of plastic way faster.

Meanwhile, Brian Palmer wrote a piece on Slate.com about how we might be able to overcome bacteria resistance to anti-biotics, a problem we have faced since the invention of anti-biotics. Fighting evolution is not the ultimate solution, as Palmer argued; he believes we need to adapt the rules of evolution and manipulate the bacteria with other strategies to overcome the problem.

Johann Hari writes on moreIntelligentLife about how Arctic is changing as experienced by the Inuits living there. Many of us may know about climate change and perhaps some of the sciences behind it but our lives goes on pretty much the same except for periodic violent weather we might intuitively attribute to climate change. To climate scientist, arctic is at the front line of this phenomenon and Hari writes convincingly about the reality of climate change in the arctic and how the lives of the Inuits are affected. The writing reflects a deep respect for those who lives in the arctic; something lacking in most other appeals for attention to global climate change. Ultimately though, it reflects how people are all looking at the problem with different lenses and focusing on different consequences. If anything is to be done at all, we’ll have to connect the different groups together.

On other green matters, Nina Shen Rastogi asks on Slate.com, Should You Flush Your Drugs Down the Toilet?

Parcel Here!

Heavy but weighs zero grammes
Heavy but weighs zero grammes

This week’s read/watch/listen parcel starts with a little introduction of a new book The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins and a Q&A session that follows under Berkeley’s Arts & Letters programme on FORA.tv. The site holds a wonderful collection of intellectual and academic videos from different events and places.

The book itself was recently published and praised by The Economist for its educational value. To be frank I’ve never read Richard Dawkins but from his readings of The Greatest Show on Earth in the video, I reckon I’d enjoy his style of demonstrating his arguments using long analogies that are probably closer to the heart of readers (rather reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches).

He compares Creationist to Holocaust Deniers, those who argues that Evolution is full of gaps to a stubborn lawyer who declares that more evidence is less. He questions the plausibility of Marsupials engaged is some sort of migration programme where they emigrate en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia – such was the witty humour that Dawkins use to entertain readers and frustrate those who believed in the literalism of Noah’s Ark. Dawkins is critical and knows clearly what exactly he is out defend in the book.

Next, some readings on the fertility decline around the world in The Economist, something I wrote about previously as well as an article on price wars on The New Yorker by James Surowiecki. There’s a video accompanying the article from The Economist about population.

Finally, find out more about Vincent van Gogh’s life from The Economist’s Editor Highlights Audio.