The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Selfish Altruism

The US biologist Robert Trivers noted that there was more than cooperation at work. According to Hamilton's genetic metrics, a child should see herself twice more valuable than her siblings. The parents, on the other hand, should see all siblings as equally valuable. Thus it is not surprising that siblings compete and fight for parental resources, while parents teach them to share equally. Parents have to literally brainwash their children into thinking that it is in their (each child's) interest to care for their siblings when in fact their genes tell them (the children) the exact opposite.

Beyond family, there is in general a whole repertory of attitudes that serves the purpose of regulating altruism (gratitude, compassion, trust, guilt, even hypocrisy). Eventually, it all boils down to game theory: how to maximize the chances of success and minimize the chances of failing.

We seem to be even equipped with a repertory of skills to lie, cheat and deceive, and we use that repertory to complement the equation that maximizes our chances of success, depending on social conditions. Our conscience is malleable, which is another way to say that our altruistic strategies are flexible. In a sense the reason why children lie is that they are just practicing the art of cheating. In fact the tendency in children to lie is so strong that they will stop lying only if punished consistently and severely. Otherwise the tendency to lie will amplify. Conscience is an adaptation of one's altruistic and anti-altruistic instincts to a specific social environment.

 

Group Selectionism

William Hamilton's theory of kin selection explained only why animals assist close relatives (by placing the emphasis on the genes that are shared by relatives). But not why we would help friends or even total strangers.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian philosopher Petr Kropotkin first campaigned the notion that animals must be social and moral. His view was not one of individual struggle for survival, but one of the struggle for survival by masses of individuals, a struggle not against each other but a collective struggle against the common enemy, i.e. the adversities of their environment. Cooperation is more important than competition.

Meanwhile, the Japanese primatologist Imanishi Kinji was arguing that cooperation is more important than competition in nature. Individuals form societies and cannot exist outside societies because it is through societies that they can solve the needs required to their survival.

The British zoologists Vero-Copner Wynne-Edwards argued in favor of group selection because he found evidence that it is groups (rather than single individuals) that adapt to the environment.

The US biologist David Sloan Wilson ("A theory of group selection", 1975) resumed that explanation of altruism and made a case for the evolution of altruistic behavior. His studies gave credibility to the theory of "group" selection. A group is not necessarily a group of kin, but can be any community of genetically unrelated individuals and even of different species (as in the case of symbiosis). A group is just analogous to an organism. After all, an organism can be viewed as a collection of genes that work together towards maximizing their common chances of survival. The same principle applies to a group, where individual genes are replaced by organisms, by collections of genes. Groups often behave like organisms. Such is the case with beehives, ant colonies, flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds and even human clans.

Selection may operate at many different levels, but certainly for some species, especially humans, living in a group, and helping each other, has provided a tremendous evolutionary advantage. While the idea of a "group" of altruistic individuals, who accept to live in hives, herds, clans at the expense of their own fitness, may sound antithetical to Darwin's principle of competition, it does make sense, precisely from the point of view of "fitness". Being part of a group may increase the chances of being "fitter" and therefore survive.

Robert Trivers' theory of “reciprocal altruism” ("The evolution of reciprocal altruism", 1971) explained altruism as founded on the idea of exchange: i help you and you will help me. He proved that individuals can benefit in the long term by trusting each other. In other words, altruism is actually selfish. Building on Trivers' theory, the Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal argued that communities yield benefits to the individual, and that is the biological reason the individual will try to promote the community. Human morality is based on the idea of exchange.  A society always relies, to some extent, on altruism: a member must be willing to sacrifice part of her individuality in order to be part of a society, which, in turn, increases her chances of survival.

 

Games

Game theory,introduced by John Maynard-Smith ("The Logic of Animal Conflict", 1973),  helps to explain how altruism evolved. Over the long term, non-zero sum games (“cooperative” games in which both players stand to win or lose) tend to have more positive outcomes than negative ones. In particular, one can devise strategies that will greatly enhance the players’ outlook in the long term. Thus it is not surprising that everything from ecosystems to human societies are built on altruism. (By contrast, “competitive” or “zero-sum” games represent a relatively static world).

The most famous of non-zero sum games is the “prisoner’s dilemma”, in which two prisoners are offered (independently) the same deal by the prosecutor. If one confesses and the other does not, the former goes free and the other one gets the maximum sentence. If they both confess, they both get a medium-length sentence. If neither confesses, they both get a minor sentence. This is a game that can be played only once. But imagine a similar game that could be played thousands of times with thousands of players, each player using a different strategy. Game theory proves that there is indeed a best strategy to play this game.

John Maynard-Smith’s use of game theory decoupled kinship and cooperation: individuals cooperate not because they share genes but because cooperation is the best strategy (and it has little to do with moral “altruism”).

The US political scientist Robert Axelrod held a tournament of computers programmed to play the game each against everybody else ("The Evolution of Cooperation", 1981). The “winner” (the one that did best over the long run), equipped with the program “Tit for Tat” written by Anatol Rapaport, was also the simplest one: it cooperated with the computers that had cooperated in the past, and cheated computers that had not cooperated in the past (basically, it did to others what others had done to it). “Tit for Tat” was creating an ever more cooperative society. It used the simplest algorithm, and it yielded the best outcome. Nature likes that combination. Even if individuals do not communicate, they will tend to cooperate, simply because, over the long term, it is the best strategy.

The Austrian mathematician Karl Sigmund and the Austrian biologist Martin Nowak ("Evolutionary Dynamics of Biological Game", 2004) came up with mathematical descriptions (“evolutionary dynamic models”) for five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation: kin selection, group selection, graph selection, direct reciprocity and indirect reciprocity. These models show that competition leads to cooperation. Nowak’s theory, in particular, is that the Prisoner’s Dilemma, when played over and over, generates cycles from selfishness to increased altruism and back to selfishness. Nowak argues that most of the great innovations of life, and notably human language and cognition, are due as much to cooperation as they are to Darwin’s variation and selection.

The theory of kin selection is weak because the evidence does not support it: eusocial species are rare (basically humans, ants and a few others) while kin selection predicts that most species should evolve social skills (especially in species for which genetic similarity of kin is very high). The Romanian mathematician Corina Tarnita showed ("The evolution of eusociality", 2010) that the very mathematics behind kin selection could be wrong. Building on her findings, Edward Wilson proposed that altruism is due to social genes. Within any given group the selfish are more likely to succeed, but groups of altruists have an advantage over groups of selfish people. This led to the evolution of eusocial species that are genetically programmed to cooperate. Group selection leads to “virtue”, individual selection leads to “sin”.

 

The Neural Correlate of Altruism

It is debatable whether there is a neural predisposition for being nice to others, i.e. whether there is something about the human brain that makes children altruists instead of selfish. Children are, of course, influenced by the teachings of their parents, and eventually learn that there is a reward for being nice (first of all to their parents and siblings, then to their neighbords and so forth). However, there is evidence to the contrary: siblings who presumably have similar brains can turn out to be wildly different in the way they behave towards others (one can be extremely selfish in a family of very generous people or viceversa).

 

The Origin of Sex

The classical explanation for the existence (and widespread existence) of sex in nature was given by the German physiologist August Weismann in 1889 (“The Significance Of Sexual Reproduction In The Theory Of Natural Selection”): sex  increases variation which is then used by natural selection to improve the fitness of the species. Basically, sex accounts for faster rates of adaptation.

However, there is a component of altruism in this purely statistical game.

The US zoologist Alison Jolly contends that altruism is a fundamental aspect of evolution. The very existence of sex as a means of reproduction is proof that cooperation is a crucial evolutionary force. Sex is a trade-off: a genome sacrifices a part of its genes to team up with another genome and increase its chances of survival in the environment.

The British biologist Matt Ridley thinks that evolution is accelerated even by apparent enemies like parasites.  Organisms adopted sexual reproduction in order to cope with invasions of parasites: parasites have a harder time adapting to the diversity generated by sexual reproduction, whereas they would have devastating effects if all individuals of a species were identical (if the children were as vulnerable to the same diseases as the parents). Co-evolving parasites help improve evolution because they force individuals to cooperate. The lesson to be drawn is that (the need to fight) competition often leads to cooperation. On a large scale, life is a symbiotic process that is triggered by competitors.  And, of course, plants reproduce with the help of insects. Well over 300,000 species of plants may have been created by co-evolution with their pollinators. Cooperation is pervasive, both within a species and across species.

The emphasis in evolutionary theories has traditionally been on competition, not cooperation, although it is through cooperation, not competition, that considerable jumps in behavior can be attained.

In a sense, humans have mastered altruism the same way they mastered tools that allowed them to extend their cognitive abilities. Humans are able to deal with large groups of non-relatives. De facto, those individuals are “used” as a tool to augment the mind: instead of having to solve problems alone, the mind can use an entire group.

 

Endosymbiosis

The mechanism proposed by Darwin to explain the evolution of life on Earth is based on a delicate balance between a positive process, that of variation, and a negative process, that of selection. The inconsistencies encountered so far in the fossil record all seem to point towards a need for a stronger positive process, one that allows for a species to be born in far shorter times than the evolutionary times implied by Darwin's theory. It is true, as Michael Behe noted, that an organism is way too complex to be built by refinements, and it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould claimed, that species appear all of a sudden. Selection does account for the disappearance of variations that are not fit, but variation alone (and the set of genetic "algorithms" that would represent it) is hardly capable of accounting for the extraordinary assembly of a new organism. A more powerful force must be at work.

When we find that force, we may finally write the last chapter of "The Origin of Species", which Darwin never even tried to write: we still don't know how species originate.

That force may be hidden in the process of endosymbiosis, the process by which a new organism originates from the fusion of two existing organisms, or, more precisely, by which two independently evolved organisms become a tightly coupled system and eventually just one organism. "Endosymbiosis" is the process by which a being lives inside another being.

"Structural coupling" of organisms has been shown to be an accelerating factor in evolution both by the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana (whose "autopoiesis” is precisely such a process to generate progressively more and more complex organisms) and by the US mathematician Ben Goertzel (who argued that organisms capable of effectively coupling with other organisms are more likely to survive, and that the coupling process may account for Gould's punctuated equilibrium).

If organisms are composites rather than individuals, then Darwinian evolution can occur much faster and can exhibit sudden jumps to higher forms, and therefore explain two monumental events of life on Earth: how prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) evolved into eukaryotes (cells that have a nucleus) and the sudden appearance of new species in the fossil record.

The symbiotic creation of species is not such a far-fetched idea. After all, humans can be thought of as collections of organs and viruses co-existing in symbiotic relationships. Generally speaking, the transformation of primitive organisms into more complex ones may be due to the incorporation of other organisms. We know, to start with, that species may also originate by hybridization between existing species, a process that is very common in plants.

Assembling organs in a functionally coherent way is a very difficult task for anybody, including Nature itself, especially if the forces working on it are random; but mixing genomes may be relatively easy. The chemical process that can dramatically alter the genetic code of an organism to incorporate the genetic code of another organism may exploit the very peculiar structure of the DNA double helix and the very peculiar behavior of sex. Both the genetic apparatus and the sexual apparatus seem to be conceived so as to facilitate the fusion of organisms.

While single-organism evolution may explain only gradual and localized changes in skills, the formation of composite structures would certainly result in higher levels of complexity which in turn would result in higher levels of organization.

Unfortunately, we have no idea of how the DNA of a new organism can be synthesized from the DNAs of two organisms, i.e. how a new species can be created by the symbiotic union of two species. The chemical process that allows for the fusion of two codes has not been discovered yet, but may turn out to be a relatively simple "algebra" of the four bases of the DNA.

 

The Tree Of Life

As geneticists have been rearranging the tree of life based on the DNA or organisms, one thing has become evident: life diverged first into bacteria and archaea, eukaryotes then evolved from archaea but with a little help from bacteria. Somehow eukaryotes acquired genes from bacteria, genes that were critical for their metabolism. This implies that genes are passed not only vertically from generation to generation but also horizontally (or "laterally") from one species to another. This lateral gene transfer could turn out to be the single most important factor of evolution. The more we study their DNA, the more eukaryotes appear only distant relatives to their archaea ancestors, the more they appear the product of a large number of lateral gene transfers. There was probably a time when swapping genes among cells was an ordinary event: by swapping genes, cells would simply trade or share skills with other cells.

Research carried out, among others, by the US biologist Carl Woese is showing that the phylogenetic tree looks more like a web than a tree ("Towards a natural system of organisms: proposal for the domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya", 1990). By drawing the family tree of today's genes, one should eventually find the genetic content of the common ancestor of all life. Instead, different genes yield different family trees. If they all had forebears in a common ancestor, it must have been a terribly complex being, far from the simple living cell that one expects. It is more likely that some genes were transmitted horizontally (one lineage to another) as well as vertically (one generation to the next one) in the tree. If gene exchanges were common, one can envision a colony of cells as the ancestor of all life and gene exchanges as the main form of early evolution.

 

Symbiogenesis

In 1909 the Russian botanist Konstantin Merezhkovsky introduced the theory of symbiogenesis. Merezhkovsky viewed living organisms as the result of a combination of two plasms: “mycoplasm” (stuff such as bacteria and fungi) and “amoeboplasm” (basically, eukaryotic cells without a nucleus). Merezhkovsky believed that mycoids were the food of amoeboids, and that one fateful day a mycoid managed to become the nucleus of an ameboid rather than its meal.

A fascination with the wonders of the bacterial world led the US biologist Lynn Margulis (since “The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells”, 1966) to believe that no other single force has shaped evolution in a more important way.  Everything the Earth is today, and everything that we and other living forms do today, is due to conditions that have been created and maintained by bacteria.

Margulis' fundamental thesis is that our bodies are amalgams of several different strains of bacteria. Endosymbiosis of bacteria is responsible for the creation of complex forms of life.

Margulis follows the US biologist Ivan Wallin, who (“Symbionticism and the origin of species”, 1927) was the first one to propose that bacteria may represent the fundamental cause of the "origin of species" (Darwin's unsolved mystery) and that the creation of a species may occur via endosymbiosis.

Margulis noted that not all the DNA is contained in the nucleus of the cell.  As originally outlined by Wallin, The "mitochondria" are organelles of the cell that function as its "power plants": they convert sugar into energy that the cell can use. Mitochondria have their own DNA, separate from the DNA of the cell.  While most DNA is organized as double sets of chromosomes in the nucleus, the DNA of mitochondria stands apart.  Margulis believes that the presence of "extra" DNA in the cell is a fossil of an ancient evolutionary event: it attests to the fusion of at least two different kinds of organisms that together formed a "eukaryiotic" cell.

Margulis believes that such symbiotic merger, or "symbiogenesis", has been common in the evolutionary history of life on Earth, and actually accounts for life as we know it today. The ancestors of all life are bacteria.  They fused into "protists" (algae, amoebas, etc) which fused into multicellular organisms.  Margulis tracks their evolution into plants, animals and fungi. 

Margulis emphasizes that the Earth is still dominated by bacteria, which not only account for the vast majority of life, but also maintain the conditions for life on the planet.

All life is either bacteria or descends from bacteria. Life "is" bacteria.  Bacteria are also closer to immortality than animals with bodies: cell division generates identical bacterial copies of a bacterial cell. Bacteria can be killed but they do not really die, because countless clones exist of them.  The life of a multicellular creature is far more fragile.

Bacteria can also reproduce at amazing rates, compared with "higher" forms of life.

Life can even be viewed as a plan for bacteria to exist forever: bodies are desirable food sources for bacteria, so one could view the evolution of bacteria into such bodies as a plan by bacteria to create food for themselves.

 The biosphere is controlled mostly by bacteria, it is, in a sense, "their" environment, not ours. Margulis emphasizes that not only the atmosphere but even the geology of our planet is due to the work of bacteria (mineral deposits have been shaped by the work of bacteria over million of years, or by the reaction with the waste gas of bacteria).

We are allowed to live in it, thanks to the work of bacteria, which maintain the proper balance of chemicals in the air. If all bacteria died, everything would die. It is their world. Every other form of life exists because they exist.

On a smaller scale, if you "fumigated" your body and destroyed all bacteria that live in it, your body would not be able to perform vital functions, such as synthesizing vitamins, and would die.

The mitochondria, which dot all cells of all living beings, are former bacteria, using oxygen to generate energy.

The property of bacteria that intrigues Margulis is that they trade genes, rapidly and easily. DNA is loose inside bacteria's "bodies". Bacteria reproduce by simply splitting their DNA in two. This yields two offspring identical to the parent (same genes).  Exchange of genes occurs only when genes are traded among bacteria.  Bacterial sex ("conjugation") is about making a new bacterium out of an existing bacterium by adding genes donated by another bacterium.

The new bacterium resulting from the "engrafting" can even change sex, if the "sex" gene is received from the other bacterium (the "sex" gene specifies whether a bacterium is a donor or a receiver).

 This process is not really related to our “sex”: sex is about two beings making a new being that partially inherits genes from each parent.

When bacteria "create" a new being, they do so by splitting (there is only one parent and the new being is identical to the parent). When bacteria trade genes, a being is changed into another being. Humans do not have either of these processes.  I cannot split myself into identical copies of me, and I cannot mutate into another being by absorbing somebody else's genes.  (Incidentally, bacteria can also trade genes as plasmids and viruses).

This process of "recombination" occurs even among bacteria of different species. It is as if I could absorb genes from an eagle and turn into a human with wings, and making children who will also be humans with wings.  The genetic material of bacteria is extremely flexible and versatile.

Margulis thinks that this is the process that enabled life to evolve rapidly.  Scale is crucial: what Margulis realized is the extent to which bacteria rule the planet. They account for a vast portion of the atmosphere and the geology of the planet.

They spread in ancient times and are still spreading today at fantastic speed.  Any phenomenon that involves bacteria is involving billions of rapidly moving and mutating beings. Once life was created, once the first bacteria appeared, things happened quickly and on a massive scale. Bacteria spread quickly, thanks to their reproductive efficiency and to their ability to feed on ubiquitous organic compounds.

The first bacteria were "fermenters", feeding on the sugars available on the surface of the planet. They were followed by photosynthesizers: photosynthesis enabled these bacteria to feed on light. Then came bacteria ("cyanobacteria") that could tolerate oxygen, and could  therefore feed on water (extract hydrogen atoms from water).

Each new type of bacteria was "polluting" the Earth and therefore changing the environmental conditions for future generations of bacteria. Pollution is an integral part of the evolution of life.  The power of bacteria is that their "gene trading" habits made it relatively easy to adapt to whatever new conditions the climate and their own doing were producing.

The history of life is the history of a planet blanketed with rapidly reproducing and rapidly changing beings: the bacteria.

Protoctists were born about 2 billion years ago from the fusion of bacterial cells.

Eukaryotes (living beings whose cells have a nucleus and whose DNA is confined in that nucleus) evolved from those protoctists.

Mitochondria are visible remnants of this process of endosymbiosis.

Experiments by the Korean biologist Kwang Jeon showed that even virulent pathogens can become organelles (“Change of Cellular Pathogens into Required Cell Components”, 2006). Margulis concludes that predators can become symbionts, that a deadly infection can become a bodily part.

Margulis extends this paradigm to bodies made of several organs, and suggests that those organs also were accumulated the same way, that they are also due to the fusion with independent organisms by endosymbiosis. 

While Darwin was emphasizing competition as the driving process of evolution, Margulis is emphasizing cooperation.

For Margulis life has "free will", and has used it to influence its own evolution.  It is not only humans who can affect their environment to direct their own evolution: the whole environment is doing the same. Living beings make decisions all the time and are thus responsible in part for their own evolution, as first speculated by Samuel Butler.

 

Superbeings

We have not found any evidence of multiple beings integrating in one being, but there is plenty of evidence that individual single-cell organisms sometimes join in creating "collective beings" which are better equipped to survive.

Single-celled bacteria form large colonies in countless ecosystems, particularly visible in seaside locations.

Soil amoebae join together in one huge organism that can react quickly to light and temperature to find food supplies.

Sponges are actually collections of single-celled organisms held together by skeletons of minerals.

These are all examples of how cells are capable of forming communities that live together and live at the same biological "pace". Whereas in a human community we all are independent and interact only occasionally. In such agglomerates of cells every unit is synchronized towards the common goal.

In 1999 the Danish biologist Sune Dano engineered a community of yeast cells that live together as a single organism, driven by collective chemical oscillations.

Among multi-cellular organisms, ants and bees exhibit such a behavior, although the individuals are physically disconnected and communication occurs at a distance through the senses (rather than through chemical contact).  Karl Von Frisch, the man who discovered the symbolic dances of the bees, pointed out that the individual is an oxymoron: a bee cannot exist without the rest of the colony. The colony, on the other hand, constitutes a complex and precise self-regulating system that relies on peer-to-peer communication rather than on a dictator imposing order on its subjects. The hive exhibits a personality, the individual is totally anonymous. The way they migrate is even more stunning, as Cecil Johnson described.

The US biologist Deborah Gordon studied ants as a superorganism (the colony as a body, the individuals as cells) and found that the way such a superorganism organizes itself is not too different from the way a brain or an immune system is organized. An ant colony or a beehive seems to have a mind of its own. It has motives and goals, and even exhibits the ability to learn.

After all, what is a body? We tend to think of a body as a set of organs "glued" together, but that is not the case: is blood part of my body? My body cannot exist without blood, but blood is not glued to the other organs. If I make a hole in an artery, blood will pour out. The definition of body is actually quite open. We all believe that ants are quite "intelligent", but we would be reluctant to admit that a single ant shows any intelligence in its random paths of food search and transport. What is intelligent is the colony as a whole. The colony as a whole exhibits stunning coordination and purposeful behavior. The single ant does not compare too well with a human being, but the colony as a whole does. It may be more appropriate to compare our body to the entire ant colony, in which case one notices all the relevant similarities in purposeful behavior: the movement of those ants, taken together, do mimic cognitive, sentient behavior.

A multi-cellular organism is a collection of cells that are synchronized through electrochemical activity. Sponges and amoebae may show how multi-cellular organisms were created from single-cellular organisms. Ants and bees may show that the difference between a multi-cellular organism and a society of organisms resides only in the type of internal communication: they both rely on constituents that are synchronized and the only difference is how those constituents communicate (the dances of the bees as opposed to the chemical reactions of the amoebas).

If this phenomenon cannot help explain evolution as a whole, it can at least shed some light on the transition from mono-cellular to multi-cellular organisms, one of the crucial steps in the evolution of life on this planet.

After all, more than 90% of the cells that make up the human body are not human: they are bacteria (although they weigh a lot less than human cells); and they are vitally important for our survival. There are more than 1000 species of bacteria in the human digestive system alone (and many more in the respiratory system, in the urogenital tract, on the skin, etc). We are a superorganism, or, at least, a walking and thinking ecosystem. All humans share the same genome (99.9% of all genes) but every human is fairly unique when it comes to her or his “microbiome” (even identical twins have wildly different microbiomes). Therefore not only are you a superorganism but, whatever you are, it may be due more to the bacteria that parasite on you than to your own human genes.

 

Superorganisms

The US philosopher Guy Murchie was perhaps the first to advance the notion that super-organisms are pervasive in nature. The term was introduced in 1876 by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, and in the 1920s applied to societies of insects by the US myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler.

Inspired by Wheeler, Murchie showed that groups sometimes behave like individual organisms: who runs an ant colony? how do ants decide to move their nest somewhere else? It is the interaction among the individuals: some ants carry eggs and food to the new nest, some ants carry them back, and eventually one of the two competing population prevails (in a sense, "natural selection" decides whether and where the nest moves); bees of a beehive communicate (at least as far as directing their fellow bees to food) with a language which is made of dance steps (including sounds and smells); furthermore, honey bees fan their wings to maintain a constant temperature within the beehive, the same way an organism's parts cooperate to keep the organism within the narrow range of temperature that allows for its survival.

An ant colony or a beehive behaves like an organism with its own mind: a beehive metabolizes, has a cognitive life (makes decisions), acts (it can move, attack) and so forth.

In this scenario, language can be viewed from a different perspective, as the mechanism that allows for the organism to be one.

Murchie envisions the entire Earth as an organism which uses as food the heat of the  sun, breathes, metabolizes, and its cognition is made of many tiny parts (organisms) that communicate, exchange energy, interact.  All living organisms, along with all the minerals on the surface of the Earth, compose one giant integrated system that, as a whole, controls its behavior so as to survive.

And so do galaxies. After all, we are made of stardust.

Life is inherent in nature. Murchie describes sand dunes, glaciers and fires as living organisms, the life of metals and crystals.

The question is not whether there is life outside our planet, but whether it is possible to have "non-life".

Then Murchie shows that properties of mind are not exclusive to humans. Memory is ubiquitous in nature. For example, energy conservation is a form of memory (an elastic band remembers how much energy was put into stretching it and eventually goes back to the original position). The laws of Physics describe the social life of particles.  Electrons obey social laws that we decided are physical laws instead of biological laws thereby granting their behavior a different status from the behavior of bees. But this is an arbitrary decision. Mind can be viewed as a universal aspect of life and energy.

Murchie believes there is one huge mind, the "thinking layer" around the Earth, which corresponds to the "noosphere", a concept introduced by Teilhard de Chardin in 1938. Individual “consciousnesses” are absorbed into the superconsciousness of a social group, which is part of a superconsciousness of the world. In Murchie's opinion, the world has a soul, an analogous of the Pythagoreans' "anima mundi" and of the Hindus' “atman”.

 

A Viral Past

Studies on viruses (for example, by the US biologist Luis Villarreal) have also hinted at the possibility that genes could be “acquired” from an external organism, without any need to wait for millions of years of natural selection. A virus is a parasite that comes alive, and replicates, only while it feeds on host cells. This process takes place at the genetic level: the genetic instructions of the virus induce the host cell to manufacture the genes that the virus needs in order to assemble a copy of itself. Thus there is “genetic” contact between the virus and the host cell. Viruses may be the lowest form of life (in fact, most biologists don’t even agree that they are forms of life, because they are simpler than living cells), but their fast replication continuously creates new genes, and that process of gene manufacturing takes place inside another organism: the odds that some of those genes get “transferred” permanently to the organism are not negligible. Humans and bacteria share some genes, but those genes are not present in the organisms that should constitute the evolutionary chain from bacteria to humans: how did the intermediary species miss them? The easiest explanation is that somehow the genes of the bacteria “infected” the DNA of humans and became permanent residents of it. Villarreal suspects that the cell nucleus itself of the eukaryotes may have evolved from prokaryotes by, basically, viral infection: the eukaryotic cell might just be a permanently infected prokaryotic cell (the original cell plus its viral invader).

 

Gaia

Gaia is an idea that originated by the joint work of the British chemist James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Lovelock views the entire surface of the Earth, including "inanimate"  matter, as a living being (which in 1979 he named "Gaia"), an idea to which the Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra also subscribes. Lovelock and Margulis argued that the rules of life work at both the organism level and at the ecosystem level, and eventually at the level of the entire planet. There is a gigantic cycle that involves the actions and structure of all matter and eventually yields "life" on this planet. The environment (volcanoes, rocks, sea water, sun, rain) is part of life. At the same time life creates the environment that it needs. Life creates the conditions for its own existence.

Capra put it in mathematical form: feedback loops link together living and nonliving matter. The entire planet is a self-organizing network, just like an ecosystem, just like a living system. Living systems are networks interacting with other networks. Organisms are networks of cells. Ecosystems are networks of organisms. Biological systems at all levels are networks. The "web of life" consists of networks.

Murchie, Margulis, Capra and Lovelock view the world as an integrated whole.

The The French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1925) and the Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky (1926) even thought that the Earth is developing its own mind, the "noosphere", the aggregation of the cognitive activity of all its living matter. Chardin saw it as the consequence of a natural process of consciousness evolution. Vernadsky saw it as the consequence of technological progress. Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky even thought that the Earth is developing its own mind, the "noosphere", the aggregation of the cognitive activity of all its living matter.

 

Complexity, Specialization and Cooperation

The British biologist John Maynard-Smith and the Hungarian biologist Eors Szathmary argued that each major transition in evolution turned  biological units that were capable of independent replication  into biological units that needed other biological units in order to replicate. In other words, each “major transition” seems to produce (or be produced by) cooperation. For example, independently replicating nucleid acids evolved into chromosomes (assemblies of molecules that must replicate together). Also, sexless life was replaced by species that have male and female members, and that can replicate only if a male and a female “cooperate”.  Ants and bees can only replicate in colonies.

In these major transitions, sets of identical biological units were replaced by sets of specialized units that needed to cooperate in order to survive and replicate.

This also opens a window on the history of socialization, or cooperative behavior. Far from being a recent invention, socialization arose when specialization arose. Originally, one can envision a world of multifunctional self-sufficient biological entities. When these evolved into specialized entities, the need for them to socialize was born. Division of labor among a group of specialists is more effective than a multifunctional non-specialist but only if the specialists cooperate. And thus the multifunctional cell led to cellular organization and eventually to bodies with specialized limbs and organs that eventually led to societies of specialists  (ants, bees, humans).  Altruism, or at least division of labor and cooperation, appeared very early in the history of life, as soon as molecules were enclosed within membranes.

After all, cooperation was inherent in Mendel’s laws: a gene’s chances of surviving in future generations depends on the success of the cell that hosts that gene, a success that depends on the success of all the other genes that determine the life of that cell. Hence a gene has a vested interest in “cooperating” with the other genes. The cell would not survive if its genes did not form an efficient society.

 

Synergy

The US biologist Peter Corning believes that "synergy" is pervasive in the universe at all levels of organization, and plays a role in producing "variation", the phenomenon that makes natural selection possible.  Corning argues that traditional Darwinism cannot explain complexity (on large scales) precisely because its emphasis is on competition and not cooperation. Genetic mutations per se would not be enough to explain the complexity we find in nature. Corning instead focuses on the behavior of living beings, that are capable of learning (the "Baldwin effect") and are capable of modifying the environment (as Waddington and Mayr pointed out). Living beings are more than mere "vehicles" for genes to live forever. Living beings actively participate in determining their own evolutionary future by 1. Continuously reshaping the environment that will "select" their evolution (the use of tools is pervasive among living beings) and 2. Learning behavior that is not in their genes and passing it on to the next generation (learning is also pervasive among living beings).  In other words, living systems shape the very environment that drives their evolution. He goes as far as to claim that humans, the most active living systems, have "invented themselves" by creating the environment that they wanted.

Behavior shapes evolution. In particular, humans adopted "group-based behavioral strategies", i.e. social organization. He emphasizes the importance of tools to shape our behavior, in particular a dietary shift from vegetables to meat. That, in his opinion, caused subsequent anatomical developments of the hominids. Climate change caused behavioral changes, and they caused anatomical changes. Language is also a by-product of behavioral changes that, in turn, fostered anatomical changes.

Corning emphasizes the importance of the transfer of culture from one generation to the next one. Culture, in turn, helped create novel forms of synergy, or, in other words, higher levels in the hierarchy. We are still creating new forms of synergies.

Corning thinks that two quantities need to be added to Monod's "chance" and "necessity": teleonomy and selection (selection was implied in Monod's theory although not in the title of his book). Teleonomy is a property that living systems exhibit: their structure and function has a purpose and is directed towards a goal. This property is a consequence of the living system's evolutionary history. Teleonomy is coded in the genome of the living system. The genotype determines the behavior of the phenotype, but the phenotype in turn helps to create the selection pressures that will determine the evolution of the genotype. Teleonomy has an impact on evolution because it is a form of downward causation: the behavior of the whole creates the selection pressures that cause the evolution of its "parts" (all the way down to the genes themselves).

Nature is organized in a hierarchy of hierarchies. At each level of a hierarchy different "synergies" are at work that create the upper level. Nature's creativity lies in the combination of parts to create wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. The universe is still inventing itself and we are not just spectators but co-protagonists.

Corning, therefore, believes in "synergistic selection", which is Darwinian selection at the level of complex systems: the differential survival of wholes that leads to the emergence of higher-level wholes whose purpose transcends the purpose of their constituent parts. These wholes in turn become agents of selection for both themselves and others. Corning's "Neo-Lamarckian Selection" is not in opposition to Darwinian selection but complements it.

Just like Robert Wright's "nonzero sum game", Corning's theory is fundamentally a theory that says cooperation is important in human evolution.. The difference between the two is that Wright believes in an inevitable destiny towards greater complexity and progress driven by “non-zero sumness”, i.e. by a fundamental mathematical law that rewards cooperation, whereas Corning believes that we are free agents of our own future. Corning points out that for every giant step ahead the human race has stumbled into an equally impressive step backwards. So the direction of history is not clear at all.

 

Sex And Death

Bacteria reproduce by replication and mutate by conjugation.  Mitosis ("the dance of chromosomes") is the  process by which eukaryotic cells reproduce: the DNA of the new being is a combination of the DNA of the two parents. In eukaryotes the DNA is not just a string: genes are organized in chromosomes (a minimum of two, humans have 46).

Prokaryotes are wildly different from bacteria. But how did this striking difference between bacteria and their descendants come to be?

Mitosis is truly responsible for the origin of species. Before mitosis, bacteria were freely exchanging genes: the concept of "species" as we know them today did not exist, as any bacterium could mutate into a novel "species" at any time. Bacteria do not have true species. 

On the other hand, multicellular beings cannot trade genes. Therefore they cannot mutate into anything else, and their offspring belongs to the same species (because both parents must be of the same species in order to interbreed) and such offspring inherits genes of the parents. Genes remain within the same family, the "species". Any multicellular being is a member of a species: it is an obvious fact, but a quite striking one.  It is one of nature's whims. At the beginning of life on Earth, a new bacterium could be just about any combination of available DNA. Later in evolution, a new individual had to be a member of a species.

It may not be a coincidence that death was invented with multicellular sexual beings. They age and die, whereas bacteria did not.

Why did sexless and immortal bacteria evolve into beings that have sex and die?

Bacteria have only one sex, they can mutate (change their DNA), they can interbreed with any bacteria, they don't make children, and they never age or die.  Animals that evolved from them have two sexes, they cannot mutate (cannot change their DNA), they can only inbreed within their species, they make children and they age and die. (Last but not least, the DNA of animals is organized and inherited in units called chromosomes, a detail that may turn out to be crucial to explain all of the above discrepancies). 

Margulis argues that "death was the first sexually-transmitted disease".  Once animals started aging and dying (once death had been programmed into their DNA), their offspring inherited the same disease.

Margulis' hypothesis is that, once upon a time, "eating and mating were the same".  Cannibal unicellular beings may have merged into multicellular beings.  The evolutionary advantages of this behavior may have led to sexual beings. 

But the genders are exactly two, and each member of a gender has the same sexual organs. How did that happen?

Guy Murchie believes that death provides an evolutionary advantage: immortal beings that simply split would be immutable and easy prey to environmental changes. Death allows for regeneration of the race and for creation of new species. Death is a tool for change and progress. It is not a coincidence that the odds of immortality increases as creatures get more elementary.

Notwithstanding these cunning speculations, sexually-reproducing species are a bit of a mystery, and so is death, that came with sex.

 

The Origin of Selection

According to modern synthesis, the genetic makeup of a population is altered through natural selection (the interaction between the individuals of the population and their environment). Darwin's approach to the problem implied that natural selection mainly acts on the individual (precisely, it causes differences in phenotype among individuals within a population), although he explicitly recognized three levels of natural selection: individual selection, kin selection, group selection. Several biologists have argued that selection might act at a number of different levels, loosely corresponding to a hierarchy of biological organization: genes, individuals, kin, groups, populations, and species. Ultimately, what changes is species, but that is the effect of a process of natural selection that may act at any of these levels and then cause that visible effect on species.

Evolutionary theory is based upon the idea that species evolve and their evolution is driven by natural selection, but it is not clear what exactly evolves and what natural selection acts upon.  Nature is organized in a hierarchy: genes are located on chromosomes, chromosomes are located in cells, cells make up organs which make up organisms which make up species which make up populations which make up ecosystems: at what level does selection act? One may view the genes as the units that must change to generate evolution. Or one may view ecosystems as made of co-evolving species that would not evolve the same way by themselves. And so forth.

Gould supports a hierarchical model that views selection as acting simultaneously at a variety of levels in a genealogical sequence of gene, organism, population and species.

David Sloan Wilson views nature organized in a structural hierarchy, and selection acting at each level of the hierarchy, but which levels matter more depend on the species. In the case of humans and other species, the group (hive, herd, clan, tribe, nation) was one of the most relevant levels.

The German biophysicist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers thinks that natural selection applies to the molecular level.

The US biologist Richard Lewontin thinks that all entities that exhibit inheritable variance in fitness (from pre-biotic molecules to whole populations) are units of selection. The US philosopher Robert Brandon thinks that the biosphere is hierarchically arranged and, in agreement with Lewontin, natural selection applies to all levels of the hierarchy.

For the US zoologist Terrell Hamilton, the individual is the unit of natural selection. He separates selection, adaptation and evolution: natural selection results in differential reproduction, therefore, in adaptation of populations, therefore, in evolutionary change. Correspondingly, the individual is the unit of natural selection, gene substitution is the elementary process of adaptation, and the species is the main unit of evolution.

Alfred Russell Wallace, co-inventor of evolution theory with Darwin, thought that selection acts on populations as well as individuals.  Selection at the level of populations occurs when a group of individuals produces more groups than other groups.

The British biologist Richard Dawkins popularized "gene selectionism", according to which the genes compete and are responsible for evolution.

Finally, Ernst Mayr thinks that genes cannot be treated as separate, individual units, that their interaction is not negligible. The units of evolution and natural selection are not individual genes but groups of genes tied together into balanced adaptive systems. Natural selection favors phenotypes, not genes or genotypes. Ultimately, species are the units of evolution. After all, speciation is the method by which evolution advances.

The US chemist Jeffrey Wicken thinks that the most general entities subject to natural selection are neither genes nor populations but information patterns of thermodynamic flows, such as ecosystems and socioeconomic systems.  Natural selection is not an external force, but an internal process such that macromolecules are accrued in proportion to their usefulness for the efficiency of the global system.

The US biologist William Wimsatt grounds the notion of selection around the notion of "additive variance". This quantity determines the rate of evolution. Variance in fitness is totally additive when the increase of fitness in a genotype is a linear function of the number of genes of a given type that are present in it. If variance in fitness at a given level is totally additive, then this is the highest level at which selection operates. The entities at that level are composed of units of selection, and there are no higher-level units of selections.

 

Gene Selectionism

Richard Dawkins and the British philosopher Helena Cronin argue that genes rather than organisms (as Darwin held) are the primary units of natural selection.

Dawkins essentially built on the work of the US biologist George Williams. Williams thought that genes encouraging altruism would quickly become extinguished, and therefore genes must be "selfish" in nature. Every trait serves some kind of self-interest. Genes that serve that self-interest are more likely to survive (because their vehicles are more likely to survive) and multiply. Thus the corresponding traits are more likely to become widespread among future generations.

Dawkins introduced whole new methods of thinking about life, behavior and evolution. Firstly, Dawkins argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of evolution: genes drive evolution and genes drive behavior.  Darwin's assumption that natural selection favors those individuals best fitted to survive and reproduce can then be restated as: natural selection favors those genes that replicate through many generations.  The level at which selection occurs is not that of the individual organism, but that of particular stretches of genetic material. Organisms are merely the means that genes use to perpetuate copies of themselves. The universe is dominated by stable structures, and one particular stable structure is a molecule that makes copies of itself.

A "replicator" is an entity that copies itself, such as genes. A "vehicle" is the organism that carries the replicator in its cells and whose differential survival and reproduction results in the differential spread of the replicator. Dawkins thinks that the superiority of replicators is obvious. A replicator serves as a repository of information (about the organism but also, indirectly, about the environment) that is preserved over time and spread over space. Replicators are immanent entities: they exist virtually forever. Vehicles, on the other hand, are merely “tests” of how good that information is. And, of course, vehicles are also the machine used by replicators to copy themselves.

The US philosopher David Hull offered a slight variation on Dawkins' theme. Hull distinguishes replicators (units that reproduce their structure directly) from “interactors” (entities that interact directly with their environment). Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection thus reads: differences in the interactions of interactors with their environment result in differential reproduction of replicators. The difference between Hull's “interactors” and Dawkins's "vehicles" is not trivial: genes are both replicators and interactors (they have a physical structure that interacts with an environment), and some interactors are also replicators (the paramecium that splits in two).

However, the general scheme remains the same. Natural selection is about the differential survival of replicators.  Genes can be replicators whereas multicellular organisms, groups and other levels of the hierarchy can only be vehicles/interactors.

In other words, what survives is not my body but my genes. It is not bodies that replicate when children are made: it is genes that replicate in the children. Therefore, natural selection can't be about bodies, it must be about genes. Bodies are in a lose/lose situation, as they will disappear anyway. But genes do have a chance to survive (by copying themselves into a new body).

Of course, this doesn't mean that genes "are" eternal. Genes are perpetuated insofar as they yield phenotypes that have selective advantages over competing phenotypes.  They have a chance of being eternal, but that depends on how good they are at creating competitive organisms.

An organism is a mere gene-transporting device: its primary function is not even to reproduce itself, albeit to reproduce genes.  The mind itself is engineered to perpetuate DNA.  The brain is a machine whose goal is to maximize fitness in its environment.

From the point of view of a gene, any organism carrying it is an equivalent reproductive source. In many cases siblings are more closely related (genetically speaking) than parents and offspring. Adaptation is for the good of the replicator. Therefore, it is not surprising that sometimes organisms sacrifice themselves for improving their kin's survival. Kin selection is part of a gene reproduction strategy. 

"I" am not the subject: I am the object. My genes are the subject. I am but a product of my genes. Genes represent a higher force than my will, a force that has been acting for millions of years, compared to the few decades that my will be performing. Genes tell me what to will. Genes tell me how to interact with other people who are the product of other genes, i.e. they tell me which genes to interact with. Genes tell me what food I should eat and what dangers I should avoid. Whether there is a conscious entity in my genes or not, it is "them" that drive my existence. It is "them" who want me to reproduce: I will be dead soon, but they will still be somewhat alive in my relatives.  My family is not going to be extinguished any time soon. I will be a mere step, soon forgotten and useless, in their process of reproduction, of survival, of progress.

Genes want to live forever.

 

The Altruistic Gene

The British zoologist Mark Ridley makes a distinction between the macroscopic effects and the microscopic causes of animal behavior.

The puzzling feature of the animal world is that animals often help each other, and sometimes some individuals would sacrifice their lives to save others. This would not make any sense if the goal were merely for the body to survive.

Altruism was explained by Richard Dawkins with the idea that evolution applied to genes, not to bodies. Bodies are the vehicles that genes use to attain everlasting life. Bodies are disposable. Genes are not used by organisms, genes use organisms. I am nothing but a machine invented by a bunch of genes to maximize their chances (not mine) to survive.  I will die. But if I am fit and make children, my genes will survive me.  And if my children are fit, they will die but those genes will continue to exist in other bodies, generation after generation. It's the genes, not the organisms. Darwin's idea of competition among individuals for survival must be slightly modified: it is not individuals that compete, it is genes.  In order to maximize its chances of survival, a gene would cause one of its bodies (one of the bodies that contain that gene) to help its "kin" (bodies with the same gene). The macroscopic effect would be cooperation among organisms, while at the microscopic level that cooperation is truly an attempt by the gene to outsmart other genes, i.e. it is competition of the most cynical kind.

You have to think like a gene, not like a body. If you are a gene, you have no problem sacrificing some of your bodies to save some others. Your ultimate goal is to survive (you are the gene) and you can use any of those bodies as vehicles to continue your journey through time.  Altruism makes as much sense as selfishness in the classical Darwinian theory, as long as you look at the micro-world, not just at the animal kingdom (the macro-world) as we (bodies) see it.

In mathematical terms, sex provides a way for a gene to participate in a lottery a number of times: each body is a participant in the lottery of survival. The more bodies, the more chances to win the lottery.

This is a special lottery, though. Winning this lottery entails some work (creating and maneuvering the organism) and this work must be done jointly with other genes. Sex is the process by which a gene is chosen to work in a body together with other genes.

In each offspring the gene is working with a different set of genes. Each offspring is a combination of genes. Some of those combinations will prevail, i.e. they will generate an organism that is capable of surviving in the environment.  The gene has a vested interest in that as many as possible of those offspring survive.  If you are one of those offspring, you think that it is all about you. But, in reality, it is all about the genes that are inside you, and that you share with your siblings (and some with your cousins, and some with your entire tribe, and some with the entire human kind).

If you are a gene shared by my brother and me, it makes perfect sense that i give my life to save my brother's children. I am not jeopardizing my chances of survival: i am maximizing your chances of survival.

Matt Ridley sides with Dawkins in thinking that the gene is the unit of selection and in believing that genes are selfish; but Ridley shows that it is in their interest to form alliances, because that may increase the chances of survival for their genetic pool. Cooperation is actually a recurring theme at all levels of the biological world, from cells to species. Ridley explains cooperation among organisms of different species by using game theory: whenever the mathematics of benefits outweighs the mathematics of  competition, organisms tend to be cooperative. Therefore, Ridley believes that social behavior, such as cooperation, trade, religion, is a direct consequence of evolution.

 

Selfish Altruism

Altruism could be a simple outcome of a cost/benefit analysis that begins at home and continues in the world at large.

Altruism does not seem to be innate, not even among siblings. Children are selfish. It takes years to teach children to be “nice” to other family members. If i have a candy and my brother has a candy, i want his candy and i don’t want to give him my candy.

However, i quickly learn that my parents will punish me if i steal his candy but will reward me if i give him my candy. Therefore at some point i become a “good kid” who does not steal my brother’s candy and instead offers him my candy. The long-term goal of gaining my parents’ affection, protection and trust prevails over the short-term goal of getting as many candies as i can.

Parents teach us to be nice to our siblings because parents care for all their children. They blackmail us into being nice to the other siblings by threatening punishments and promising rewards. We are naturally inclined to be altruistic to our brothers and sisters: our parents are, and our parents instill that value in all their children.

Society at large does the same for all individuals: be nice to others, even complete strangers, and society will reward you with protection and respect.

The US social scientist Howard Margolis argued in favor of a compromise between the two views. He speculated that we have two selves, one selfish and one altruistic, and our behavior is the outcome of a rational, Darwinian strategy on how to allocate resources between those two selves.

 


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