Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

A thought, while writing the last post. Thinking about international politics invariably involves a lot of rational-choice stuff, or rational-choice at one remove. Although this may not make sense in a platonic game-theory way, how do so-and-so’s interests, preferences, and meta-knowledge of their own situation have to differ from yours to make it work? They’ve been arguing about this over at Crooked Timber for some time.

It struck me, anyway, that this is a lot like the notion of “fitness” for biologists, which is famously problematic. Everyone’s heard of “survival of the fittest”, but what is “fit”? Clearly, it means something like “able to survive”. So we’re talking about the survival of the survivors, which is not very useful. Survivors survive. No shit, Sherlock. Similarly, how do we know that some actor did something on the basis of a rational judgment? Because if it didn’t fit their preferences they wouldn’t have done it!

There’s another issue here, too. The statement that the survivors survive is tautologous, but it’s not a stupid statement. Reflect on the survival of survivors, and you will actually learn something about evolution – that it is driven by chance, that it is without aim, that it is not teleological or value-laden. Ug’s genes were conserved because the cave didn’t collapse on him. We are full of hacks and errors that continue to exist not so much because they helped our ancestors survive, but because at some crisis in the past they were irrelevant and therefore not selected out. Survival itself is often a matter of chance.

We look around and see rational choices, but we’re afflicted by enormous survivorship bias – however irrational your choices, if they didn’t lead to total failure, they will be justifiable in hindsight as rational on some terms. In the same way, people wonder how the architects of the past built such great buildings. The answer is that the bad ones fell down. Now, the biologists eventually got rid of the survival of the fittest, and biology as a science gained immensely from unpacking the idea. Rational choice has something else in common with the survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer probably didn’t mean the phrase as an exact statement of theory, but as an elegant popularisation. And rational choice is a bit like that, too – the very simplicity of the idea explains why it survives.

Expanding on my comment here, I think the most illuminating way of looking at the debate about how big a society (ha!) needs to be to support certain levels of technology may be to look at some natural experiments. Specifically, we know about a number of cases where societies have decided to acquire complex new technologies with limited outside help. Basically, these are clandestine weapons projects.

Now, most if not all of them had some degree of outside help. But the question is really how much you can do with the equivalent of taking along a library on the space ship. To some extent, getting outside help is analogous to this.

Pakistan, for example, succeeded in developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Much of the information it needed was essentially canned – they could study it up. The gating factor was, as always, the fissile material. Having tried the relatively easy plutonium route and been caught, they proceeded with highly-enriched uranium. This meant that the technology barrier was designing a working centrifuge and then building enough of them to scale up. A lot of people over on the Crooked Timber thread think, essentially, that this is the difficult bit – there’s a lot of implicit knowledge embodied in the process that you can’t get from textbooks.

An example of this is the performance of the Iranian enrichment cascades. There have been repeated instances of them seeming to progress much more slowly than the known capabilities of the R-2 machines, and over at Armscontrolwonk, you can argue endlessly whether this represents a policy decision to go slow or else operational problems due to their inexperience.

However, arguably, Pakistan did use a textbook – A. Q. Khan brought over information from URENCO that helped enormously. The rest was a question of learning by doing, or kaizen – continuous improvement. Interestingly, Khan’s private nuclear trading operation essentially sold the same sort of thing, a sort of starter-kit of centrifuge parts and documentation that let his customers start to learn about enrichment operations.

The biggest counter-example is North Korea, which did get a lot of outside help in the 90s for its missile program. Rather than just getting documents and example devices, North Korea imported whole sections of a rocket engine production line and many of the people who ran it. They may not have stuck around long, but it remains true that the North Korean nuclear and missile development projects started off with what could be described as on-line outside help. They didn’t just have the documentation – they could ask the experts. But their achievements are significantly less impressive than Pakistan’s.

Another case is the development of long-range drug smuggling craft. Recently, the Colombians found the first known drug sub capable of submerging fully and also of making a trans-Atlantic voyage. It is, of course, a mystery whether any others are operating. The interesting bit is that it seems unlikely that their builders have access to North Korean-style on-line help. It’s just possible they managed to find and recruit a submarine designer, I suppose. But there’s no evidence of that. What there is evidence of is kaizen; for years, they have been building progressively more impressive and capable craft, from boats with a low freeboard, to semi-submersibles, to bigger and longer-ranged semi-subs, and now to a full ocean-going submarine. That would suggest that they have general shipwright’s skills and heavy metalworking, and they’ve progressively learned more as they went.

What conclusions? First of all, don’t underestimate the power of general purpose technology. (This is essentially the promise of Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib: The computer is the most general machine we have ever made. You can and must understand computers NOW…) Second, don’t be obsessed by outside help/state sponsors/whatever. They’re a way of denying other people agency.

Evolution appears to accelerate over time, and new scientific evidence suggests this is due to bacteria exchanging genes – but not within their own species, but horizontally, between groups. Thus, the total rate at which genetic information is exchanged can be faster than that provided by sexual reproduction and random mutations alone.

Horizontal information exchange – it’s also the way ideas spread if you let them. Like cafés, lab corridors, open-source software, remixes, and (sadly) 4th-generation warfare’s cooperating IED teams. And it’s what built your immune system:

“We know that the majority of the DNA in the genomes of some animal and plant species – including humans, mice, wheat and corn – came from HGT insertions,” Deem said. “For example, we can trace the development of the adaptive immune system in humans and other jointed vertebrates to an HGT insertion about 400 million years ago.”

The new mathematical model developed by Deem and visiting professor Jeong-Man Park attempts to find out how HGT changes the overall dynamics of evolution. In comparison to existing models that account for only point mutations or sexual recombination, Deem and Park’s model shows how HGT increases the rate of evolution by propagating favorable mutations across populations…

“Life clearly evolved to store genetic information in a modular form, and to accept useful modules of genetic information from other species,” Deem said.

Meanwhile, Thomas P.M. Barnett’s slow march into the arena of the shrill continues. He advocates a Danish- or Scandinavian-style combination of a welfare state with deregulation, but his personal development isn’t what concerns me here, inspiring as it is to watch a Republican caterpillar unfurl the wings of shrillness. What got me was this..

Then there’s this lurid fascination with the top 1 percent who are cleaning up–Michael Jordan style–as the search for global talent gets hotter and hotter. But that’s a hard one to curtail, since the rising complexity of managing global corps simply drives up the cost of effective leadership.

I mean, who wants less effective leadership of these globe-spanning industry leaders?

How much of this is really just the well-known phenomenon that every inefficiency creates its own constituency? After all, it’s not the complexity of their activities that increases with global reach and greater scale – it’s the complexity of the organisation. Hierarchical information loss, diseconomies of scale, and conflicting interests make the task so much harder, so many fewer people could tackle it, and hence the economic rent to them increases. Alternatively, the same factors select those people who can manipulate the hierarchy in order to extract more money.

“Managing increasing complexity” is very close to “managing the management”, which is a self-licking lollipop. The answer is to make the organisation more simple. Moving on, there used to be a British police organisation, the National High-Tech Crime Unit, that acted as technical advisor to police forces in the UK. Recently, the government created a big, complex new organisation, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, which subsumed it. Now, the Association of Chief Police Officers wants to recreate a small, expert group outside SOCA to advise police forces on NHTCU’s old job.

Evolution appears to accelerate over time, and new scientific evidence suggests this is due to bacteria exchanging genes – but not within their own species, but horizontally, between groups. Thus, the total rate at which genetic information is exchanged can be faster than that provided by sexual reproduction and random mutations alone.

Horizontal information exchange – it’s also the way ideas spread if you let them. Like cafés, lab corridors, open-source software, remixes, and (sadly) 4th-generation warfare’s cooperating IED teams. And it’s what built your immune system:

“We know that the majority of the DNA in the genomes of some animal and plant species – including humans, mice, wheat and corn – came from HGT insertions,” Deem said. “For example, we can trace the development of the adaptive immune system in humans and other jointed vertebrates to an HGT insertion about 400 million years ago.”

The new mathematical model developed by Deem and visiting professor Jeong-Man Park attempts to find out how HGT changes the overall dynamics of evolution. In comparison to existing models that account for only point mutations or sexual recombination, Deem and Park’s model shows how HGT increases the rate of evolution by propagating favorable mutations across populations…

“Life clearly evolved to store genetic information in a modular form, and to accept useful modules of genetic information from other species,” Deem said.

Meanwhile, Thomas P.M. Barnett’s slow march into the arena of the shrill continues. He advocates a Danish- or Scandinavian-style combination of a welfare state with deregulation, but his personal development isn’t what concerns me here, inspiring as it is to watch a Republican caterpillar unfurl the wings of shrillness. What got me was this..

Then there’s this lurid fascination with the top 1 percent who are cleaning up–Michael Jordan style–as the search for global talent gets hotter and hotter. But that’s a hard one to curtail, since the rising complexity of managing global corps simply drives up the cost of effective leadership.

I mean, who wants less effective leadership of these globe-spanning industry leaders?

How much of this is really just the well-known phenomenon that every inefficiency creates its own constituency? After all, it’s not the complexity of their activities that increases with global reach and greater scale – it’s the complexity of the organisation. Hierarchical information loss, diseconomies of scale, and conflicting interests make the task so much harder, so many fewer people could tackle it, and hence the economic rent to them increases. Alternatively, the same factors select those people who can manipulate the hierarchy in order to extract more money.

“Managing increasing complexity” is very close to “managing the management”, which is a self-licking lollipop. The answer is to make the organisation more simple. Moving on, there used to be a British police organisation, the National High-Tech Crime Unit, that acted as technical advisor to police forces in the UK. Recently, the government created a big, complex new organisation, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, which subsumed it. Now, the Association of Chief Police Officers wants to recreate a small, expert group outside SOCA to advise police forces on NHTCU’s old job.

Stop it!