Monthly Archives: May 2010

Designing Evolution

A version of social engineering known as “nudging” has many parallels with front-loading evolution. Key to the concept of nudging is the “choice architecture”:

Amazon.com: What is “choice architecture” and how does it affect the average person’s daily life?

Thaler and Sunstein: Choice architecture is the context in which you make your choice. Suppose you go into a cafeteria. What do you see first, the salad bar or the burger and fries stand? Where’s the chocolate cake? Where’s the fruit? These features influence what you will choose to eat, so the person who decides how to display the food is the choice architect of the cafeteria. All of our choices are similarly influenced by choice architects.

Let’s rephrase this. A choice architecture is a context that has been set up to favor certain choices or outcomes. The choice architecture is the design and it is this design that influences the choices or outcomes later in time.

At this point, we simply ask whether choice architecture/context must necessarily be environmental?

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Bear Know Kung Fu

Fulfilling Future Needs

[I’ve combined all the previous RNAP entries together to make it easier to read.  However, I did not have the time to thoroughly edit, so some parts might seem a little repetitive.]

It is well known that eukaryotic cells are more complex than prokaryotic cells. For example, while the typical eukaryotic cell is 10-100 micrometers in diameter, contains numerous membranous organelles, has an elaborate cytoskeleton, and reproduces through mitosis, the typical bacterial cell is only 0.2-2.0 micrometers in diameter, lacks organelles, and reproduces through binary fission. Clearly, the cytological complexity of the eukaryotic cell is not needed in order to be alive.

Yet the theme of needless complexity repeats itself at increasingly smaller scales like a fractal image.

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The Point of Contention

Here’s a key excerpt from an interview with Lynn Margulis

Francisco Ayala is presenting at the “evolutionary mechanisms session” in Rome. He was trained in Catholicism, Spanish-style, as a Dominican. We were in California at a meeting with Whiteheadian philosopher John Cobb. At that meeting Ayala agreed with me when I stated that this doctrinaire neo-Darwinism is dead. He was a practitioner of neo-Darwinism but advances in molecular genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, and other news had led him to agree that neo-Darwinism’s now dead.

The components of evolution (I don’t think any scientist disagrees) that exist because there’s so much data for them are: (1) the tendency for exponential growth of all populations — that is growth beyond a finite world; and (2) since the environment can’t sustain them, there’s an elimination process of natural selection.

The point of contention in science is here:

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Page of Cups

Having a Bad Day

Nudging Multicellularity into Existence

As we have seen, the bacterial and archaeal RNA polyermase (RNAP) differ in complexity. Despite the fact that the cell plan of both life forms is small, relatively simple, and streamlined, the RNAPs differ remarkably in terms of complexity, where the bacterial version is built from four parts, while the archaeal version is built from 11 parts. The archaeal version has homologs of the four bacterial components needed to carry out the core process of transcription, meaning the remaining parts are “bells and whistles”

As far as I have been able to determine, no one has thought to ask why the archaeal RNAP is so much more needlessly complex than the bacterial version. I would expect the non-teleological perspective would “explain” this disparity by insisting that there are many ways to transcribe DNA into RNA and these two RNAPs would merely reflect the many roads to Rome. But that is not a very satisfying speculation. So let me be the first to ask the question and the first to propose an answer.

From the hypothesis of front-loading, allow me to formulate a testable hypothesis – the “bells and whistles” of the archaeal RNAP – Rbp 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, and 12 – will play crucial roles in the emergence of a) the eukaryotic cell and/or b) complex, metazoan life

If we begin our analysis by focusing on Rbp4 and 7, which function together as a dimer, we have already seen some clues to support this hypothesis. First, Rnp4 and probably 7 are not needed in order for archaebacteria or single-celled yeast cells to survive, but are essential for the survival of multicellular fungi. Second, Rnp4/7 appear to be preadapted to facilitate the emergence of the complex eukaryotic cell plan given they not only function in transcription, but also moonlight to control RNA decay outside of the nucleus. Let’s now add some more clues.

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Nudge

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have written a book entitled Nudge that advocates for a soft version of social engineering.  I have not read the book, but there is a short interview on Amazon.com that cites what I think to be most relevant:

Amazon.com: What do you mean by “nudge” and why do people sometimes need to be nudged?

Thaler and Sunstein: By a nudge we mean anything that influences our choices. A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. We think that it’s time for institutions, including government, to become much more user-friendly by enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people and by gentling nudging them in directions that will make their lives better.

And

Amazon.com: What is “choice architecture” and how does it affect the average person’s daily life?

Thaler and Sunstein: Choice architecture is the context in which you make your choice. Suppose you go into a cafeteria. What do you see first, the salad bar or the burger and fries stand? Where’s the chocolate cake? Where’s the fruit? These features influence what you will choose to eat, so the person who decides how to display the food is the choice architect of the cafeteria. All of our choices are similarly influenced by choice architects. The architecture includes rules deciding what happens if you do nothing; what’s said and what isn’t said; what you see and what you don’t. Doctors, employers, credit card companies, banks, and even parents are choice architects.

We show that by carefully designing the choice architecture, we can make dramatic improvements in the decisions people make, without forcing anyone to do anything. For example, we can help people save more and invest better in their retirement plans, make better choices when picking a mortgage, save on their utility bills, and improve the environment simultaneously. Good choice architecture can even improve the process of getting a divorce–or (a happier thought) getting married in the first place!

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Oxygen as a Nudge

Here’s a small excerpt from a Science Daily article that might help you better visualize the relation between front-loading and terraforming:

During the Proterozoic, oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose in two phases: first ranging from 2.5 to 2 billion years ago, called the Great Oxidation Event, when atmospheric oxygen rose from trace amounts to about 10% of the present-day value. Single-celled organisms grew larger during this time and acquired cell structures called mitochondria, the so-called “powerhouses” of cells, which burn oxygen to yield energy. The second phase of oxygen rise occurred between about 1 billion and 540 million years ago and brought oxygen levels to near present levels. This time intervals is marked by the earliest fossils of multi-celled organisms and climaxed with the spectacular increase of fossil diversity known as the “Cambrian Explosion.”

Notice that the two most significant evolutionary events – the origin of eukarya and origin of metazoa – were both coupled to rising oxygen levels. Oxygen, of course, is a biological output. This understanding can lead us to a tantalizing shift in perspective – the evolution of the complex eukaryotic cell, needed to make something as complex as animal, and the evolution of metazoa itself, were not the gradual accumulation of incremental complexity stretched out over deep time. Instead, the origin of these two novel states was nudged into existence, as least in part, due to rising oxygen levels which in turn had a biological origin.

Darwin’s Blind Spot

I constantly run across people who tell me, “I’m just following the evidence.”  That phrase is supposed to convey that the person is detached from the inquiry and is weighing everything objectively.   Yet “evidence” is not truly objective.  Data and facts, detected by the senses, are objective.  To transform that raw data into “evidence” requires the mind’s eye.  That is, the evidence is interpreted in light of previous beliefs and experiences, and the mind tries to make sense of the data with an explanation.  Once the explanation is born, the data become evidence as part of a top-down process.  So because evidence is firmly rooted in perception and the mental realm, “following the evidence” is not completely different from following your dreams or following your intuition.

A clear example of how one’s mental template can blind them from seeing the data as evidence, one need only consider Charles Darwin himself.  Consider these excerpts from a Science Daily article:

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