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?

Consider human choice. Do you accept the idea that a person’s genetics can predispose him to make certain choices? There is plenty of evidence that says it does. So the context that influences choice does not necessarily need to be environmental. The choice can be influenced by both environmental and genetic contexts. In principle then, the choice architecture behind the nudge can be internal/genetic.

So if we posit that the original life forms were designed, instead of viewing the composition and architecture of life as something that natural forces cannot possibly account for, consider the more tantalizing possibility that the composition and architecture of the first cells as representing a choice architecture designed to influence/nudge the “choices” made during subsequent evolution. The manner in which the various pieces and parts of life were hooked up would represent the architecture of life and this, in turn, would amount to a logic that would help guide and facilitate subsequent evolution. The actual pieces and parts of life would represent the composition of life and this, in turn, would amount to various preadaptations that would favor certain evolutionary trajectories over others.

And if you think about it, nudging from an internal state has a huge advantage over nudging from an environmental state. The internal state of every organism is faithfully replicated and thus travels through time. Reproduction is not merely a brute given that lies at the bottom of biological reality, but is a mechanism for design, and nudging, to persist over time and influence the future from the past.

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42 responses to “Designing Evolution

  1. This is one of the major tenets (externalism) of the Modern Synthesis that is finally being questioned due to incoming evidence.

  2. And if you think about it, nudging from an internal state has a huge advantage over nudging from an environmental state. The internal state of every organism is faithfully replicated and thus travels through time.

    Well, the genome, or rather the sequence pattern of the genome, travels through time, though copying errors sneak in. Nudging is then how the designer produces the (desired?) result. Is there a discontinuity between the intent of the nudge and the result of the nudge, or is the whole process observable?

  3. Also environmental designing has additional explanatory power. It results in the matching of organism to niche. But, of course the designer can nudge at the appropriate moment to steer the right organism to the right niche. It just seems less parsimonious.

  4. And what is the mechanism of nudging? What happens when a nudge occurs. Are atoms or molecules propelled by forces generated by the deisgner?

  5. I posted a few questions on the Nudge thread but as you seem to have condensed elements from that into this thread it seems sensible to pick up here.

  6. I’m curious to see if Mike can get you to understand his point, Alan. I’m betting he can’t.

  7. I’m curious to see if Mike can get you to understand his point, Alan.

    I am sure the fault is all mine 😉

    I think his point is that evolution is explained to a degree by RM + NS and that FLE is an additional process that nudges organisms past spots that are not adequately explained by RM + NS alone. An example of this process is (as Mike puts it on the thread “Nudge”:

    What I am proposing is that introns, not needed for cellular life, and scored as “bad design” by some working biologists, have played a key role in the emergence of metazoan-type complexity.

    Of course attempting to clarify in my own mind what FLE amounts to in essence will only be the initial step. Then perhaps I can begin to consider its utility.

  8. BTW Bilbo, I’ve metaphorically bitten my tongue a few times before typing “Courtier’s reply” but I see it has cropped up at Biologos.

  9. OT @Bilbo

    I don’t know if you are still active at TT but you may want to alert Bradford to Jeff Shallit’s post. I’d do it myself, but…

  10. Well, the genome, or rather the sequence pattern of the genome, travels through time, though copying errors sneak in.

    Not just that, Alan. As you yourself noted, the strongest evidence for common descent is the remarkable similarity of all life-forms at the biochemical level. All this remarkable similarity has also traveled through time. As for copying errors, perhaps it is more helpful to think of this change as feelers.

    Any designer would know that their designed life forms would subsequently mutate. A clever designer would then figure a way to tap into that fact and exploit it.

    Nudging is then how the designer produces the (desired?) result. Is there a discontinuity between the intent of the nudge and the result of the nudge, or is the whole process observable?

    I don’t see any discontinuity. The choice architecture merely sets up the context.

    Also environmental designing has additional explanatory power. It results in the matching of organism to niche.

    True, but it is the internal biotic context that must send out the feelers to find the niche.

    But, of course the designer can nudge at the appropriate moment to steer the right organism to the right niche. It just seems less parsimonious.

    Sure.

    And what is the mechanism of nudging? What happens when a nudge occurs. Are atoms or molecules propelled by forces generated by the deisgner?

    As I have long explained, one mechanism is something working biologists might call preadaptation. Evolution works link a tinkerer, and as such, its tinkering can be channeled just as food choice in a cafeteria can be channeled.

    I think his point is that evolution is explained to a degree by RM + NS and that FLE is an additional process that nudges organisms past spots that are not adequately explained by RM + NS alone.

    It looks like you are trying to squeeze FLE into the Traditional Template (you’ll learn about that in chapter 2). I don’t think of FLE as an “additional process.” It’s more like an “additional dimension.” FLE is about RM + NS working in a context – the choice architecture.

  11. Alan: I am sure the fault is all mine 😉

    That explanation is best supported by the evidence.

  12. I’m having trouble reconciling these two statements.

    I don’t think of FLE as an “additional process.” It’s more like an “additional dimension.” FLE is about RM + NS working in a context – the choice architecture.

    No, I envision the front-loaded state to coincide either with the origin of life or the origin of the universe.

  13. With regard to Mike’s hypothesis, I believe front-loading coincides with the origin of life.

  14. Ok, Bilbo, I read that. Mike in fact says ” I envision the front-loaded state to coincide either with the origin of life or the origin of the universe.”

    In either case, this is before the process of biological evolution starts which makes it problematic as an “additional dimension” to evolution.

    You see my difficulty.

  15. Yes, I’m not sure why he used that phrase.

    But if FLE is at the initial state, then can you see how that could influence the direction of RM+NS?

  16. Not yet, but I think this is where Mike is going with the choice architecture analogy.

  17. I think you’re right.

  18. Alan,

    I’m having trouble reconciling these two statements.

    I don’t think of FLE as an “additional process.” It’s more like an “additional dimension.” FLE is about RM + NS working in a context – the choice architecture.

    No, I envision the front-loaded state to coincide either with the origin of life or the origin of the universe.

    Think about the nudging as a form of social engineering.

    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.

    Okay, it’s safe to say that the healthiest foods would be placed at front prior to the kids entering the cafeteria. Once the kids enter, and the choice architecture begins to bias their choices, is this prior placement (choice architecture) more akin to an additional process happening in the cafeteria or an additional dimension to the cafeteria?

  19. A herbivore grazing the savannah may make all sorts of choices about who to accept as a mate, which bit of grazing to try. It cannot choose to hunt and eat meat as it doesn’t have the gut, teeth or claws for it. That choice is unavailable.

    Ok, so…

  20. …so…

  21. …is this prior placement (choice architecture) more akin to an additional process happening in the cafeteria or an additional dimension to the cafeteria?

    In terms of an analogy with evolution, I would suggest product placement is part of the niche environment. Environmental change may result in selection pressure, genomic selection and hence phenotypic change.

    For our herbivore, climate change may favour a strategy of , say, early migration or moving to the front of the herd. Rapid environmental change may lead to extinction.

    I’m having trouble seeing a distinction between the factors that make up an organism’s niche and “prior placement”. An organism is a product of the history of its gene pool. The environment leads; the organism (population) passively fills the niche.

    I know, beavers, termites, Homo sapiens can themselves be an influence on their niche. Still , even humans are in general pretty closely tied to the Earth’s land surface where the temperature doesn’t vary outside 0° -40°C for any length of time. We can only make temporary forays elsewhere by taking our historical niche with us.

  22. …(you’ll learn about that in chapter 2).

    I just checked my mailbox and, what do you know?

    “p19, The Explanatory Continuum”

    Shall I skip the face on Mard?

  23. Oops Mars! Why does the scroll window stick?

  24. p17:

    When we look inside the cell, the appearance is reminiscent of the inner workings of a watch.

    You really think this?

  25. One of the most important rules when starting a business is to keep things simple. Proficient production depends on keeping things simple at the start; starting with fewer and easier steps in production is better than more complex and involved steps. If the intention of life has been towards nudging with fidelity, it should start with the simplest of processes. A simple code and/or a simple organism would be expected at the foundation.

  26. Alan,

    In terms of an analogy with evolution, I would suggest product placement is part of the niche environment. Environmental change may result in selection pressure, genomic selection and hence phenotypic change…..

    Yes, I understand conventional theory. But what does this have to do with your difficulty reconciling the notions that FLE represents more of an additional context than an additional process with the hypothesis that front-loading was initiated with the origin of life?

  27. Alan,

    You really think this?

    Reminiscent means tending to remind : suggestive. The watch is a metaphor for something that is designed that closes the circle begun on page 11. In other words, when we look inside the cell, the appearance is suggestive of something that was designed. Am I wrong?

  28. Tim,

    Interesting idea. Bacteria certainly qualify as the simplest known example of life and are thought to represent the earliest forms of life. What’s better is their impressive ability to cross-talk (which is at the base of our ability to genetically engineer). Thus, one can envision a consortium of simple organisms that, as a whole, possess plenty of seeds for the emergence of more complex states.

  29. But what does this have to do with your difficulty reconciling the notions that FLE represents more of an additional context than an additional process with the hypothesis that front-loading was initiated with the origin of life?

    When I first came to live in France, I found great difficulty understanding what was being said to me (the local dialect can be impenetrable on first hearing) so I adopted a strategy of asking as a question what I thought had been said. The same strategy is not working here. I’ll think of something else.

    I am trying to find out where the difference is between RM + NS as generally understood among mainstream biologists and your FLE.

  30. In other words, when we look inside the cell, the appearance is suggestive of something that was designed. Am I wrong?

    Not at all. I agree that the eukaryotic cell is an amazing thing. Maybe designed. Like a watch, no.

  31. I am trying to find out where the difference is between RM + NS as generally understood among mainstream biologists and your FLE.

    RM + NS, as generally understood, are things that just happen. There is no logic to evolution beyond RM + NS. FLE explores the possibility that RM + NS have been used to carry out an objective and that there is a deeper logic to evolution beyond RM + NS.

  32. Not at all. I agree that the eukaryotic cell is an amazing thing. Maybe designed. Like a watch, no.

    Agreed – like I mentioned, the term ‘watch’ was more of a metaphor that harkened back to the beginning of that section.

  33. Hi Alan,

    When I read Mike”s answer to your question it confused me. If you’re like me it will confuse you. Here’s what I understand Mike to be saying: Knowing that RM+NS will inevitably occur, the designer tries to front-load the first cells so that the “choices” that RM make will be biased in a certain direction, making certain outcomes more likely.

  34. For example, suppose that the designer wants to make the evolution of the bacterial flagellum more likely. One thing that would help is to make sure that all of the necessary proteins of the flagellum are already in the initial cell. This doesn’t guarantee that RM+NS will evolve the flagellum, but it makes it more likely than if the initial cell had none of the necessary proteins.

  35. So Alan, did that help?

  36. Alan? Alan? Alan, are you there?

  37. Reading the book, Bilbo.

    So Alan, did that help?

    I guess this is the Duck/Rabbit thing. When people talk about “the designer” it’s emperor’s new clothes to me. I wish they would just talk about the Creator; then it would be a lot clearer and would certainly make more sense to me. Why do people need to be so coy?

  38. Hi Alan,

    I can only speak for myself here and I can say that I am not trying to be coy; I am trying to be intellectually consistent and honest. I do not think people should overstate their assumptions, their conclusions, and the power of their argument. Imagine that that the original life forms on this planet were indeed bioengineered. Would it appropriate to then declare that the designer/creator of these cells was the God of Christian understanding?

    Besides, I have no reason to be coy, since I have no socio-political or apolegetic agenda.

    Also, ‘create’ and ‘design’ are not the same things. I can create a mess. But that does not necessarily mean I designed a mess. There is a difference between the two, such that we create with our hands, but design with our minds.

  39. Hi Alan,

    Glad you’re okay. I think the two of us are about the same age, which means we’re starting to get up there. So don’t go disappearing like that.

    If it helps, most IDists believe the designer is God, they just don’t think there is sufficient evidence to prove it.

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