Category Archives: nudge

How to Design Evolution

My hypothesis of front-loading evolution begins with a simple question – would it be possible to design/guide evolution given the reality of random mutations and selection? Then, if so, HOW might one do this?

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book entitled Nudge that advocated 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!

 

 

A NYT article explains a very interesting example of nudging:

 

THE flies in the men’s-room urinals of the Amsterdam airport have been enshrined in the academic literature on economics and psychology. The flies — images of flies, actually — were etched in the porcelain near the urinal drains in an experiment in human behavior.

After the flies were added, “spillage” on the men’s-room floor fell by 80 percent. “Men evidently like to aim at targets,” said Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, an irreverent pioneer in the increasingly influential field of behavioral economics.

Mr. Thaler says the flies are his favorite example of a “nudge” — a harmless bit of engineering that manages to “attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way, without actually requiring anyone to do anything at all.” What’s more, he said, “The flies are fun.”

 

So why mention any of this on The Design Matrix?

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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.

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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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!

Continue reading

Inefficient Selection

In The Design Matrix, I explain how the process of gene duplication, conventionally taken as a ‘brute given,’ is actually a mechanism of front-loading evolution given that it can carry designs far into the future.  Now we have evidence that gene duplication, in the correct context, actually functions as a nudge for the evolution of increased complexity:
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Nudging the nudge

We have seen that the Alu element is poised to generate binding sites for multiple transcription factors involved in development.  Even more interesting is the manner in which the process of cytosine deamination can easily create several of these transcription factor binding sites.  It’s as if we have two nudges, working together, to facilitate the evolution of primates.

Yet there is more to the story.  Recall that the cytosine deamination events occur at CpG sites.This is simply where a cytosine (C) is followed by a guanine (G).  Why is this?

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