I have long held the view that one of the worst thought out yet at the same time most persistent articles on the future of human evolution is Nick Bostrom‘s work of the same title. In it, Nick outlines a disastrous outcome for future digital versions of ourselves hashing it out Core War style driven by a skewed understanding of Darwinian dynamics leading to a dystopian cyberspace #ff0000 in tooth and claw. Yet as I outlined in v 1.0 of my refutation of Nick’s paper, nothing could be further from the truth. A good 3 1/2 years later I am going to add to these original arguments against Nick’s 2004 paper by citing more recent research from such diverse fields as origin of life experiments, microbiology, parasite ecology, iterative evolutionary algorithms, game theory as well as intelligence research and building on there with older and more recent works of philosophy and sociology.

In 2012 Ars published an article on a paper published in Nature examining the results of an origin of life experiment. The results were summarized as follows:

Origin-of-life researchers have made great progress in creating RNA molecules with interesting biochemical activities, but they haven’t yet managed to create a molecule that can fully replicate itself, an item that’s considered to be the critical step that could get evolution, and thus life itself, started. But a paper published in this week’s edition of Nature suggests we may be thinking about things a bit wrong. They show that it’s possible to have a population of distinct RNAs that can cooperate to catalyze reactions that expand the population. And, if you mix them together, the cooperative molecules will outcompete any selfish replicators.

In fact, the tendency to cooperate, and collaborate persists as one examines the microbiological interactions of bacteria and fungi:

“The bacteria are beginning to have the aspect of social animals; they should provide nice models for the study of interactions between forms of life at all levels. They live by collaboration, accommodation, exchange, and barter.”, from Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas, p.7

But not only that, plants communicate using fungi Mycelium:

“In response to aphid attacks, some plants produce chemicals that repel the aphids and attract wasps, the aphids’ natural enemies. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen have shown that plants attacked by aphids can communicate that information to neighboring plants via existing networks of fungi in the soil. Thus fungal symbiosis with plants is shown to be taken one step further: not only do they provide nutrients to plants, they also function as communication hardware.”

Even vertically transmitted parasites evolve a symbiotic relationship with their hosts over time:

“Vertical transmission tends to evolve benign symbiosis. It is therefore a critical concept for evolutionary medicine. Because a pathogen’s ability to pass from parent to child depends significantly on the hosts’ ability to reproduce, pathogens’ transmissibility tends to be inversely related with their virulence. In other words, as pathogens become more harmful to and thus decrease the reproduction rate of their host organism, they are less likely to be passed on to the hosts’ offspring, since there will be fewer offspring.” from Stewart, AD; Logsdon, JM; Kelley, SE (April 2005). “An empirical study of the evolution of virulence under both horizontal and vertical transmission”. Evolution 59 (4): 730–739.

Moving up the chain to a paper on “Cooperation and the evolution of intelligence” involving the results of an experiment with evolutionary algorithms and simulated brains I have covered earlier:

“The experiment involved programming a base group of 50 simulated ‘brains’ which were required to participate in one of two classical game theory dilemmas — the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Snowdrift game. Upon completion of either game, each ‘brain’ produced ‘offspring’ asexually, with ‘brains’ that made more advantageous choices during the games programmed to have a better chance to reproduce. A potential random mutation during each generation changed the ‘brain’s structure, number of neurons, or the strengths of the connections between those neurons,’ simulating the evolution of the social brain. After 50,000 generations, the model showed that as cooperation increased, so did the intelligence of the programmed brains.“

A truly interesting paper published in Nature Communications using game theory to prove that selfish behavior is evolutionary unstable:

Two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offer new evidence that evolution doesn’t favor the selfish, disproving a theory popularized in 2012. “We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

Personally I am of the opinion that the above paper does not go far enough in its conclusions and think that the authors by taking their findings to the ultimate consequence could have provided an a priori argument for the spiritual concept of oneness as the logic destiny of spiritual evolution. But then again I am happy that I will eventually be able to connect these dots for them once I am going to continue my academic career in the hopefully not too distant future.

Moving on to the realm of philosophy and the work of Peter Kropotkin:

Kropotkin pointed out the distinction between the direct struggle among individuals for limited resources (generally called competition) and the more metaphorical struggle between organisms and the environment (tending to be cooperative). He therefore did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but argued that the cooperative counterpart has been underemphasized: “There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense…Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Chapter I However, Kropotkin did consider cooperation as a feature of the most advanced organisms (e.g., ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates) leading to the development of the highest intelligence and bodily organization.

And before anyone dismisses Kropotkin as a crackopot (sic), esteemed evolutionary biologist Stephen J Gould is firmly in his camp.

A bit more peripheral to the core subject but none the less highly relevant and in its entirety an absolutely astounding effort by Steven Pinkert, the quantitative analysis of and explanations for the decline of violence over the course of history, The Better Angels of Our Nature:

Pinker presents a large amount of data (and statistical analysis thereof) that, he argues, demonstrate that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. The decline in violence, he argues, is enormous in magnitude, visible on both long and short time scales, and found in many domains, including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, criminal justice, and the treatment of children, animals, racial and ethnic minorities, and gay people. He stresses that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue” source.

Of course the by now classic work in predicting humanities future shaped by evolutionary dynamics, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright is an absolute must read in this context as well:

The principal argument of Nonzero is to demonstrate that natural selection results in increasing complexity within the world and greater rewards for cooperation. Since, as Wright puts it, the realization of such prospects is dependent upon increased levels of globalization, communication, cooperation, and trust, what is thought of as human intelligence is really just a long step in an evolutionary process of organisms (as well as their networks and individual parts) getting better at processing information.

Less well known but another outstanding marvel in forward thinking shaped by an understanding of evolutionary dynamics is John Stewrad’s excellent Evolution’s Arrow – The direction of evolution and the future of humanity:

A completely new phase in the evolution of life on Earth has begun. It will change everything. In this new phase evolution will be driven intentionally, by humanity.  The evolutionary worldview that emerges from an understanding of our role in the new phase has the potential to transform the nature of human existence. At present humanity is lost.  We don’t know what we are doing here.  We are without a worldview that can point to our place and purpose in the universe and that can also withstand rational scrutiny. But this difficult period is coming to an end.  The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to lift us out of the abyss.  The new worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.  It relies solely on scientific knowledge and reason to identify our critical role in future evolution.  The evolutionary worldview can unite us in a great common enterprise, and provide meaning and purpose for human existence. At the heart of the evolutionary worldview is the fact that evolution has a trajectory—it heads in a particular direction.  However, evolution on Earth will not advance beyond a certain point unless it is driven consciously and intentionally.  If this transition to intentional evolution does not occur, evolution on this planet will stall, and humanity will not contribute positively to the future evolution of life in the universe—we will be a failed evolutionary experiment.

I hope that these conglomeration of articles and books makes the point that evolution, where it continued from the micro scale to the macro and forward to the cosmic is nothing but the continued expounding of selfishness as harbinger of death and cooperativeness, collaboration, selflessness and oneness as crucial conditions for life.

2 comments on “The future of human evolution revisited 2.0

  1. Pingback: Rational Morality » Diffusing the ‘Doomsday’ Argument and Other Futuristic Boogeymen

  2. http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-radical-new-holistic-view-of-health-based-on-cooperation-and-disease-based-on-competition

    Researchers at The Mount Sinai Medical Center have developed a radical holistic view of health — seeing it as a cooperative state among cells, while they see disease as result of cells at war that fight with each other for domination.

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