Quora – What does evolution act on?

Quora – What does evolution act on?

[ 5/4/20 ]

Evolution, as in the modern synthesis of understandings of the process of evolution by natural selection, acts on replicators in environments through differential survival.

Thus it requires something that can replicate, and variation – both in the thing that replicates and in the range of environments in which those populations can survive.

And once that process becomes recursive, it gets exponentially more complex in some environments. And that bit gets extremely interesting – exactly what is it about some environments that enable the emergence of new levels of complexity while in other environments the older simpler systems carry on just fine?

So there are two key things:
Replicators; and
Variation.

Both get complex.

There can be many levels of replicators together.

A single strand of RNA can copy in an appropriate context.

A group of strands of RNA can get together to create a context that enhances their ability to replicate. This level of cooperation seems to have led to cells, then cells to bodies etc.

Every new level of complexity is predicated on a new level of cooperation between replicators at the old level to bring a new level of replicator into being.

By the time we get to our modern human society, it seems that we have at least 15 levels of such recursive cooperation present in each of us – by the time you add up all the levels of molecular through to conceptual replicators that seem to be present in the ability to create and transmit these symbols and the patterns implicit in them.

And it gets extremely complex, because at every level there is a context sensitive balance between order and chaos that delivers an appropriate amount of variation.

Every level of pattern has a minimum level of order necessary for its survival.

The variability present (or coming) in any environment demands a sufficient level of variation in the population that enough individuals can survive to maintain the levels of complexity present.

By the time you get to our modern complex technological society, that gets extremely complex; in ways that very few minds are able to get any sort of intuitive feel for.

This eternal search for appropriate balance brings a necessary tension at every level between what we can think of as the conservative and the liberal incentives within each of us (within every level of complexity – necessarily). The hard thing for many to get is that one isn’t right and the other wrong, both are eternally essential; always, all levels.

Freedom will eternally have an aspect of going beyond the known, into the unknown; and that always has both dangers and opportunities. Often it is the only way to solve problems for which no solution is known.

It gets really complex. By the time someone has conceptually repeated that process 10 or more times; one ends up with a very different set of relationships to uncertainty and knowledge than one started with.

And some things remain true across all levels. There is always a need for responsibility, to be alert to dangers present to existing levels of complexity; at the same time as there is a need to explore new levels of complexity. Those operating at those boundaries have to deal with levels of uncertainty that would drive most people insane. And that seems to be eternally true – all levels.

So evolution seems to be this amazing process of exploration of creativity and freedom; that brings with it levels of responsibility.

Freedom without responsibility is suicidal.

And there can be no hard and fast rules about what constitutes responsibility in any particular context – there does in fact seem to exist that degree of uncertainty – eternally, all levels.

And there do seem to be a set of values that are necessary for responsible action – to value individual sapient life first and foremost, and to value the freedom of individuals to act responsibly following that. And there will always be uncertainties of interpretation about what constitutes responsibility in any particular context. We see the depths of complexity involved in that starting to emerge in the covid-19 debate.

We seem to be the most complex thing we know of that evolution has produced. We have a lot of replicators in our systems that are not sustainable, and have analogs in any number of pathologies. Most of our finance and economic systems seems to be closely related to “cancer”. Money can be a very useful tool, until it assumes a value over human life. Right now we are in a transition phase that poses many levels of danger.

Biologically, we cannot continue to expand populations indefinitely on a finite planet. And we can certainly give everyone on the planet a lifestyle that any in the west would accept, provided we keep the birth rate down. We are starting to get close to that limit, and we need to give it serious consideration.

We have grown beyond the ability of the existing market based systems to adequately cope with the complexity of values present. And it is deeply complex, because the market systems currently support many levels of complex function which are essential – so transition is not a trivial task.

Thus evolution works on all of us, all levels, all the time.

One thing to really appreciate is that in terms of the survival of complexity, cooperation is far more important than competition.

Once you really understand the mathematics and strategic spaces of evolved systems, it is clear that competition is the enemy of both freedom and complexity; and that any real measure of either demands the highest levels of cooperation (and it cannot be naive cooperation, there must be consequences to cheating – all levels).

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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