Wednesday, November 23, 2011

US Government as Central Dogma of Molecular Biology

Spoiler Alert: There is nothing new here. However, writing it helps to form the thoughts in my own head ....

Complex adaptive systems
A colleague of mine -- a very successful molecular biologist -- recently gave a Sigma Xi Researcher of the Year presentation. In it, he made the relative specific analogy relating the central dogma of biology to the operation of the U.S. federal government. It blew my mind. It was is SO cool to me, because I take seriously those "far fetched" analogies between different complex adaptive systems. I realize that others have made these analogies before, but they are cool to me, because I rarely hear them.

Social institutions, such as governments, are complex adaptive systems under selective pressures. Each governing institution acquires mutations which maybe retained or discarded. Each governing institution competes with other governing institutions for limiting resources. Different institutions exhibit different levels of survival and growth and spread. These institutions tend to be passed on from generation to generation because humans have written records, and also simply and more importantly, humans remember what they did yesterday and twenty years ago, and change is both intellectually challenging, and financially restricted.

Governments exhibit
-- phenotypic variation,
-- heritable phenotypic variation, insofar as governments persist and self-replicate,
-- fitness differences among variants.

As a consequence of these phenomena (1), governments tend to evolve. As you know, evolution does not always optimize performance. Rather, they undergo probabilistic responses to selective pressures,. It is possible for these responses to result in objects which are poorly suited for future conditions. Evolution is always backward-looking.

Social Darwinism? No, not in the original sense.

The above smacks a bit of "Social Darwinism." However, the earlier incarnation of that phenomenon was used as an excuse for greed and imperialism (2). In the past 50 years, however, strong evidence has accrued that cooperation can easily evolve and is an evolutionary stable state (3). All successful societies or nations rely heavily on within-group cooperation. It seems further that cooperation among nation-states provides increased fitness as well. This seems like a no-brainer, given that nation-states are themselves composed of interacting groups that cooperate as well as compete.

One of the primary requirements of the evolution of cooperation is that fitness of individuals within groups is increased through the cooperation. This central criterion is often easily met.

Another important criterion for the emergence and maintenance of cooperation is repeated interactions among the same agents so that "learning" can occur. Repeated interactions is the key difference between the standard Prisoner's dilemma game, where cooperation is not advantageous vs. games in which cooperation is advantageous. [I put "learning" in quotes, because it need not be learning in the usual sense of a cognitive process by an individual, but rather can be an adaptation to respond to cues given by cheaters that they are cheating. "Cheating" is defined as the receipt of benefits of cooperation without incurring the costs of cooperation and reciprocity.]

The ease with which cooperation can arise, and become a stable equilibrium does not exclude the possibility that cheating cannot also arise. However, under easily met conditions, if a "mutation" does give rise to cheating, it can be eliminated, or kept at low levels, depending on the conditions.

References cited

1. Endler, J. Natural Selection in the Wild. Princeton monographs.
2. Wikipedia, 2011,
3.  Nowak, 8 December 2006, Science; Nowak et al. 26 August 2010. Nature.

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