The sleeping sponge: on the evolution of waking up

From the book, Wide Awake at 3:00am, I learned that researchers had come up with an answer to a common question, “Why do we sleep”?

It’s a valid question. What’s the actual purpose of sleep? Why would nature favor having the majority of animal species waste several hours each day in a state of unconsciousness, getting nothing done, and becoming vulnerable to predators?

The answer the researchers came up with required turning the question on its head: “Why should any living thing bother waking up at all?” Perhaps sleep is the normal state of all life, and wakefulness is just some aberration – a phenomenon that evolved later – as a part-time activity to more efficiently pursue food and sex.

As a lover of naps and hater of alarm clocks, I kind of like this idea.

I recall reading somewhere that sponges are “always asleep”. But I also read recently that sponges “never sleep”. Rather than go back and do more research to clear up this issue, I shall instead declare that the problem lies the definition of  “sleep”.

If you’re a sponge, you have no neurons. Having no neurons is a good indication that you have no brain. And no brain means no dreaming. Sponges are not like us in that they are sessile: they have no motility (except in the larval stage, when genetic dispersal occurs). If you don’t have to get up and go to work, why bother having a brain? Brains provide inner-representations of the outside world – used to navigate unpredictable terrains. Sponges just sit there at the bottom of the ocean and collect ambient nutrition. A task so easy that anyone can do it in their sleep.

Brains for Movement

The evolution of mobility required not only the direct control of muscles but also representations of reality that determined when and how those muscles get activated. Brains evolved in order for animals to evolve.

Long ago, there was no such thing as “waking up”. Until brains came along and gave organisms a reason to get off their asses and get a job. Perhaps asses and jobs had to evolve as well. But let’s not get too technical here.

It is possible that the binary states of wakefulness and sleep were not invented by brains themselves, but earlier in evolutionary history, by simple neuronal networks that generate sleep-like dynamics. Given that every location on Earth other than the poles has been cycling between day and night since before life emerged, it makes sense that organic periods would emerge to harmonize with this cycle.

Perhaps the very process of storing representations of reality – no matter how small or simple – requires a periodic cycle – as indicated by research finding that sleep is required for brains to prune useless memories and absorb useful ones.

My takeaway from all of this is that I have an organ that likes to make me do complicated things for many hours each day: sixteen to be exact. That’s a long time each day being on the move and getting worked up about other brains that are wreaking havoc on the world, such as the shriveled-up shitball inside of Donald Trump’s skull.

Before I die, I will thank my brain for collecting a massive library of memories that fueled a lifetime of dreams. And then I will say goodnight to my brain, and get back to sleep.


Trim, Mulch, Compost

It’s a rare warm evening, after a rare hot day. I just got back from a bout of night-time gardening, shirtless. The neighbors gave a few more glances than usual. Some things don’t require precise vision, like breaking twigs into smaller twigs, or forming a donut of dead leaves around the trunk of a young fruit tree. The feel of twigs snapping and the sound of leaves being shoved around is enough to go on.

Gardening, in my tiny little piece of Earth’s surface, consists mostly of trimming dead twigs and overly-ambitious vines, and then breaking them down into smaller bits – like what teeth do to food before passing it on to the stomach.

My love of gardening has grown as I have become more learned about two fascinating places where invisible creatures do wonderful symbiotic work: the colon (large intestine) and the rhrizosphere (the region near the roots of plants). In both of these regions, our invisible friends work busily to transform by-products into valuable nutrition, and then they share it.

My small front yard has become a Zen garden – I am both mindless servant and mindful observer. I wonder if I could apply my gardening approach to other aspects of my life.

The more I understand the things that affect the world swirling around me, the better I will be at knowing where to apply simple, mindless actions that have healthy outcomes. Where to trim a shrub to allow more sunlight in; where to use those trimmings as mulch to keep moisture underground; where to add compost to increase biodiversity and nutrition.

If I never succeed in transferring my gardening skills towards making my life flow more naturally, at least I can say that my gardening skills have improved: my thumbs are greener, and I have learned that most of the work is done underground – invisible to the eye.

Here’s one way to evolve an artificial intelligence

This picture illustrates an idea for how to evolve an AI system. It is derived from the sensor-brain-actuator-world model.

Machine learning algorithms have been doing some impressive things. Simply by crawling through massive oceans of data and finding correlations, some AI systems are able to make unexpected predictions and reveal insights.

Neural nets and evolutionary algorithms constitute a natural pairing of technologies for designing AI systems. But evolutionary algorithms require selection criteria that can be difficult to design. One solution is to use millions of human observers as a Darwinian fitness force to guide an AI towards an optimal state.


Since there is so much discussion (and confusion) on AI these days I want make some clarifications.

  • This has nothing to do with consciousness or self. This AI is disembodied.
  • The raw data input is (not) curated. It has no added interpretation.
  • Any kind of data can be input. The AI will ignore most of it at first.
  • The AI presents its innards to humans. I am calling these “simulations”.
  • The AI algorithm uses some unspecified form of machine learning.
  • The important innovation here is the ability to generate “simulations”.


The humanist in me says we need to act as the collective Mother for our brain children by providing continual reinforcement for good behavior and discouraging bad behavior. As a world view emerges in the AI, and as an implicit code of morals comes into focus, the AI will “mature”. Widely-expressed fears of AI run amok could be partially alleviated by imposing a Mothering filter on the AI as it comes of age.

Can Anything Evolve without Selection?

I suppose it is possible for an AI to arrive at every possible good idea, insight, and judgement just by digesting the constant data spew from humanity. But without an implicit learning process (such as back-propagation and other feedback mechanisms used in training AI), the AI cannot truly learn in an ecosystem of continual feedback.

Abstract Simulations 

Abstraction in Modernist painting is about generalizing the visual world into forms and colors that substitute detail for overall impressions. Art historians have charted the transition form realism to abstraction – a kind of freeing-up and opening-up of vision.

Imagine now a new path leading from abstraction to realism. And it doesn’t just apply to images: it also applies to audible signals, texts, movements, and patterns of behavior.

Imagine an AI that is set up like the illustration above coming alive for the first time. The inner-life of newborn infant is chaotic, formless, and devoid of meaning, with the exception of reactions to a mother’s smile, her scent, and her breasts.

A newborn AI would produce meaningless simulations. As the first few humans log in to give feedback, they will encounter mostly formless blobs. But eventually, some patterns may emerge – with just enough variation for the human judges to start making selective choices: “this blob is more interesting than that blob”.

As the young but continual stream of raw data accumulates, the AI will start to build impressions and common themes, like what Deep Dream does as it collects images and finds common themes and starts riffing on those themes.

The important thing about this process is that it can self-correct if it starts to veer in an unproductive direction – initially with the guidance of humans and eventually on its own. It also maintains a memory of bad decisions, and failed experiments – which are all a part of growing up.


If this idea is interesting to you, just Google “evolving AI” and you will find many many links on the subject.

As far as my modest proposal: the takeaway I’d like to leave you with is this:

Every brain on earth builds inner-simulations of the world and plays parts of those simulations constantly as a matter of course. The simple animals have extremely simple models of reality. We humans have insanely complex models – which often get us into trouble. Trial simulations generated by an evolving AI would start pretty dumb, but with more sensory exposure, and human guidance, who knows what would emerge!

It would be irresponsible to launch AI programs without mothering. The evolved brains of most complex mammals naturally expect this. Our AI brain children are naturally derived from a mammalian brain. Mothering will allow us to evolve AI systems that don’t turn into evil monsters.

Having sex with robots to save the planet

Long long ago, there was an accident in a warm puddle. A particular molecule – through some chance interaction with the soup of surrounding molecules – ended up with a copy of itself. Since the surrounding soup was similar to the original, the copy was more likely to replicate itself. And so it did. The rest is history. We call it evolution.

It is possible that similar accidents happened elsewhere around the same time – not just in one single puddle. One could also say that variations of this accident are still happening – only now at a massive scale.

Every act of every living thing can be seen as an elaboration of this original act. Self-replication is the original impetus of all life. We share a common ancestor with amoebas – who replicate asexually. The invention of sexual reproduction boosted genetic creativity. More recently in the scope of Earth’s history, creativity escaped the confines of genetics. We humans are the primary hosts of this creative engine.

Human beings have contrived all of the resulting aspects of survival to an art-form. This includes – not just the act of sex – but also the act of preparing food (cuisine), the act of making sounds and speaking (music and singing), and the act of altering the environment to create new structure (visual art). The abstractions and representations of the world that the brain generates via the body are derivations and deviations from the original acts of survival. It’s a form of self-replication.

The emergence of abstractions, mental models, and representations is increasing in complexity. This is an inevitable one-way blossoming accelerated by the emergence of the animal brain. The human experience is conflicted; we are oriented toward achieving escape velocity from Original Nature, but we also long for Original Nature. How can we resolve this conflict?

The original act of self-replication has powerful repercussions – billions of years after the original accident – it has taken on many forms. It is the reason we humans have strange phenomena like orgasm. And selfies.


We are at a crossroads in the history of life on Earth. The current era of global warming is almost certainly the result of the overpopulation and hyperactivity of humans, who have released – and continue to release – too much carbon into the atmosphere. One effective solution to global warming would be to reduce the primary agents of the fever…to reduce human population.

And so, converting that original act of replication into works of art is not just creative and exciting: it may be necessary. Humans must transcend the Earthly act of self-replication in order to preserve the health of the planet.

The future of sex will be…let’s just say…interesting. Every cell in our body contains the blueprint of a desire to replicate. Nature and society are structured around the elaborate machinery that has emerged to ensure self-replication – of human bodies and culture. This desire has made its mark on every aspect of society – even if we don’t recognize it as such. We cannot escape it. And so we need to virtualize it, because self-replication of human beings (physically) has become a threat to the planet that sustains us. It’s our duty to Mother Earth.

I am a living organism and so I have to contend with this crazy desire to replicate. Note: I am childless. I have never replicated my genes and have no intention to do so at this stage in my life. But I am passionate about replicating ideas, art, words, and software.

Now, what about the title of this blog post? Will people eventually start having sex with robots? It will certainly be more subtle than that. In fact, it has been said that by the time we get to that point, WE will be the robots.

Is this the kind of future I want? Strangely, yes. Because I will have long returned to the Earth – my molecules will have been handed down through generations of living things. I will be a part of Earth’s physiology. My tribe will be bigger than humanity.

One of my molecules may even end up in a warm puddle somewhere.

Thoughts on the Evolution of Communication

My dog and I engage in a lot of signaling. But it is not always deliberate, and it is not always conscious, and it is not always a two-way process.

In the morning, Otto licks my bald head. He can probably smell what I have been dreaming. I hold him and we have a nice cuddle. Just one of our many routines. He looks at me and I look at him. He is always checking me out. In the process of getting to know each other over several years we have come to read each other’s signals – our body language, interactions, responses, vocalizations…and smells.

image from

Semiosis emerges in the process. If there is a coupling of signals – a mutually-reinforcing signaling loop – two-way communication emerges. It is not always conscious – for either of us. Sometimes, a mutually-reinforcing signaling process which I was previously unaware of becomes apparent to me. When this happens, I become an active agent in that semiosis.

Otto is so intensely attentive to me – my routines (and deviations from them). He probably tunes-in to many more of my signals than I do to his. But then again, I am a human: I generate a lot of signal. Does he see this as “communication?” It is not clear: his brain is a dog brain, and mine is a human brain. We don’t share the same word for this experience (he only knows a few English words, and “communication” isn’t one of them).

I can be sure of one thing: we share a lot of signaling. And, as members of two highly-social species, we both like that.

I would conclude from this that communication among organisms in general (the biosemiosis that has emerged on Earth over the last few billion years) came about pretty much the same way that Otto and I established our own little world of emergent semiosis. As life evolved, trillions of coupled signaling channels reinforced each other over time and became more elaborate. Eventually, this signaling became conscious and intentional.

And so here we are: human communication has reached a level of sophistication such that I can type these words – and you can read them. And we can share the experience – across time and space.

Hummingbird on a wire

hummingbirdI looked out the window this morning and I thought I saw a speck on the window pane. Upon closer look, I realized that the speck was a hummingbird perched high on a wire spanning two telephone poles.

I became the bird’s dedicated audience for about three minutes. I watched closely as the tiny bee-like creature surveyed the surroundings from its high vantage point.

What was the bird thinking? And can I use the word “thinking” to describe the activities in this bird’s mind? For that matter, does the bird have a mind? It certainly has a brain. And that brain has a special feature: its hippocampus is five times larger than that of song birds, seabirds, and woodpeckers. According to this article, “The birds can remember where every flower in their territory is and how long it takes to refill with nectar after they have fed.”

Thinking is a by-product of an animal body, which is a member of a species with specific needs, skills, and adaptations to a particular environment.

Fear (and Love) of Heights

If I were perched on a wire as high as the hummingbird, I would be terrified: “Get me down from here!” On the other hand, a bird feels perfectly at home at such high altitudes.

Consider a hawk sliding across the horizon above a vast valley. Looking down from its vantage point, the hawk may experience inner-peace – possibly moments of boredom (if you will permit me to apply these human-oriented emotion labels to a hawk’s subjective experience). A human hang-glider would experience exhilaration, and moments of fear. And maybe…moments of that same inner-peace that the hawk experiences.

Above image from:

When I have joyful flying dreams, my brain is not triggering the fear network. I am experiencing a peaceful freedom from gravity – with touches of exhilaration.

I wish I could become as light and deft (and fearless) as a bird, and watch the world from the tallest treetops in my neighborhood.

“The Gene” doesn’t exist. It’s always a tangled hierarchy of genes plus environment

Maybe I’m obsessing over a tiny bit of language here, but I really believe that the language we use has a large impact on the way we think about things, and thus, the way we go about solving problems. Take the concept of “gene” for example.

Everything I’ve leaned about genetics tells me that there is no clear obvious separation of genes and environment. It’s like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set.

seepferdseepferdIf you try to untangle the source of something to determine whether it is from genes or environment (nature vs. nurture), you usually fail. And that’s because the interactions of genes with the environment is really like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set. You can keep zooming in, but you’ll never find the boundary.

And this is fundamental to how nature operates.

Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior

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From Wikipedia:

Nature versus nurture debates assume that variation in a trait is primarily due to either genetic differences or environmental differences. However, the current scientific opinion holds that neither genetic differences nor environmental differences are solely responsible for producing phenotypic variation, and that virtually all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental differences.


it is rarely productive to talk about a “gene” in the singular. “Genes” is almost always a plural concept. And the reason is because the interaction of genes and environment (the fundamental basis for evolution) goes all the way down to the level of the genes themselves. In other words:

At a Basic Level: Genes are the environment for genes

The way a gene is expressed is influenced by the other genes who take part in the choreography of expression.

I originally learned this from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. From the point of view of the single gene, being the most atomic unit of selection, EVERYTHING other than itself…constitutes the environment. That includes other genes.

So, when you hear a science writer claiming that “Researchers determine that there is no ‘math gene’…”, you should conclude that the author is (1) correct, and (2) ignorant about biology.

Of course there is no math gene. Math skill (or any skill) grows out of a tangled interaction of inherited instinct (genetic makeup) and environmental factors (experience, learning, outside influences). The “nature vs. nurture” debate is counter-productive. The question should not be about determining which is the cause. It should be about determining the way these two factors come together to continually bring the natural world into being.

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Because it’s a tangled hierarchy of influences, people get uncomfortable. Science is supposed to untangle these things, right? Not always. Science can help us understand that tangled hierarchies are actually the norm. That’s nature.

This is not to say that there are no culprit genes for certain diseases or observable traits. They do in fact exist in certain cases. For instance: there do exist “single gene disorders“. But these are usually mutations – deviations of an otherwise natural situation.

John Oliver recently made a compelling rant against science journalism, and how perfectly valid science often gets trivialized, simplified, and even rendered false…for mass consumption.

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There is no single bullet theory in nature. Science writers should spend less time looking for a simple story to catch people’s eye with a punchy headline. Nature is complex…like the Mandelbrot Set. And that’s awesome.

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