Thoughts on Biological Chemistry and Emergence

My dog was licking my face this morning – as he often does in the morning. Many people refuse to let dogs lick their faces. Understandable. I am one of the apparently few people who allow it. There are a few exceptions when I don’t like it, such as right after my dog has eaten stinky dog food. Otherwise, he is a very healthy, tidy and gentle (and smallish) dog. His breath is barely noticeable.

Dog’s lick people’s faces for a number of possible reasons; these are nicely explained in several articles, such as:

https://pets.thenest.com/dogs-lick-humans-faces-5892.html

https://shopus.furbo.com/blogs/knowledge/why-does-dog-lick-my-face

But the proposed reason that most intrigues me is that it is a form of chemical communication. Dogs have such a sophisticated sense of smell that they can actually gather information (dog-like information) about people they are licking. Licking can also have a calming effect on licker and lickee (if you are not a fan of dogs licking your face you may disagree, so just pretend that you’re a dog for a moment).

According to this article:

“Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress. Research has shown that when humans interact with dogsoxytocin levels increase in both species.”

Even more fascinating is a study that indicates that interacting with dogs can have health benefits for humans:

Beneficial Dog Bacteria Up-Regulate Oxytocin and Lower Risk of Obesity

So, having a dog can reduce obesity? That is certainly new to me!

Chemical Ecology

While my dog was licking my face and kicking up his oxytocin, and consequently making me release the same chemical into my bloodstream, I was thinking about how social animals regulate chemistry within their pack. (Similar with the visible/audible dimension: when my dog sends growling signals, I will sometimes get up and check out the window for intruders. He is modulating my behavior). So, I began to see more clearly how chemical exchange might be important for the cohesion of a group of social animals. I suspect there are many more chemicals involved in regulating the behaviors of pack animals – including humans.

And I realized that the orchestration of chemicals – not only in a single animal body – but among a group of animals – is largely invisible to us. But of course: chemicals are too small to see. They are molecules made of atoms. We experience their signaling effects as behaviors and notions. And we humans may have evolved such complex societal structures that we can hardly even recognize the chemical foundations of so much of our social behavior. This is the nature of emergence.

When a new level of emergence takes shape (for instance, when chemistry becomes complex enough to enable replication and variation and therefore genetic-based biology), new, larger structures take on their own agency and begin to regulate their sub-components in turn. Ancient chemistry didn’t just allow an apparatus to emerge that conveys information for replication (genetics); it also allowed a complex network of signaling between organelles, cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems, and societies. Each level gives rise (and gives way) to larger structures.

Emergence and Top-Down Effects

Emergence is a fascinating subject – not only because of the beauty of imagining simple components coming together to make a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts – but because that whole can attain autonomy; it can actually reach down and regulate those components that allowed it to come into existence in the first place. It’s possible that this top-down influence is an innate and necessary property of emergence.

If you are a fan of emergence, like me, you enjoy spinning narratives about how various levels of reality came into existence:

physics
chemistry
biology
intelligence
technology
super intelligence

The name of this blog is “Nature->Brain->Technology” – which is a nod to three of the levels in that list.

Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene – triggered new insights on genetics – and some lively debates. Dawkins coined the term “meme”. And I suspect he may have had a sense that the title of the book itself could turn into a meme. It brought forth ideas about how genes are powerful agents that cause an upward cascade of effects, making us do what we do: from the perspective of the selfish gene, we humans are “lumbering robots” whose purpose is to simply ensure its replication. Everything else is an illusion of human purpose. But it may be more subtle than this. Are genes the only things that are “selfish”? Could there be a lower level of selfishness going on?

My new insight from building oxytocin with my dog is that there is another layer of emergence involved, which is more fundamental to genes, and which gave rise to genes. My insight was echoed by an article called “Forget the selfish gene — the evolution of life is driven by the selfish ribosome“, which states:

“The selfish ribosome model closes a big theoretical gap between, on the one hand, the simple biological molecules that can form on mud flats, oceanic thermal vents or via lightning, and on the other hand LUCA, or the Last Universal Common Ancestor, a single-celled organism.”

Anything that smells of Eve is suspect. It’s more likely that there was a sort of distributed “Eve Soup” with a lot of pseudo-replication happening over a very long period of time. It is possible that the origin of life cannot be pinpointed to a single time and space…specifically because it is emergent.

Besides face-licking, there are probably many more phenomena that we have low-dimensional explanations for. They may someday be revealed as the effects of various selfish agents operating on various levels. Emergence is a scientific tool – a conceptual framework – that helps reveal otherwise invisible forces in nature.

For instance: why do we yawn?

The physiological purpose of a yawn remains a mystery. “The real answer so far is we don’t really know why we yawn,”

It may be more productive to stop looking for “the purpose”, and to look at it through the wide lens of emergence.

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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.

Warming

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 Evolvability

Evolve-Darwin-Fish-Car-Emblem-(2363)

It is early February. The other day, I observed some fresh buds on a tree. When I lived back east, I remember seeing buds on bare trees in the snowy dead of winter. I used to wonder if these trees are “preparing” for the first days of spring by starting the growth of their buds. Trees, like most plants, can adapt to variations of weather. All organisms, in fact, exhibit behaviors that appear resourceful, reactive, adaptive, even “intelligent”.

We sometimes talk about animals and plants in terms of their goals and intentions. We even use intentional language in relation to computers or mechanical machines. Even though we know a machine isn’t alive, we use this kind of language as a form of shorthand.

But there may be something more than just verbal shorthand going on here.

The Intentional Stance

Daniel Dennett proposed the concept of the Intentional Stance. When I first learned about this idea, I felt a new sense of how our own human intelligence is just a special case of the adaptive and goal-directed nature of all life on the planet.

When I saw those buds on the tree the other day, I realized that there is so much goal-directed behavior happening all over the place – in plants, animals, and even in ecological systems. Are humans any more adaptive or “intentional” than any other organism?

The Evolution of Self and the Intentional Stance

Could it be that our human brains have simply…

…wrapped a fully-evolved self around our intentions?

…that we are really no more goal-directed or intentional than any other organism…except that we reflect on it with a higher level of consciousness, and apply a fully-formed language to that intentionality?

The Evolution of Evolvability

I first learned of the evolution of evolvability from a paper by Richard Dawkins. It’s a powerful idea, and it helps to make evolution seem less magical and perhaps easier to imagine. Not only have organisms continued to evolve, but their ability to evolve has improved. An example is the evolution of sexual reproduction, which created a huge advantage in a species’ ability to exploit genetic variation over evolutionary time.

A recent article titled “Intelligent design without a creator? Why evolution may be smarter than we thought” makes reference to the Evolution of Evolvability. It helps to cast the notion of intelligence and learning as prolific and pervasive in the natural world.

It would appear that the ability to evolve better ways to evolve predates humans. (It might even predate biology).

Of course we humans have found even better ways to evolve – including ways that overtake or sidestep our own human biology. This constitutes a new era in the evolution of life on earth – an era in which technology, culture, and ideas (memes) become the primary evolving agents of our species (and possibly the whole planet – assuming we humans make the planet so sick that we have to fabricate artificial immune systems in order to keep the planet (and thus ourselves) healthy.

While many people will cast this Singularity-like idea in a negative light, I see it as a new protective organ that is forming around our planet. Biology is not going away. It is just one regime in a progression of many emergent regimes. Biology has given birth to the next regime (via Dennett’s crane), which then reaches down to regulate, modulate, and protect the regime which created it.

Evolvability is the higher-level emergent system over evolution. It is a higher-order derivative. When seen in this way, biology comes out looking like just one step in a long process.

(Thanks to Stephen Brown for editorial assistance)

IS “ARTIFICIAL LIFE GAME” AN OXYMORON?

(This is a re-posting from Self Animated Systems)

langtonca

Artificial Life (Alife) began with a colorful collection of biologists, robot engineers, computer scientists, artists, and philosophers. It is a cross-disciplinary field, although many believe that biologists have gotten the upper-hand on the agendas of Alife. This highly-nuanced debate is alluded to in this article.

Games

What better way to get a feel for the magical phenomenon of life than through simulation games! (You might argue that spending time in nature is the best way to get a feel for life; I would suggest that a combination of time with nature and time with well-crafted simulations is a great way to get deep intuition. And I would also recommend reading great books like The Ancestor’s Tale :)

Simulation games can help build intuition on subjects like adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, inheritance, swarming behavior, food chains….the list goes on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.48.02 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-19 at 12.24.54 PMOn the more abstract end of the spectrum are simulation-like interactive experiences involving semi-autonomous visual stuff (or sound) that generates novelty. Kinetic art that you can touch, influence, and witness lifelike dynamics can be more than just aesthetic and intellectually stimulating.

These interactive experiences can also build intuition and insight about the underlying forces of nature that come together to oppose the direction of entropy (that ever-present tendency for things in the universe to decay).

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.58.33 PM

On the less-abstract end of the spectrum, we have virtual pets and avatars (a subject I discussed in a keynote at VISIGRAPP).

“Hierarchy Hinders” –  Lesson from Spore

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.18.59 PMWill Wright, the designer of Spore, is a celebrated simulation-style game designer who introduced many Alife concepts in the “Sim” series of games. Many of us worried that his epicSpore would encounter some challenges, considering that Maxis had been acquired by Electronic Arts. The Sims was quite successful, but Spore fell short of expectations. Turns out there is a huge difference between building a digital dollhouse game and building a game about evolving lifeforms.

Also, mega-game corporations have their share of social hierarchy, with well-paid executives at the top and sweat shop animators and code monkeys at the bottom. Hierarchy (of any kind) is generally not friendly to artificial life.

For blockbuster games, there are expectations of reliable, somewhat repeatable behavior, highly-crafted game levels, player challenges, scoring, etc. Managing expectations for artificial life-based games is problematic. It’s also hard to market a game which is essentially a bunch of game-mechanics rolled into one. Each sub-game features a different “level of emergence” (see the graph below for reference). Spore presents several slices of emergent reality, with significant gaps in-between. Spore may have also suffered partly due to overhyped marketing.

Artificial Life is naturally and inherently unpredictable. It is close cousins with chaos theory, fractals, emergence, and uh…life itself.

Emergence

alife graphAt the right is a graph I drew which shows how an Alife simulation (or any emergent system) creates novelty, creativity, adaptation, and emergent behavior. This emergence grows out of the base level inputs into the system. At the bottom are atoms, molecules, and bio-chemistry. Simulated protein-folding for discovering new drugs might be an example of a simulation that explores the space of possibilities and essentially pushes up to a higher level (protein-folding creates the 3-dimensional structure that makes complex life possible).

The middle level might represent some evolutionary simulation whereby new populations emerge that find a novel way to survive within a fitness landscape. On the higher level, we might place artificial intelligence, where basic rules of language, logic, perception, and internal modeling of the world might produce intelligent behavior.

In all cases, there is some level of emergence that takes the simulation to a higher level. The more emergence, the more the simulation is able to exhibit behaviors on the higher level. What is the best level of reality to create an artificial life game? And how much emergence is needed for it to be truly considered “artificial life”?

Out Of Control

Can a mega-corporation like Electronic Arts give birth to a truly open-ended artificial life game? Alife is all about emergence. An Alife engineer or artist expects the unexpected. Surprise equals success. And the more unexpected, the better. Surprise, emergent novelty, and the unexpected – these are not easy things to manage…or to build a brand around – at least not in the traditional way.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.04.07 PMMaybe the best way to make an artificial life game is to spread the primordial soup out into the world, and allow “crowdsourced evolution” of emergent lifeforms.  OpenWorm comes to mind as a creative use of crowdsourcing.

What if we replaced traditional marketing with something that grows organically within the culture of users? What if, in addition to planting the seeds of evolvable creatures, we also planted the seeds of an emergent culture of users? This is not an unfamiliar kind problem to many internet startups.

Are you a fan of artificial life-based games? God games? Simulations for emergence? What is your opinion of Spore, and the Sims games that preceded it?

This is a subject that I have personally been interested in for my entire career. I think there are still unanswered questions. And I also think that there is a new genre of artificial game that is just waiting to be invented…

…or evolved in the wild.

Onward and Upward.

-Jeffrey