[Paleopsych] genetics as an intelligent system

HowlBloom at aol.com HowlBloom at aol.com
Sat Nov 27 04:18:06 UTC 2004

Instead of "metagenetics", can I offer an alternative term--geneteams.  How 
do gene teams work together to learn to learn?  Which brings us to some other 
questions whose answers I've been trying to pin down.

When did the full suite of modern atoms--the 92 natural elements--become 
complete?   Did the full panoply of modern atoms arrive after the collapse of the 
first meg-stars, stars that swelled, ignited, then died off very quickly?  
That first period of star death would have been a mere two million years after 
the big bang.

Or did the complete suite of modern atoms have to wait six or seven billion 
years until several generations of smaller, longer-living stars had collapsed?

More important, when did the first carbon-based MOLECULES  appear in this 
cosmos?  We know many of the details and the timeline of nucleogenesis--of the 
genesis of subatomic particles.  

But the term "moleculogenesis" doesn't yet exist.  Nor does the concentrated 
study of this topic.  At least I've been able to find nothing about it on 
NASA's absolutely terrific resource, its Astrophysics Data System 

Another question.  At what point does learning and memory first appear in the 
evolution of the cosmos?  Is an atom of iron a summation of a big slice of 
the history of the cosmos?  Has it survived one catastrophe after another, thus 
demonstrating its adaptive hardiness?  In other words, is there memory, 
learning, and projection of future possibilities at the inanimate level?

Then the big question.  How long did it take after the genesis of the first 
simple carbon-based molecules before those molecules learned how to condense 
information from the past and aim toward an imperialist goal--to take over as 
much inanimate stuff as possible and turn it into biomass?   

Competition first appeared as atoms--brand new things in 380,000 abb-- 
discovered gravity. Greed first appeared when clumps of matter competed to become 
galaxies, stars, planets, and moons. 

But there was something new about the greed of massive teams of atoms 
arranged in twists that could replicate.  There was something new about the hunger of 
the dna-and-cell based teamwork that generates the incredible variations that 
contribute to the spread of biomass.

Paul's words suggest that restlessness and boredom have been a key part of 
this learning system.  I've been calling this a restless cosmos, a driven 
cosmos, an obsessive compulsive cosmos for a very long time.  But Paul is suggesting 
that we make computer-based learning machines restless too.  That we make 
them try out new possibilities just for the hell of it, just to evade the pain of 
boredom, the pain of staying precisely the same, the pain of ennui.  Paul is 
on the brink of suggesting that we make computational programs hunger for pop 
culture, for music and games that test and expand the silicon brain in new 

Paul is suggesting that genes may be as restless and boredom-prone as 
Baudelaire, who painted ennui as the ultimate pain.  He's suggesting that on the sly, 
when they're not working, genes play around and dance in leisure time.  Or at 
least that's what Paul's ideas inspire in me.

I know that leisure, entertainment, pop culture, art, and play are not 
useless.  I've known it since I began my 20 years of fieldwork in these 
fields--poetry, art, magazine publishing, and finally popular music.  Paul seems to be 
whispering to me that these cultural expressions may be a stochastic search for 
new possibilities.  And his words suggest to me that genes play games too.  
They play the sort of musical games--establishment of a theme, then variation on 
it--that Greg's mechanisms make possible.

Paul, my apologies if I've bent your words, but they're extraordinarily 

Can you share the Einstein-Bear connection you were pondering?

Meanwhile, here comes some relevant material from Instant Evolution.  Howard

How does biomass invent new body-combinations, new phenotypes?  That's what Gr
eg and Eshel's papers make us question.  Perhaps the process isn't Darwin's 
gradualism.  Perhaps its Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge's saltation, 
their big jumps all at once, their punctuated equilibrium.  Perhaps it's my 
"instant evolution".

But when I wrote about instant evolution 
(http://howardbloom.net/instant_evolution.htm), I never looked at the underlying genetic mechanism.  I simply 
tried to demonstrate that geneteams work much faster at invention than we think.  

Meanwhile, Eshel has called for a new view of evolution, one that's 
"orthoganal to Darwinism".  He's called for an approach that doesn't follow the 
standard lines of argument but steps way outside the boundaries of evolutionary 
theory as we know it today.

Greg's synthesis of work on genes looks like it fits with instant evolution 
and with the megateams that geneteams make when they work together en masse. 
Some geneteams work in megateams to learn and to create. Some get inventive and 
superbrainy via the complex parallel processing that hooks trillions of 
computational engines, trillions of genomes, together in Eshel's bacterial colonies.
Some gene-and-cell-teams seem to get restless, they seem to ache for 
self-reinvention in Greg's multicellular organisms.  

That ache is held in check rigorously.  Then one day things change, and that 
ache shows what it was trying to be in private, when it was still restrained.  
How many of these aches for reinvention are memories of old strategies, old 
body types, that worked in previous circumstances?  How many body-shifts are 
totally new?  We can see the radically new wherever we look in the fossil 

Well, not so radically new.  The difference between a tyranosaurus rex and an 
anolis lizard skittering across a sidewalk in Florida is not that great.  The 
difference between a crab and a fish is huge.  But that difference seems to 
have appeared very quickly in the fossil record.  It unfolded during the quick 
creative  burst of the Cambrian era roughly 550 million years ago.  (I could 
be wrong. There may have been an earlier split among the first primitive 
multicellular ancestors roughly 1.2 billion years ago.)  But one way or the other, 
the change that tossed crustaceans down one path and proto-reptiles down 
another was swift,and the variations since then on the theme of crustacean and 
quadruped has been much smaller than we tend to think.

Here's more on instant evolution from my four-year-old paper on the subject.  
What new meaning does the material I gathered take on in the light of what 
Eshel and Greg have put forth?  Howard

from http://howardbloom.net/instant_evolution.htm
The Influence of the City on Human Genes 
A Speculative Case
by Howard Bloom
Geneticist Neil Howell, of the University of Texas’ Galveston-based Medical 
Branch, contends that one form of human DNA—that contained in the mitochondria—
sometimes makes adaptive shifts in a mere one or two generations. [11] The 
research with which he hopes to prove this is still in its infant stage. But 
Howell’s suspicion that genes can be swift gains credibility from the rate of 
phenotypic change among insects and fish. 
Here’s an illustrative passage on the subject from my upcoming book, Global 
Brain: the Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (John 
Wiley & Sons, August 2000): 
If a passel of nearly identical animals is cooped up on a common turf, it 
frequently splinters into opposing groups which scramble determinedly down 
different evolutionary paths. E. O. Wilson, who brought attention to this phenomenon 
forty years ago, called it character displacement. [12] The battle over food 
and lebensraum compels each coterie to find a separate slot in the environment 
from which to chisel out its needs. [13]    For example a small number of 
lookalike cichlid fish found their way to Lake Nyasa [14] in Eastern Africa 
roughly 12,400 years ago. It didn't take long for the finny explorers to 
overpopulate the place. As food became harder to find, squabbles and serious fights 
probably pushed the cichlids to square off in spatting cliques. The further the 
groups grew apart, the more different they became. [15] The details of this 
process are somewhat speculative, but the result is indisputable. The cichlids 
rapidly went from a single species of fish to hundreds, [16] each equipped with a 
crowbar to pry open opportunities others had missed. Some evolved mouths wide 
enough to swallow armored snails. Others generated thick lips to yank worms 
from rocks. One diabolical coven acquired teeth like spears, then skewered its 
rivals' eyeballs and swallowed them like cocktail onions. In the geologic 
blink of twelve thousand years, what had begun as a small group of carbon copies 
became 200 separate species--a carnival of diversity. [17] 
Not only did twelve thousand years suffice to change the genes which gave 
these fish their body shape and bio-weaponry, that micro-sliver of an eon also 
provided ample time to rewrite the inborn script of fish psychology. Each new 
cichlid species was born chromosomally equipped with the hunting or scavenging 
instincts essential for its new specialty. 
 Then there’s the swarm of bird-biting London mosquitoes which moved into the 
tunnels of the Underground in roughly 1900 when the city’s half-built subway 
system was still occupied primarily by construction crews. Once below the 
sidewalk, the mosquitoes switched from feeding on feathered fliers to gorging on 
such delicacies as rats, straphangers, and maintenance workers. By the summer 
of 1998, the subterranean swarms had changed their genes so thoroughly that 
they could no longer mate with their distant relatives who lived above the 
pavement of the street. The pesky Tunnel bugs had taken their genome and gone off on 
their own, forming an entirely new species. [18] In reporting the story, 
Agence France Presse interviewed Roz Kidman Cox, the editor of BBC Wildlife 
Magazine, the publication responsible for initially breaking the news to a mass 
audience. Said Kidman Cox, "The scientists we talked to say the differences 
between the above and below ground forms are as great as if the species had been 
separated for thousands of years, not just a century.” [19] A mere one hundred 
years for a major shift in genes is not the painful crawl invoked by champions 
of Pleistocene fixation. Instead it is the quick-paced hop that Huxley called 
saltation. [20] 
Yet another insect can change its genome twice that fast. It’s the soapberry 
bug, which has renovated its chromosomes to fit new needs at a pace that’s 
dizzying…taking not 100 years but a mere 50. From roughly 1900 to 1980 
landscapers and city planners in Florida and in Louisiana produced a bonanza for any 
insect enterprising enough to go after it. The landscape designers imported new 
breeds of ornamental trees in an effort to help their clients outdo the 
neighbors or to spruce up a town’s streets. Florida’s sprucer-uppers chose the 
Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria elegans), which packaged its seeds in a slender pod 
whose walls were paper-thin. Louisiana’s outdoor decorators went for 
Koelreuteria paniculata and Cardiospermum halicacabum, whose seeds were stashed in 
packets with far thicker casings. Soapberry bugs moved in to mine the new arboreal 
territories. Each developed genes for a proboscis appropriately sized to seize 
the opportunities. In Florida where the Raintree pods were easily pierced, 
the proboscises of soapberry bugs were short. This made for easy sipping, thus 
saving on resources and on energy. In Louisiana, where seeds of the new 
eye-pleasing trees were protected by thick rind, soapberry bugs developed a proboscis 
of a rather different kind—long, slender drilling cylinders which made the 
sipping rougher but could bore through sidewalls of a kind far tougher.
Was this really a genetic alteration, or had soapberry bugs whose proboscises 
were already short or long simply moved long distances, each to the 
appropriate destination. Genetic testing showed that the specialized bugs had not come 
from far away, but had evolved from local insects whose proboscises had 
previously been adapted to harvest the bounty only of the local trees. By checking 
the dates at which the new greenery had ben brought in, researchers could 
pinpoint the time it had taken to tweak genes for proboscis length. That span 
turned out to be a breathlessly brief half a century. [21] So a flick of 
reproductive time can remake genomes in fast-breeding bugs, but what about in larger 
          In the 1970s, Thomas and Amy Schoener [22] deliberately stranded 
Anolis sagrei lizards from Staniel Cay on numerous smaller islands in the 
Bahamas, each with a different sort of foliage. Lizards on islands with stumpy 
plants adorned with small leaves can operate more efficiently with short hind legs. 
Lizards on islands whose plants are larger and more luxuriant do better if 
they have the long legs perches on large leaves and large plant trunks allow, 
since long legs also increase escape speed when running from the local lizard 
eaters. Washington University biologist Jonathan B. Losos predicted that over 
time natural selection would prune the lizards’ genes to equip the scattered 
creatures with the limbs which best fit their needs. But how much time would 
genetic pruning take? Return trips to the islands revealed it hadn’t taken much 
time at all. The lizards on each island were soon measurably different. Some 
managed to diverge genetically from their parent strain in the twitch of a single 
decade. That’s the equivalent of ten generations—200 years—in human time. 
Yet according to University of Washington evolutionary ecologist John N. 
Thompson, even this genetic sprint is painfully slow.    Says Thompson, "dozens" 
of genetic transmutations have been known to take place in a matter of mere 
decades. [23] Thompson backs up his claims with rather startling facts: 
·   “Gene‑for‑gene coevolution in wild flax and flax rust in Australia has 
produced large changes in allele frequencies within and among populations over 
just the past decade alone 
·   “The frequency of clones in Potamopyrgus antipodarum snails within a 
single lake in New Zealand has changed within the past decade through time‑lagged 
selection imposed by a major trematode parasite. 
·   “The introduction of myxoma virus into Australia as a biological control 
agent against rabbits resulted in rapid evolution toward decreased virulence 
within only a few years.” [24] 
Thompson explains that one cause of swift genetic change is the sort of race 
in which one species has to keep pace with its enemies and ecological 
partners. And lizard expert Jonathan Losos adds that, “ If colonizing populations are 
displaced into an environment that is often very different from that of their 
source, they are particularly likely to diverge evolutionarily. ” What’s 
more, writes Losos, the greater the difference in habitat, “the greater the 
magnitude of differentiation.”

In a message dated 11/25/2004 10:56:31 AM Eastern Standard Time, 
paul.werbos at verizon.net writes:
Having spent all of about 5 minutes of real thinking about the
questions Greg raises... enough thoughts pop into the mind that
I doubt I have time to type them all.

First -- one of the reasons why the establishment may find it difficult to 
address the questions is that they are very limited in this case in the degree
of mathematical abstraction they use. It's a kind of qualitative limitation
in how mathematical thinking is used...

The neuroscience establishment (which I know much better) has been struggling
with similar limitations... maybe a bit harder and a bit more successfully 
so far...


It is interesting to ask: now that we have learned a lot about intelligent 
systems in GENERAL..
and now that some of us have a reasonable first-order idea of how this maps 
into the brain..
what about the genetic system?

Forgive me for using a new term which sounds a bit pretentious -- 
The prefix "meta" has been badly misused lately, but in this case -- what 
else would
be a good single word to refer to the idea of a genetic system which
"learns to learn"?
Part of Greg's message is that we need to understand metagenetics in order 
to make
any sense at all of 97 percent of the human genome. That's a big step, a 
good one,
and an important one. That idea has existed in some form for a long time, 
but to
give it a snazzy new one-word version and focus more attention on it is 
still a good step.

But is there more going on here?

A natural way to interpret "metagenetics"... is to think of ... a kind of 
second-order system which is
still designed to perform the same basic functions people think about in 
genetic algorithms
or evolutionary computing: maximizing some kind of fitness function U(w) as 
a function of a set
of weights or parameters w. (Parameters could be anything from body 
to behavioral response characteristics .. to anything...) A sophisticated 
way to explore the space
of possible .. genotypes. Back in 1999
(at a plenary talk at CEC99, the IEEE Conference on Evolutionary 
Computing), I challenged
people to send me proposals to address a more interesting computational task:
to design systems which LEARN to do stochastic search to maximize U(w,X), 
where w is as before,
and X is a set of observed variables available to enhance performance. I 
have reiterated this in many
talks and tutorials... I call this task "Brain-Like Stochastic search." 
It's very important in
engineering, for example; if we use evolutionary search to find the best 
possible chip design
for some task.... it would be good to represent DIFFERENT chip design tasks 
by a vector X,
and then use a system which learns to do better on chip design task in 
For now, it's enough of a challenge to treat X as "exogenous," but someday 
one could advance to
dynamic X...

Now: one COULD follow up on Greg's questions by asking whether we can model 
the genetic system
as one which implements "Brain-Like Stochastic Search" with dynamic X. We 
may ask: to what
extent does this richer functional interpretation become essential to 
understanding the basics
of what we really see with the genome?

Now -- a certain degree of "stockpiling" can be important even in that 
limited context.

But another question occurs to me today: would it make any sense to go even 
and evaluate the possibility of a still higher level of intelligence in the 
genetic system?
I wonder.

In brains, evolutionary computing is certainly far from enough, in any form.
(And I suppose I know a few key things about Edelman's work that Edelman 
In a word -- TIME. Optimizing results INTO THE FUTURE, with anticipation or 
(both explicit and implicit), is absolutely central to how brains work.

Could there be anything like THAT in the genetic system? I wonder...

Various types of memory are essential in brains. There are many levels of 
stockpiling in brains.
Could any of THAT be transferrable to the genetic case?

I wonder.

This morning I was thinking more about Einstein than about Greg... but I 
suppose such thoughts would be
off-topic on this list.  Oh, well.

Best of luck,


paleopsych mailing list
paleopsych at paleopsych.org

Howard Bloom
Author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of 
History and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind From The Big Bang to the 
21st Century
Visiting Scholar-Graduate Psychology Department, New York University; Core 
Faculty Member, The Graduate Institute
Founder: International Paleopsychology Project; founding board member: Epic 
of Evolution Society; founding board member, The Darwin Project; founder: The 
Big Bang Tango Media Lab; member: New York Academy of Sciences, American 
Association for the Advancement of Science, American Psychological Society, Academy 
of Political Science, Human Behavior and Evolution Society, International 
Society for Human Ethology; advisory board member: Youthactivism.org; executive 
editor -- New Paradigm book series.
For information on The International Paleopsychology Project, see: 
for two chapters from 
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History, 
see www.howardbloom.net/lucifer
For information on Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang 
to the 21st Century, see www.howardbloom.net
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