[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
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
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.  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.  The battle over food
and lebensraum compels each coterie to find a separate slot in the environment
from which to chisel out its needs.  For example a small number of
lookalike cichlid fish found their way to Lake Nyasa  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.  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,  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. 
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.  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.”  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
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.  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  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.  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.” 
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
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
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
any sense at all of 97 percent of the human genome. That's a big step, a
and an important one. That idea has existed in some form for a long time,
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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,
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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