Neo-Darwinism, the theory of the “selfish gene,” uncovered the basic principle of evolution, that change in living things happens through blind variation and selective retention. But it’s important to remember that there are two types of changes in germ cell DNA that could be inherited…mutations, but also mutilations of the DNA itself. This injury to the DNA itself must be exceedingly rare, much rarer than mutations, but not impossible. This means that there are two possible sources of new information in genetic evolution: a process of occasional decay that results in stochastic mutations, but also a type of damage caused by traumatic collision with some other part of reality. In the specific case of germ cell DNA, trauma can, at least possibly, affect the inherited genome.
The view in this paper accepts all the facts underlying Neo-Darwinism, but proposes a new causal model that explains some additional facts. This new proposal for the causal structure of evolution explains five outstanding problems: the problem of creativity, the problem of chronic disease, the problem of communication barriers, the problem of aesthetics, and the problem of morality. By problem, here I mean simply…why does this phenomenon happen?
To explain this I am going to introduce three new terms. One is a term that refers to what it is about the mostly chaotic matter in the multiverse that can sometimes cause it to show patterns that imprint onto other forms of matter, like the rounding of stones in a river, or waves leaving ridges in the sand on a beach. This could be called knowledge, but instead I will call this shakalaka, so as not to confuse it with “adapted information.” Shakalaka are orderly imprints following logic of any sort from one substrate to another. These imprints are more complex in certain environments than others: seacoasts, forest edges, riparian zones. The bodies of organisms contain lots of shakalaka; biodiversity fills the world with more of these novel, orderly patterns. In fact, organisms are concentrators of shakalaka.
The second term describes a process of stochastic mutation present in living bodies. Neo-Darwinists would agree that genetic evolution is creative, and that the initial source of change is mutation and this very special form of mutilation I mentioned. They have shown that the process of evolution proceeds by blind variation and selective retention. However, I propose that there are not one but three versions of this process of blind variation in living organisms. I call all three blundersplat, because I think they are the sources of trial and error.
You can think of blundersplat as mutations throughout the body and brain. Neo-Darwinists would agree that the genetic code itself does nothing to directly cause mutations in the genetic code. There is no algorithm that guides which parts of the genome mutate, or how, and no algorithm in the genome that pre-determines which mutations spread in a population. The selective retention of new mutations is determined by the environment of the niche. I propose that there are similar forms of mutation (stochastic changes) throughout the body on a time scale that is exponentially faster (daily), and even faster mutations in the connections between neurons in the brain (milliseconds). All three of these forms of change provide the blind variation that leads to creativity.
In the genome, random mutations arise. That is blind variation. Selection happens through differential survival of phenotypes. Retention happens through differential reproduction of surviving phenotypes. That’s all standard fare.
But the same principle works in the other two systems: In the body, blind variation comes from stochastic decay in our tissues that we experience as physical fatigue. Selection comes from traumatic collisions with parts of reality. This means various sorts of trauma, large and small, as well as internal disagreements between components of our own system. These internal disagreements are the mutations that become chronic inflammation if left unrepaired. The retention of selected structures comes from a biophysical healing process that occurs primarily during non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep strengthens the surviving physical configurations and reinforces them.
In the brain, blind variation is what we experience as forgetfulness. These are neuronal connections that decay stochastically, very quickly, at all times. Selection is provided by the fact that neuronal connections form an if-then structure that tells the body what stimuli might be expected given what just happened (causal models), arranged in a pattern clocked by the circadian rhythm. These expectations are traumatically disturbed by actual physical experiments that we conduct with our bodies as we live. This is what the philosopher Karl Popper described as refutations. REM sleep dreaming, and imagination, is the rapid production of counterfactuals that strengthen the surviving configurations and reinforces them. The newly healed structures are what Popper described as conjectures…the concentration of new shakalaka in the brain.
Blundersplat must be stochastic or “blind” because that is the only form of variation that is completely free of shakalaka, and it is the acquisition of new shakalaka that we are trying to explain. Genetic mutation, physical fatigue, and forgetfulness are three forms of the same thing: blundersplat.
What is it that is common to the structures of DNA, the body, and the brain that they could all follow the same variation/selection/retention logic? All three belong to a class of objects I call guessicles. That is my third new term. An object in this class happens to embody an if-then logic, or causal model, that allows the object to react to preserve itself. A bubble is a good example, a nonliving one. The membrane of a bubble has the property of being self-healing, within a certain limited context. The cell membrane is also an object like this. DNA is another such object. The entire body of any living organism is made of these guessicles, and they all must work together somehow to protect the living structure from destruction. Everything the human body does,—immune, metabolic, cognitive, emotional, moral, or technological,—serves this same purpose. The most elaborate guessicles of all are explanations. These are configurations in the brain which, like all guessicles, help the organism remain intact by allowing it to expect that a certain set of things may happen, given what just happened. When these expectations embodied in guessicles are perturbed by external reality, we call that perception.
Concentrating shakalaka into guessicles is how all living things protect themselves from destruction. A good explanation concentrates shakalaka not only in space, but in time as well. A good explanation gives you an idea not only of what may be happening all around you even at a great distance, but also what may happen in the future, and what has happened in the past. It draws the conceivable patterns from spatial reality around you and concentrates them in your brain, but it also draws in the future and the past, and puts them in your head. That’s the power of guessicles.
If this view of organisms is correct, creativity is really a misnomer. Nothing is really created by living things in the sense that is normally meant by the term…rather something larger and more distant is simply concentrated locally. An organism is something reactive, not proactive. This is called downward causation, and this is why this theory of evolution is “upside-down.”
If my proposal above is correct, then all living things have the same potential for creativity. There is no algorithm that controls genetic change; it is open-ended evolution. The same then must be true of living bodies, and brains. There is certainly an algorithm expressed by the body, but the algorithm is changing all the time, and its changes are not guided by a fixed internal logic. Like genetic evolution, they are guided by the surroundings, or more importantly by the way the system is connected to the surroundings. The system is repaired by a simple healing routine, the details of which are not essential. Any healing routine should do, because the creativity isn’t in the way the system heals, but in what it heals from. The healing of blundersplat and trauma in genes, bodies, and minds is also known as “classical conditioning.” Every living being has a slightly distinct version of a healing algorithm, because the algorithm is the result of the decay of older algorithms, combined with the unique experience of the organism. No two organisms have had the same blundersplat, or the same experiences, so there must not be any universalizable algorithm for creativity. The difference between the creativity of different species (and different individuals) is not in the algorithms of the different brains or bodies, but the fact that ecological niches differ dramatically in how many forms of shakalaka they contain, and it is the concentration of of new forms of shakalaka that allows the algorithm (organism) to survive. The causation in this process does not run from the bottom up, as Neo-Darwinism has it, but from the top down.
Neo-Darwinism posits that replicators are the causes of organisms, and that organisms find their niches because of the action of their replicators. But this must be wrong. As the physiologist Denis Noble points out in his book Dance to The Tune of Life, one can determine a causal relationship between the organism and its niche by asking the question: Does the organism require a niche? Yes. Does the niche require an organism? No. Therefore the niche is the cause of the organism, not vice versa. Likewise, DNA freed from the cell (such as a virus) requires a host, but the host does not require a virus. This shows how, even at the cellular level, organisms cause genes to exist, not vice versa. All this view requires is just that you think of organisms as products of their environment, not the other way around.
The reason that far distant lineages in the tree of life show convergent evolution on the solutions of sleep and dreaming is because there is a universal physical property, shakalaka, that is common to all niches, though it is present in different niches to vastly different degrees. Convergent evolution always shows that some aspect of a niche is held in common with another niche. Air produces wings in niches that contain air, light produces eyes in niches that contain light, water produces flippers, etc. Shakalaka produces sleep and dreaming in the same way, as a convergent adaptation to a shakalaka-laden niche. This is how such distinct organisms as humans and the invertebrate cuttlefish, an intelligent mollusk with no central nervous system, could have both converged on REM sleep. Blundersplat, and its mirror image, the circadian-timed repair cycle, are just such convergent evolutionary solutions. They are solutions to the problem of concentrating shakalaka. Sleep (paralysis and physical reconditioning) must be the only way of repairing guessicles in the body, and dreaming (paralysis and rapid production of counterfactuals) must be the only way of repairing guessicles in any sort of brain, even the decentralized invertebrate brain of cephalopods.
What is so unique about the human niche, that allows shakalaka to accumulate there so quickly? The concentration of shakalaka is distinct from the retention of it inside a niche, where other organisms can use it. Information is a special form of shakalaka with interchangeable, universal parts. Information is a code that can ultimately be extrapolated to write, or emulate, anything at all. All niches contain at least one form of information: genes. But the human niche contains two additional new forms of external, stored, transmissible information: written alphabetical and numerical characters, and digital bits. As Claude Shannon put it in his 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, “The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages.” Information is messages, and messages are only produced by living things. These new forms of shakalaka have allowed for meme evolution in a niche that selects for long-lived, gregarious, imitative, intelligent animals. The same property that allows genetic information to compete within all niches allows memes to compete within the human niche,—a niche affords opportunities to concentrate shakalaka. But these new forms of shakalaka, written alphabets and digital information, can accumulate orders of magnitude faster than the base pair information in genomes. Creativity is how shakalaka gets into a niche, but information is the only way it can stay there, to be improved by future organisms. This explains why shakalaka has accumulated so rapidly in the human niche even though humans are not the most creative animals on earth.
Creativity contains a speed factor. Creativity is the ability to quickly generate novel solutions to problems. Because humans take a long time to mature and to generate their solutions, and because our bodies and minds have certain limits to their plasticity, the award for the most creative animal probably goes to the solitary, short-lived octopus. A nine-month old octopus can generate astonishing practical solutions to the problems of being an octopus, at an age when a human child is just leaving the womb. However, because they are antisocial animals and do not imitate one another, octopuses do not leave any external shakalaka behind in the form of information, other than offspring. This means barely any new shakalaka can accumulate in the octopus niche other than occasional mutations and mutilations of DNA. In the human niche, the story is much different. Humans imitate and communicate fluidly. Recorded, competitive information is proliferating at a blinding pace in the human niche. Because of these new forms of fast-evolving literary and digital information, shakalaka accumulates rapidly in the human niche and barely at all in other niches. Information makes all the difference.
Creativity comes from the ability to rewrite long-term shakalaka quickly in light of short-term shakalaka. The conflict between these two quantities gives organisms their problem-solving activity. All parts of an organism are sensitive to shakalaka coming from their niche, but the three-part system I described above shows that not all parts are sensitive in the same time scale. Every organism is motivated, in other words, by a conflict between an “expected” state driven by long-term shakalaka, and an “actual” state, driven by conflicting short-term shakalaka (perception.) The purposive activity we see in organisms is the attempt to return their actual state to their expected state by conducting experiments, and to tentatively shift their expected state in response to the results of these experiments. One source of plasticity in humans is epigenetics, our ability to “turn on and off” genes. Octopuses may be more creative than us in part because of a recently discovered process, based on extensive RNA editing, that allows them to fluctuate the expression of their long-term genetic shakalaka to a much greater degree than mammals.
- Chronic Disease
If you see humans as expressions of the properties of the human niche, then it follows that any rapid changes in our niche may ultimately become problems for our bodies, since our long-term genetic shakalaka can only change very slowly. Our minds can change quickly, and our bodies have significant plasticity as well. But the human genome evolved in a niche where food was scarce and required exertion to procure, where the risk and violence of survival killed the average person at around forty years of age, and where the light/dark cycle of day and night hardly ever varied. Of these important facts, the most fundamental is the latter one. We have understood how health is largely a consequence of youth, and can be improved by dietary restriction and exercise, but we may have only begun to realize the impact artificial light may have on the circadian rhythm and sleep quality.
All organisms in the tree of life have a circadian rhythm because the expected state, which is driven by long-term shakalaka, must track reality. Even if there were no day and night cycle, organisms would need a clock in order for their expected states to track the way reality fluxes with time. Organisms express a hypothesis about how reality may change with their guessicles. This hypothesis incorporates causal models, so it can deviate from the long-term expectations based on short-term shakalaka. The circadian rhythm also times the repair cycle so that it will occur at the most optimum points in the day or night, when new shakalaka in the niche is at its lowest point. It is important to realize that sleep is not the same process as torpor, or hibernation; in fact, in some cases, hibernating animals develop a sleep deficit. Sleep is not an energy-saving cycle; it is a repair cycle. This explains why sleep happens at different times for different species, but all highly creative organisms must sleep.
The immediate symptoms of circadian disruption and sleep restriction in individuals mirror the long-term, society-wide rise in chronic diseases. Why are chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, atherosclerosis, mental illness, infertility, allergies, autism, and asthma rising across the developed world, even as knowledge about the health benefits of dietary restriction and exercise have increased? Circadian disruption and sleep restriction disturb all body systems in a profound way, leading to metabolic, mental, immune, reproductive, and cardiovascular dysfunction. It is possible that the circadian “resetting” effect of bright artificial light at night, especially in the blue end of the spectrum, plays the most important initial causative role in this chain of correlated maladies.
- Communication Barriers
This downward causation, from the niche to the mind, body, and genome, means that creativity is not a guarantee of shakalaka transmission from one niche to another. An organism can only perceive what is inside its niche,—the niche is a sealed envelope that caused it and contains it. Organisms can only transmit shakalaka to one another to the extent that they share a niche. This means that the definition of a niche may always be a bit vague,—what counts as shakalaka? Some forms, like information, are made of interchangeable parts,—genetic, alphabetic, and digital,— and can be transmitted universally within a given niche. But others are more difficult to transmit, like skills and insights. Octopuses may rapidly generate beautiful solutions to problems,— fantastical masquerades, brilliant evasions, and clever manipulations. But as humans we can only perceive these as shakalaka to the extent we can recognize that they are also, in some way, solutions to our problems. This is the very small extent to which we share the same niche with octopuses. Popper’s example from his 1986 Medawar lecture was the spider in his bedroom. He might share his space with it, he said, but it could not hear his alarm clock, because they did not share a niche.
The task of building what we can describe as an indefinitely creative shakalaka-concentrating machine (artificial general intelligence) will require that we connect this artificial system, as much as possible, to the human niche. This means that it must encounter reality in the same ways that humans encounter it. It will have to be sensitive to the same parts of reality that we are sensitive to: primarily vision, hearing, touch, and proprioception. It could have other sensitivities in addition to ours, but in order to share our niche it must share our perceptual mechanisms to a large extent. It would not require a genome, and its body could be made from interchangeable parts of artificial hardware, but its mental system will have to generate guessicles just as ours does that can be broken by physical experiments of the same sort we conduct with our own bodies. It does not need to be “humanoid,” (it could be shaped like an octopus) but it does need to be able to manipulate objects, move itself, and hear, see, and speak in the ranges of human perception. An artificial thinker must conduct experiments, like a child, with the shared parts of reality that other humans are able to reach so that we can teach it directly to communicate in our language about its experiences. Otherwise, its creativity will not result in any information that we can add to our niche. “Intelligence” depends on intelligibility.
Information is a class of shakalaka, and adapted information (which is how some people define knowledge) is a class of information. By using universal computers, information can be made to emulate any part of physical reality down to any arbitrary level of detail, but that does not at all prove that information is synonymous with that physical reality. Life is not a video game. Our human niche is not the same as a rendering of a part of reality. It takes all the parts of reality that we can touch to constitute our human niche, and only a tiny part of reality to constitute the sort of rendering that we are capable of with today’s technology. This is why AGI must be embodied, as we are, in a machine that can touch a large enough niche in physical reality that it overlaps with our own, so that we can communicate with it. This is why it is impossible now for artificial algorithms in virtual environments to accomplish the open-ended creation of what we can perceive as knowledge.
What is it about a niche that creates life? The answer is orderliness. A niche is not just a random space in reality, seeded by replicators. There is something very special about the space inside a niche, in physical terms. Physical reality is full of attractors: tornadoes, whirlpools, solar systems, black holes. Niches are defined by shakalaka, but shakalaka is derived from another quantity more familiar to physics, as Erwin Schrödinger noted in his 1944 book, What is Life?—the reverse of entropy, negative entropy, or in layman’s terms, order. Niches are attractors for order. Niches are not caused by organisms; rather they are expressed in organisms, by what they are and what they do. This explains why humans and all organisms are interested in beauty.
This is the mystery of aesthetics. The problem is much broader than just a few freak examples like the bower bird and the peacock. Consider this: animals spend much of their time hunting and being hunted. If you do much hunting yourself, you will quickly realize that it is easy for both humans and animals to pick out orderly objects with patterns on them. This orderly patterning is a sure sign that a life form is present. Optimal camouflage for the purpose of concealment is blotchy, irregular, and misshapen. And yet, in Nature under natural selection, the coloration of animals is almost always symmetrical and orderly. That genes can produce irregular patterns is evident; in domesticated animals like horses, dogs, goats, and cattle, where natural selection has been overridden, blotchy, patchy coat coloration is the norm. What explains this apparently maladaptive preference for order and symmetry among wild animals? The search for shakalaka. Sexual selection is only one part of an organism’s drive to find order. Forms of order not yet written into the expected states of an organism’s long-term shakalaka are interesting.
Information is what competes…ruthlessly… not organisms. Genes are selfish, and so are memes. But organisms are not competitive; they are only trying their best to find and concentrate shakalaka. This distinction explains many of the unresolved problems with the theory of evolution.
Individuals have niches, groups have niches, and species as a whole have niches as well. As attractors, niches have an affinity for certain external quantities. They are attractors for order, which means they have an affinity for nearby niches. Organisms are curious and creative; they use not only inert matter, but nearby organisms, to create orderly regularities that protect their opportunities for life. We can think of these regularities as alliances. Alliances increase the concentrations of shakalaka because they create orderly habits among beings. Inside the human niche, humans make alliances with other humans that we call morality.
We may think of morality as sets of universal rules, but this must be wrong, because it cannot explain why our moral intuitions are always much stronger about our actions towards nearby beings, and weaker about our action towards faraway beings. Instead, morality is really better explained as an extension of our immune system. We extend our capacity to protect our guessicles by building regularities in the world around us…technology that controls inert matter, and moral norms that control living matter. Our supreme alliances, the products of all of our individual human niches steadily merging, have now expanded to include international monetary systems, legal agreements, global conglomerates, and the norms of human rights. Humans make alliances, but all other species make them too, because they are a property of every niche. Mutualisms, symbioses, multicellular organisms, and ecosystems are all examples of such interdependent alliances. Even predation, though it seems destructive, is an example of one organism incorporating some of the order from another organism into its body.
All alliances are made up of shakalaka, but some alliances contain information, and wherever information exists, it is always highly competitive. A species itself is a form of alliance, allowing information to compete by genetic transfer between individuals. The human individual is, in a sense, the fruiting body of the human niche, spreading new competitive information like spores from a mushroom. But why is the information competing? It is competing because some information attracts more shakalaka to the niche than other information. This imperative drives the creativity of life; that’s why Neo-Darwinism appears approximately correct, even though its causal model is wrong. Life appears to be a contest between replicators because informative replicators are competing to bring new forms of order into a niche.
The competition of information in a niche, rather than forcing inequality, actually drives equalitarianism over longer time scales. There are two rules of competition: that those with the most useful information in the niche prevail in solving problems, and that successful information replicates and spreads through the niche. Each living being has the potential to concentrate useful shakalaka, and this gives each being an inherent value to all other beings. The awareness of these potential opportunities is what we experience as compassion and empathy, and as the attractor gains shakalaka, it makes forward progress over time. Morality is how the human niche exerts its physical power over us,—no matter how selfish we are, we all try to maximize the protection of our opportunities to concentrate shakalaka through alliances with other beings. Some value strong bonds with nearby allies, and some value diffuse alliances with faraway beings, but over time, both these solutions get deeper and stronger through our problem-solving activity. Concentrated shakalaka creates trust, because that’s how all beings protect themselves from destruction. Strange though it may seem, this same alliance-building property of competitive information operates on all living beings within their own niches. Equalitarianism manifests itself in morality and politics in the information-rich human niche, but the information in all niches drives this same logic. The physical sameness of individuals in a species is a version of genetic equalitarianism in other niches, niches that contain only genetic information.
Though it says nothing about the existence of God, this view of niches as physical attractors for order gives a directionality to events, a teleology. As Popper pointed out, “a niche has an inside and an outside.” This means that the ancient theological quantities, good and evil, can be interpreted to have a physical meaning. Good can be defined as enlarging opportunities to concentrate shakalaka, and evil can be defined as diminishing those opportunities. As the physicist David Deutsch wrote in The Beginning of Infinity, “all evils stem from a lack of knowledge.” This directionality explains the moral progress we have experienced in human affairs over long historical trends. These dimensions of shakalaka are derived from negative entropy, so although they cannot be measured precisely without determining the position (and nature) of all the particles in physical reality, they nevertheless do have a physical definition.
Flipping the causal model of Neo-Darwinism cures the theory of evolution of its least appealing aspect: its stubborn insistence that life is in no way purposive. This conclusion has never been accepted by most humans, for good reason. It strains our every intuition to imagine that life is entirely accidental, and not a part of some larger pattern. Still, many scientific readers may have trouble with the idea that measurable quantities, like DNA, can be caused by immeasurable quantities, like niches. The current scientific paradigm (reductionism) is allergic to the idea that the seen can be caused by the unseen, or that the very small can be caused by the very large. But niches, though impossible to precisely analyze in the way that organisms and DNA can be analyzed, are no less essential to Neo-Darwinism as a theory than they are to this upside-down theory of evolution. There are no new superstitions being introduced here, and no theology. Niches are already irremovable parts of our best scientific explanation of life; this theory just gives them a new and better role to play. Reductionism has accomplished tremendous results despite its use of shallow explanations…nevertheless, because of our very nature, humans will always crave deeper ones.
Copyright 2020 by Charles Sims Munford