The snuggle for survival
May 10, 2017 1:32 PM   Subscribe

“Darwinian” stands in for “cutthroat,” “survival of the fittest” signifies survival of the ruthless. We see selective pressures that hone each organism for success and drive genetic innovation as the natural order of things. But we know now that that picture is incomplete. Evolutionary progress can be propelled both by the competitive struggle to adapt to an environment, and by the relaxation of selective forces. When natural selection on an organism is relaxed, the creative powers of mutation can be unshackled and evolution accelerated. The relief of an easier life can inspire new biological forms just as powerfully as the threat of death.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (20 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Inspired by some of Martin "snuggle for survival" Nowak's early work (PDF), I did some playing around with iterated spatial prisoner's dilemma games and their relatives, game-theory games which have informed our thinking about the evolution of cooperation.

What I hadn't realized beforehand is that the prisoner's dilemma games are only a small space within the total set of possible payoffs. The prisoner's dilemma games are the most interesting and unpredictable, which is why they've been most studied, but they're a little square in the middle of all the clear-payoff games. Most of the other games are simple: Cooperate and you'll definitely get hurt; cooperate and you'll definitely benefit. All of the analysis that we've put into that interesting prisoner's dilemma square in the middle has maybe obscured all the cases in which cooperation is a clear, simple benefit.
posted by clawsoon at 1:48 PM on May 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

This is a pretty damn good article, but I have a huge quibble with the pull quote below:

“Darwinian” stands in for “cutthroat,” “survival of the fittest” signifies survival of the ruthless.

I see this all the time and it always strikes me that this definition is so out of sync with actual Darwinist theory. It really should be "survival of the fit enough to produce offspring."

I do appreciate that this article goes into the many other selective pressures (cooperative inter-species dynamics, intra-species cooperative behaviors allowing survival in non-optimal environments, etc).

I really hope more people push back against the "arms race" mentality of evolution more. We need better stories to understand the world.
posted by daq at 2:26 PM on May 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

The really annoying part about the "Darwinian" stuff is that Darwin himself disagreed with most of what we call "Darwinian". What we should really call it is "Spencerian" stuff, since it was Spencer, and *not* Darwin who coined the term "survival of the fittest".
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:38 PM on May 10, 2017 [8 favorites]

I always viewed Darwinism as "death of the least fit" as opposed to "survival of the fittest". Its larger inclusivity more accurately represents Earth's biodiversity.
posted by Groundhog Week at 2:39 PM on May 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Partially my problem with the article is that it conflates Darwinian pseudo-economics with the scientific theory of evolution. The closing sentence explicitly asserts the former, which makes the essay an argument about air-quotes "Darwinian" political ideology which presumably many liberals find quite distasteful intuitively, so the issue becomes how should the scientific theory of evolution be applied to dismantle that ideology.

The scientific idea the author introduces is that selective pressure alone constitutes a greedy algorithm, and that relaxation processes are crucial to evolution. But, for starters, computer science and optimization algorithms already tell us this: the concept of local minima, hill climbing methods, simulated annealing—all sorts of related ideas have been in CS for a long time. So to the extent the piece is explaining new ideas in research versus correcting misconceptions (in order to debunk the idea of social Darwinism), that's not made fully clear.

So I'd suggest that just as "Evolution = dog-eat-dog" is incorrect, it is also incorrect to counter with "Evolution = sometimes/often cooperation". They are fundamentally incorrect because evolution as a formal theory is an existential one. Social strategies like "cooperation" or "competition" fall under it; natural selection is just an unfortunate label* for something that mathematically and statistically happens.

For example, three of the anecdotes (hydrogen peroxide, Homo erectus, lactase) are supposed to show a common causal mechanism for new, beneficial mutations. That Asians/Africans don't have the lactose tolerance mutation, but Northern Europeans had lactase enzymes reactivated into later age due to the cultural discovery of cattle farming technology. But the fact that the Northern European gene pool shifted is precisely evidence of selection: the Northern Europeans who didn't digest milk got selected out. They died out. So does the result not count as evolution? My problem is the essay doesn't explain all this thoroughly, in using it as example in the overall argument. The reader should not be assumed to work it all out.

There's also selection in a different sense—in selection for milk digesting, or selection for hydrogen peroxide mutually-beneficial specialization, etc., that itself falls under a narrative of survival and competition and specialization. It all depends on how you demarcate or encapsulate the interdependencies, on what you attribute is the selective pressure.

Because, the milk example is particularly poignant given the global carbon footprint of cows; shouldn't the example have followed through by suggesting that maybe this lactase tolerance gene could turn out to be not good for the human species?

*Darwin or whoever used such language, like "survival of the fittest", in part because he and others at the time were knowledgable of and influenced by classical economic thinking; it's an interesting historical example of the (problematic) relationship between scientific thought and economic beliefs.
posted by polymodus at 2:59 PM on May 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

It really should be "survival of the fit enough to produce offspring."

Stephen J. Gould famously argued that we misinterpreted the sense in which Darwin used the word "fittest" all along, or at least, that the other sense of the word--of a thing being more fitted to its environment, not fit in the sense of healthy or strong--was really Darwin's point all along. Natural selection makes species more specialized for survival in their particular environment at the time the process happens, nothing less, nothing more.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:17 PM on May 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

yessssss! can't wait to read this.
posted by nikoniko at 3:27 PM on May 10, 2017

I had a biology professor who was fond of saying that evolution doesn't have to be efficient, just sufficient. If you apply that to social Darwinism, that means that we don't end up with the best society that we're capable of building, just one that has evolved to the point at which all of us don't die off under the current circumstances. The implication is that a just, more egalitarian society is possible. I like to keep that thought with me in the face of the ugly nihilism of the current regime. A fuck you, I've got mine mindset is not the only way to live. In fact, it's not efficient in terms of sustaining our world, just sufficient, and eventually not even that.
posted by batbat at 3:30 PM on May 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

I feel bad but I really struggle with responses to decent articles with horribly inaccurate framing.

The idea that natural selection is not all about brutal competition and 'nature red in tooth and claw' goes back to Darwin and Wallace. That is, it is as old as the idea of natural selection itself. It is not something "we now know." Someone (I think Pinker of all people) coined the term "straw we" for the rhetorical conceit that a writer indulges in when they say "we" all believe something wrong so they can make repeating something pretty basic seem new and novel. I guess readers tend to feel much less satisfied with "here's a primer on a really fundamental concept."

I try not to bash articles these days just for the framing, so I guess in summary the content is fine but please don't take from this that evolutionary scientists are just now getting wise to the values the cooperation.
posted by mark k at 4:01 PM on May 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

mark k: I agree with you, really, but for whatever reason, the inaccurate perception persists and keeps cropping back up as various forms of Social Darwinism outside scientific and academic circles.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:07 PM on May 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

On the other hand, Darwin did say that reading Malthus provided him with a key insight. "Survival of the fittest" was not Darwin's phrase, but "struggle for existence" was.
posted by clawsoon at 7:59 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Here's David Harvey's explication of Darwinist philosophy (the philosophical assumptions behind the scientific theory) in relation to Malthusian economics from a more critical point of view:

"The insight that allowed everything to fall into place by Darwin’s own account came from the social theory of Thomas Malthus. The blind hand of competition and survival of the fittest substituted for the conscious agent. Being married to the daughter of the pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood, Darwin was also deeply familiar with the importance of the rapid proliferation of divisions of labour and specialisations of function within British industrial capitalism. So these, too, entered into his theory of evolution. ‘It is remarkable’, wrote Marx, an admirer of Darwin, ‘how Darwin recognises among beasts and plants his English society with its divisions of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, inventions and Malthusian “struggle for existence”’. 1 These social metaphors underpinned Darwin’s theory of natural evolution. They helped him and us to make sense of his data. ...

"I mention this history not only to illustrate the utility of metaphors and analogies but to highlight also their potential dangers and pitfalls. As is well known in the science studies literature, the metaphors invoked to frame our thinking have all manner of consequences. We also know we cannot do without them." -- Capital's Nature
posted by polymodus at 10:51 PM on May 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Favorited for title.
posted by fairmettle at 2:25 AM on May 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Interesting. Reminds me of something posted previously.

Evolution. People think they understand it just like they think they understand the character of James T. Kirk.
posted by 1head2arms2legs at 5:14 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Fascinating upshot for me, and I know it's not strictly kosher to argue backwards from effects to causes, but to me, a possible implication of Darwinism is that, the existence of species adapted to living in a wide variety of natural environments, the kinds of very old species with long histories that are well suited to thriving under very different kinds of conditions might suggest those species evolved during sustained periods of rapid geologic change and instability.

That's also consistent with what we know about geology I think: that there have been long periods of greater tectonic instability and volcanic activity in Earth's natural history.

It's just a speculative idea I'm not qualified to assert as any kind of fact, but it follows that if selection pressure makes species more specialized, then if there had been stable ecological niches for those more resilient and adaptable forms of life to fill, they would have overadapted to those niches and not been as resilient and able to thrive under different conditions.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:42 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Grumpybearbride and I spend roughly 15-30% of our waking hours snuggling. I fully expect to grow a third eye and, like, molt or something.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:56 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I could use more snuggle and less struggle. Constant survival stress seems to be the new normal in my world, post-divorce/midtransition to whatever the hell comes next.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:09 AM on May 11, 2017

This guy was all over this
Prince Kropotkin, a personal hero of mine, and a reminder that it is better to be half-right than all-wrong.
posted by Chitownfats at 10:56 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's funny the article says Kropotkin's biggest mistake was accepting Lamarcism--the devil may be in the details and I'm not very familiar with the specific ideas of Lamarck, but the idea that behaviors and experiences we have in our lifetimes can be passed on to our offspring turned out to be correct, as we now know from the science of epigenetics.

It's almost as if the dogma of the Soviet Union and the U.S. were both only incomplete, half glimpses of a larger system of natural truth that properly seen and understood reveals the arguments on both sides to be only part of a bigger, harder to understand reality that's since started emerging and showing the apparent conflict was really just a misunderstanding between the two sides of the debate, aggravated by nationalist pride, romantic sentiment, and historical accident.

I still believe as others have argued that most seemingly irreconcilable problems in philosophy and science are products of social and communication failures and basic conceptual errors that together obscure a bigger picture that resolves the apparent conflicts between competing ideas once both sides get over their own biases and pride to see the bigger truth that reconciles them. The truth is usually bigger and more subtle than we like to imagine, because it's easier to work practically with simplified versions and models of reality that are designed to hide some parts of the reality for expedience.

That's a handy technique for studying narrow problems and solving engineering problems, but it can have distorting effects on our understanding of and grasp on the actual state of affairs in the real world beyond our linguistic simplifications.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:59 AM on May 14, 2017

saulgoodman: but the idea that behaviors and experiences we have in our lifetimes can be passed on to our offspring turned out to be correct, as we now know from the science of epigenetics.

I'd suggest a more cautious conclusion. In mammals, there are two rounds of scrubbing off epigenetic markers - once when eggs and sperm are created, and again just after conception - and very few epigenetic markers survive both rounds, perhaps a few hundred out of millions.

For those that do get passed down in humans, it appears that it's only experiences which happen during brief windows which get recorded: Experiences for a couple of years before puberty in men and women, and experiences as a fetus for women. (In other words, only experiences which happen while reproductive machinery and/or eggs are being formed.)

Other epigenetic changes don't get passed down. I won't get the big hand bones that my father had, because I haven't had a lifetime of manual labour. Lamarck wasn't completely wrong, but he was still mostly wrong. Mendel (as modified by Fisher, Morgan, etc.) wasn't completely right, but he was still mostly right.
posted by clawsoon at 6:42 AM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

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