Posts Tagged ‘Silly season’

Silly science? Evolution does not favour the selfish

August 1, 2013

Silly season is upon us.

Two Michigan University researchers claim that evolution will not sustain a “selfish gene” but will eventually select for cooperation.

Why am I not in the least bit convinced?

If either selfishness or cooperation was genetically determined, and if survival was dependent upon such a choice, then one or the other should have become extinct a long time ago.  The silliness of this work lies first in the assumption that a behavioural characteristic – even if crucial for survival – is merely determined by genetics.  Second, evolution never selects for excellence – whether in superlative selfishness or for unstinting cooperation. It represents the minimum of behavioural traits needed to survive till reproduction.

Evolution couldn’t care less if individuals are selfish or cooperative. It only results from those individuals sufficiently selfish or sufficiently cooperative for survival until reproduction. 

Of course the Daily Mail manages to put it in a remarkably silly headline:

Selfish people ‘will eventually die out’ because evolution favours cooperation

The paper is published in Nature Communications.

Christoph Adami, Arend Hintze. Evolutionary instability of zero-determinant strategies demonstrates that winning is not everythingNature Communications, 2013; 4 DOI:10.1038/ncomms3193

The accompanying press release trumpets

Evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean 

Two Michigan State University evolutionary biologists offer new evidence that evolution doesn’t favor the selfish, disproving a theory popularized in 2012.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean,” said lead author Christoph Adami, MSU professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”

The paper appears in the current issue of Nature Communications and focuses on game theory, which is used in biology, economics, political science and other disciplines. Much of the last 30 years of research has focused on how cooperation came to be, since it’s found in many forms of life, from single-cell organisms to people.

In 2012, a scientific paper unveiled a newly discovered strategy – called zero-determinant – that gave selfish players a guaranteed way to beat cooperative players.

“The paper caused quite a stir,” said Adami, who co-authored the paper with Arend Hintze, molecular and microbiology research associate. “The main result appeared to be completely new, despite 30 years of intense research in this area.”

Adami and Hintze had their doubts about whether following a zero determinant strategy (ZD) would essentially eliminate cooperation and create a world full of selfish beings. So they used high-powered computing to run hundreds of thousands of games and found ZD strategies can never be the product of evolution. While ZD strategies offer advantages when they’re used against non-ZD opponents, they don’t work well against other ZD opponents.

“In an evolutionary setting, with populations of strategies, you need extra information to distinguish each other,” Adami said.

So ZD strategies only worked if players knew who their opponents were and adapted their strategies accordingly. A ZD player would play one way against another ZD player and a different way against a cooperative player.

“The only way ZD strategists could survive would be if they could recognize their opponents,” Hintze said. “And even if ZD strategists kept winning so that only ZD strategists were left, in the long run they would have to evolve away from being ZD and become more cooperative. So they wouldn’t be ZD strategists anymore.” 

Game theory for an individual game or even for a succession of games is one thing but evolution does not care how selfish or how cooperative an individual is.

Breaking weather records from a century ago only shows that it was hotter before CO2 emissions began

July 14, 2012

I am off again on an assignment for a few days and blogging will be light.

It’s summer and where I’m going torrential rain or blistering sunshine with temperatures over 45 °C  are quite normal for this time of year. If it is raining the temperature may be down to 25°C. So I’m prepared for a possible variation of some 20 deg C. It’s just weather.

I note the usual summer stories from around the world of heat waves in some places and “coldest” Junes in a 100 years in others. Some farmers are complaining about droughts and others are complaining about floods. Where societies have ignored repairs or have not built up their infrastructure to match the changing concentrations of urban populations – disasters occur. But I also note that when parts of the US declares that they have just had the hottest period for 50 years or 100 years or whatever and that this is “proof” of global warming they conveniently forget that 50 years ago or 100 years ago or whenever, man-made emissions of carbon dioxide were orders of magnitude lower. When weather records from a hundred years ago are broken it only proves that it was hotter/colder/stormier/wetter/drier or whatever long before the modern industrial age and before any significant man man-made carbon dioxide emissions.  Breaking an old record only shows cyclic behaviour – not “runaway” behaviour!

It’s summer and people are on vacation and journalists are looking for stories and the silly season has begun!

It’s silly season: Aliens and global warming “fun” paper picked up by the Guardian and others and the co-author apologises

August 20, 2011

It’s August and the silly season is on us.

Global warming >> detection by advanced aliens >> humanity exterminated

Even a science fiction author would have qualms.

The Guardian carried a headline: Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists saying Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat, warns a report. They had picked up on a “fun” paper which was a couple of months old. It was attributed – now admitted by a co-author – quite wrongly to NASA.

Though the Guardian actually does say that one of the authors is a “NASA affiliated scientist” and does not explicitly say NASA was behind the paper the report does imply that this was a “formal” NASA paper. This was of course picked up by a number of other media outlets – Svenska Dagbladet among them – which merely carried the Guardian report headline and all. Not one of the journalists who reported the Guardian silly season story actually bothered to read the original paper which is here:

Acta Astronautica, 2011, 68(11-12): 2114-2129. Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis by Seth D. Baum-1, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra-2 & Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman-3

1. Department of Geography, Pennsylvania State University.
2. Department of Meteorology, Pennsylvania State University
3. NASA Planetary Science Division

The third author, Shawn Goldman, who happens to work at NASA organising conferences and workshops, has been forced to explain and clarify that this was just a “fun” scenario done in his spare time and has nothing to do with NASA.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman is currently a postdoc at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. For 3-4 days a week he works in the astrobiology program office, organizing conferences and workshops. The other 1-2 days are dedicated to research focused on exoplanet characterization lessons from the “pale orange dot” that was the Archean Earth.

(Archean Earth was similar to but somewhat warmer than today, existed some 3800 – 2500 million years ago and is thought to have contained no free Oxygen. Bacteria were around. I suppose if you can get your mind around imagining the Archean Earth then imagining aliens picking up on global warming and emissions signals and destroying humanity is child’s play).

Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman

Alien expert?: Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman

He writes:

Yes, I work at NASA. It’s also true that I work at NASA Headquarters. But I am not a civil servant… just a lowly postdoc. More importantly, this paper has nothing to do with my work there. I wasn’t funded for it, nor did I spend any of my time at work or any resources provided to me by NASA to participate in this effort. There are at least a hundred more important and urgent things to be done on any given work day than speculate on the different scenarios for contact with alien civilizations… However, in my free time (what precious little I have), I didn’t mind working on stuff like this every once in a while. Why? Well, because I’m a geek and stuff like this is fun to think about. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for fun. Indeed, I felt guilty at times because this has led to a lack of effort on my part in my interactions with Seth and Jacob. Beyond adding some comments here or there, I did very little for the paper.

But I do admit to making a horrible mistake. It was an honest one, and a naive one… but it was a mistake nonetheless. I should not have listed my affiliation as “NASA Headquarters.” I did so because that is my current academic affiliation. But when I did so I did not realize the full implications that has. …..

One last thing: I stand by the analysis in the paper. Is such a scenario likely? I don’t think so. But it’s one of a myriad of possible (albeit unlikely) scenarios, and the point of the paper was to review them. 

Perhaps the aliens picked up on Archean Earth and actually seeded the progression of the bacteria into humanity.

Oh well! It is August and we are all entitled to be silly – even the Guardian.


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