Ever wondered why humanity seems “destined” to crumble?
“Evolution runs by selecting only some but not all information to pass on through the line of descent.”
Here is a wide misconception that is perpetuated by textbooks — such information selection (aka. natural selection) only happens on the level of “individuals” i.e., the package of traits of me and you as selected by the environment. Its contentiousness is further deepened by the notion of “survival of the fittest (individual)”, which has subtly carved into our meaning of life. On the other hand, some others insist that natural selection only happens on the gene level (I will discuss in the next article), which prompted some superficial generalizations and widespread misconceptions that genes (or alleles) all “want” to win the survival race for selfish gain and that organisms, me and you, are just unwitting meat robots being dragged into the race. These old and inadequate conceptions need to go because they hamper our understanding of the true nature of evolution and our very own fate.
Extra: watch this short gif video if you need a quick recap of the process of natural selection!
Evolution by natural selection can be generalized beyond such “limited scopes” easily. You can think of it as like General Relativity vs. Special Relativity in which the latter is limited to flat spacetime. In other words, natural selection does act on “individuals” but it is not exclusive to this specific level (hence it is a limited conception), there are larger and smaller levels that can be selected meaningfully e.g., from little chunks of subcellular self-replicating information, or minuscule cells within your body, to groups of interacting organisms in a micro-habitat or even large communities and ecosystems globally¹. Ultimately, as a theory, evolution seeks to explain the changes of living things on Earth (e.g., adaptation, speciation and extinction), fixating on just one narrow intuitive level makes us small-minded and short-sighted about its true nature.
The proper way to think about evolution by natural selection is that — all that matters are what information, encoded in a certain arrangement of matters and processes, persists better over time under a “discriminative”, not entirely random selective pressure. “Individuals” happen to be entities that carry information but so do entities existing at other scales. It is indeed not very hard to conceive traits emerging at any level of organization and timeframe that are capable of interacting with “information-destroying selective pressure”² ³.
“Within this (information) theory, ‘individuals’ can be cells, tissues, organisms, colonies, companies, political institutions, online groups, artificial intelligence or cities — even ideas or theories.” — Dr. Krakauer (Source: Quanta Magazine)
Let’s walk through some simple examples: imagine on the African savannah, a lone honey badger (a solitary animal) venturing the rugged landscapes, strenuously digging up mice for dinner while being constantly stalked by its archrival coyotes, it seems plausible to say that all the honey badger depends on is its own individual qualities and traits in order to live through the challenges it encounters every day.
Now shift our imagination to a lion pride that has been hunting antelopes and wildebeests (social and collective animals) since the dawn of time. In this case, it is more plausible and straightforward to say that the coordinated behaviors and group size (i.e., group traits) of the whole herd of antelopes or wildebeests stand to confront the fearsome selective pressure exerted by the pride of lions (alongside the harsh and scarce savannah environment), less of how smart and strong a certain individual is that determine the fate of the species in evolutionary timescale i.e., individual selection matters less when the selective pressure is too overwhelming. (I know you might be wondering how those huge coordinated social groups evolved in the first place, which I will answer in my next articles!)
More example, with global warming and more frequent drought, we can expect an increase in plant community (information) arrangements that are good at heat tolerance and water conservation given a long enough time. In contrast, an individual plant good at holding water on its own would still be faded out if it depletes the water of nearby plants, even if it might be more successful in the short-term⁴. To zoom out further, we might expect tundra ecosystem arrangement is going to be wiped out if global warming is left unchecked i.e., ecosystems shrink and expand depending on environmental pressure, same as populations of individuals through mortality and birth.
Even mass extinctions are known to directionally select smaller and more generalist communities across the entire globe. In such situations of extensive selection pressure, it is rather meaningless to say mass extinction selects small, generalist individuals, as you would still find many individuals who satisfy these traits died quite randomly. Instead, it is the stability of the remaining interconnected food web (a group quality) that matters in propagating information. Desperate traditional theorists would then resort to adding ever more adjunct conditions to their narrow theory and collect ever more data or play with semantics to explain why those individuals don’t survive (i.e., it spirals into descriptive tautology, although not necessarily “wrong”), when a simpler, general theory or formalism suffices.
Conversely, going down to levels of tiny beings drifting in Brownian motion e.g., a virus with minimalistic genetic make-up, one would expect selection (e.g., temperature stress) to act on traits expressed by individual copies of (viral) genes predominantly, a fairly direct example that justifies the thesis of the “Selfish Gene” (stay tuned for my next article!). However, if we extend our observation span a little longer, it would turn out that the primary selection unit (for survival) becomes the virus-host collective, instead of copies of viral genes, hence why deadly pandemics rarely last more than a few years.
“If you contracted cancers and your personal life changes in the span of a few years, you would try to understand it in terms of the cancerous cells and genes that are at play. If you try to understand how the society changes in the last few decades, you can summarize it pretty well with — those (individuals) who are more greedy and opportunistic rose to power more readily. The levels go on and on, we need to look beyond a fixed level if we want to understand our own fate, for evolution is eternal as long as there is energy flowing. How we view it affects the future of life that has yet to be born.” — Marmotian
As you now see, the primary level of selection depends on the timeframe considered, the scale of selective pressure at play, and the (groups of) players involved. The thing you should expect is that one form of selection becomes more important as circumstance changes (but they are all at play at any given moment). For social animals with tightly interconnected relationships (like ant colonies), you would expect herd/colony-level selection to be dominant, especially in a long timescale. Similar logic applies to lichens, which are composed of tightly interacting “individual” fungi and algae that weren’t even remotely in the same kingdom, but are nonetheless indispensably dependent on each other for survival. This begs the question: isn’t lichen more “individual” than the individual cells of fungi and algae? Think about it further, even “me” and “you” are also just groups of different cells tightly interacting with one another plus the microbiome inhabitant. In fact, the definition of an individual gets glossed over a lot in biology and no one seems to be able to articulate it well. A more straight-forward multi-level description is thus preferable (read the post-script here for more info!).
There are intuitive reasons that we are accustomed to selection at the level of individuals and short timescales (as I said, this conception is not wrong, just highly limited). It is because things do appear to be more controllable at this level for ourselves (think about sexual selection where you pick the individual traits in a mate; your day-to-day competition with your peers etc.), and that consciousness also appears to teem at this level according to our limited understanding. However, we ought to remember that science is not human-centric, its central role is about describing an objective reality, hence we need to move on and accept that evolution is something bigger than us. As time passes, everything evolves, including mathematical models, concepts, and knowledge stored in our brains or books, now is the chance for us to naturally select a better theory and squeeze past this narrow door we used to find the meaning of life.
What does it really mean for us?
Applying the concept of multilevel selection we have learned, we can infer that the selection that shapes the evolution of Homo sapiens during modern times is primarily cross-country or cross-ethnicity (so far), as we try to use artificial borders and classification to justify wars (both physical and informational), cultural cleansing, discriminative treatment and inequality, which now culminate in the pursuit of the Western ideal of material wealth and individualism as “universal success”.⁵
Concerning our collective fate in the mounting pressure of climate change and widespread ecological destruction (i.e., a very extensive and overwhelming selective pressure), we ought not to fixate too much on “individuals” or “skin color” etc. Forget about whether you think your colleague is selfish, altruistic or not, forget about breeding or engineering crops/babies with specific “super genes”. Instead, work for the community, conserve the ecosystem, and set collective goals to achieve measurable group functions (how much waste we produce, how much land we rehabilitate), all as an Earthling in mind, not American, not Chinese, not me vs. them. If we don’t discipline our minds now, Mother Nature eventually will. I wish this gives endeavors that are less Instagram-worthy e.g., building a permaculture community, engaging in public education, i.e., things that affect group traits instead of personal success, a new evolutionary meaning.
If you like this story and understand the embedded message, I strongly encourage you to share it out far and wide. I write this not because I want to be a famous writer or earn big money, I write it for the benefit of humanity and all ecosystems!
1. The theory of multi-level selection was popularized by “two Wilsons” — D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson, two giants in social evolution, I highly recommend you to read up their works (check this out for laymen and this for advanced readers) (n.b. there are many more important pioneering scientists contributing to the science, not just the popularization)
2. Languages, traditions, ideas, mathematical models, etc. are examples of non-biological systems that can be selected and undergoes evolution. In fact, Darwin himself once wanted to rename “natural selection” as “natural preservation” (of information), because he saw the generality of his theory expressed in terms of the persistence of information (see: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex).
3. Replication/reproduction is basically an exceptionally efficient mechanism that propagates packaged information over time (but not strictly required for natural selection and evolution to simply occur), thereby giving biology the central focus of evolution by natural selection.
4. I once thought of using paleo-botanical records to probe changes in individual traits vs. community traits. But the time resolution of radiometric dating is typically not very fine, so it is unlikely to give any reliable information about the order of causality (vs. just correlation). Thus, ongoing long-term ecological experiments/observations/research (e.g., chronosequence), which are severely lacking now, are required to provide better evidence.
5. Another interesting way to look at it is that: natural selection of single words/slang is certainly happening in all languages, but on a larger scale, we see that some language systems (as a whole) become more dominant in the last few decades, English, Russian, Chinese, etc. All because of a large-scale selective pressure — if you don’t speak those languages, you wouldn’t be able to find a nice job and have a good life.
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