Thermodynamic theory of evolution

The teleology and historical contingency of biology, said the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, make it unique among the sciences. Both of these features stem from perhaps biology’s only general guiding principle: evolution. It depends on chance and randomness, but natural selection gives it the appearance of intention and purpose. Animals are drawn to water not by some magnetic attraction, but because of their instinct, their intention, to survive. Legs serve the purpose of, among other things, taking us to the water.
Mayr claimed that these features make biology exceptional — a law unto itself. But recent developments in nonequilibrium physics, complex systems science and information theory are challenging that view.
Once we regard living things as agents performing a computation — collecting and storing information about an unpredictable environment — capacities and considerations such as replication, adaptation, agency, purpose and meaning can be understood as arising not from evolutionary improvisation, but as inevitable corollaries of physical laws. In other words, there appears to be a kind of physics of things doing stuff, and evolving to do stuff. Meaning and intention — thought to be the defining characteristics of living systems — may then emerge naturally through the laws of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.

One of the most fascinating reads of my past half year.

I recently linked to the a short piece by Pinker on how an appreciation for the second law of thermodynamics might help one come to some peace with the entropy of the world. It's inevitable, so don't blame yourself.

And yet there is something beautiful about life in its ability to create pockets of order and information amidst the entropy and chaos.

A genome, then, is at least in part a record of the useful knowledge that has enabled an organism’s ancestors — right back to the distant past — to survive on our planet. According to David Wolpert, a mathematician and physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who convened the recent workshop, and his colleague Artemy Kolchinsky, the key point is that well-adapted organisms are correlated with that environment. If a bacterium swims dependably toward the left or the right when there is a food source in that direction, it is better adapted, and will flourish more, than one  that swims in random directions and so only finds the food by chance. A correlation between the state of the organism and that of its environment implies that they share information in common. Wolpert and Kolchinsky say that it’s this information that helps the organism stay out of equilibrium — because, like Maxwell’s demon, it can then tailor its behavior to extract work from fluctuations in its surroundings. If it did not acquire this information, the organism would gradually revert to equilibrium: It would die.
Looked at this way, life can be considered as a computation that aims to optimize the storage and use of meaningful information. And life turns out to be extremely good at it. Landauer’s resolution of the conundrum of Maxwell’s demon set an absolute lower limit on the amount of energy a finite-memory computation requires: namely, the energetic cost of forgetting. The best computers today are far, far more wasteful of energy than that, typically consuming and dissipating more than a million times more. But according to Wolpert, “a very conservative estimate of the thermodynamic efficiency of the total computation done by a cell is that it is only 10 or so times more than the Landauer limit.”
The implication, he said, is that “natural selection has been hugely concerned with minimizing the thermodynamic cost of computation. It will do all it can to reduce the total amount of computation a cell must perform.” In other words, biology (possibly excepting ourselves) seems to take great care not to overthink the problem of survival. This issue of the costs and benefits of computing one’s way through life, he said, has been largely overlooked in biology so far.

I don't know if that's true, but it is so elegant as to be breathtaking. What this all leads to is a theory of a new form of evolution, different from the Darwinian definition.

Adaptation here has a more specific meaning than the usual Darwinian picture of an organism well-equipped for survival. One difficulty with the Darwinian view is that there’s no way of defining a well-adapted organism except in retrospect. The “fittest” are those that turned out to be better at survival and replication, but you can’t predict what fitness entails. Whales and plankton are well-adapted to marine life, but in ways that bear little obvious relation to one another.
England’s definition of “adaptation” is closer to Schrödinger’s, and indeed to Maxwell’s: A well-adapted entity can absorb energy efficiently from an unpredictable, fluctuating environment. It is like the person who keeps his footing on a pitching ship while others fall over because she’s better at adjusting to the fluctuations of the deck. Using the concepts and methods of statistical mechanics in a nonequilibrium setting, England and his colleagues argue that these well-adapted systems are the ones that absorb and dissipate the energy of the environment, generating entropy in the process.

I'm tempted to see an analogous definition of successful corporate adaptation in this, though I'm inherently skeptical of analogy and metaphor. Still, reading a paragraph like this, one can't think of how critical it is for companies to remember the right lessons from the past, and not too many of the wrong ones.

There’s a thermodynamic cost to storing information about the past that has no predictive value for the future, Still and colleagues show. To be maximally efficient, a system has to be selective. If it indiscriminately remembers everything that happened, it incurs a large energy cost. On the other hand, if it doesn’t bother storing any information about its environment at all, it will be constantly struggling to cope with the unexpected. “A thermodynamically optimal machine must balance memory against prediction by minimizing its nostalgia — the useless information about the past,’’ said a co-author, David Sivak, now at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. In short, it must become good at harvesting meaningful information — that which is likely to be useful for future survival.

This theory even offers its own explanation for death.

It’s certainly not simply a matter of things wearing out. “Most of the soft material we are made of is renewed before it has the chance to age,” Meyer-Ortmanns said. But this renewal process isn’t perfect. The thermodynamics of information copying dictates that there must be a trade-off between precision and energy. An organism has a finite supply of energy, so errors necessarily accumulate over time. The organism then has to spend an increasingly large amount of energy to repair these errors. The renewal process eventually yields copies too flawed to function properly; death follows.
Empirical evidence seems to bear that out. It has been long known that cultured human cells seem able to replicate no more than 40 to 60 times (called the Hayflick limit) before they stop and become senescent. And recent observations of human longevity have suggested that there may be some fundamental reason why humans can’t survive much beyond age 100.

Again, it's tempting to look beyond humans and at corporations, and why companies die out over time. Is there a similar process at work, in which a company's replication of its knowledge introduces more and more errors over time until the company dies a natural death?

I suspect the mechanism at work in companies is different, but that's an article for another time. The parallel that does seem promising is the idea that successful new companies are more likely to emerge in fluctuating nonequilibrium environments, not from gentle and somewhat static ones.


The best scientists are often the ones who are plainest about their non-scientific interests. Feynman's intro physics books are the best of all physics intros in part because he talks freely about beauty: Here's a beautiful theorem. Here's a beautiful fact. My own small contributions to software were guided at every step by my search for beautiful design. More important, as I argue in my recent book on the spectrum of consciousness: who knows most about the human mind? Today it's John Coetzee, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick. That’s why the book turns to novelists and poets at least as often as to neurobiologists and psychologists. I've had far more sustained, intense reaction to my one novel (1939) than to anything else I've published.
The short stories I've published over the years in Commentary have been read by maybe six people each; but the reaction from readers of those stories, in seriousness, intelligence, and depth, swamps the reaction to any science, tech, or political piece I've published.

From 20 ideas from David Gelernter.

Beauty is objective.  
Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

What replaces religion for teaching ethics?

It used to be that nearly all American children were reared as Christians or Jews. In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
As a result American were not paragons; but they had a place to start.  Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught? Many on the left say “none, and it doesn’t matter”—a recipe for one of the riskiest experiments in history.  
The left, and my colleagues in the intelligentsia, need to come to terms with this issue. Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it.

I did a year of policy debate in high school. The topic we debated that year nationally was whether the United States should increase space travel. The entire format is too specifically niche, and winning relied too much on speaking at unreasonably high speeds, past the point of comprehension, flooding your opponent with too many points to counter. It was interesting to learn, throughout the season, of what cases the top teams in the state were building and to try to find vulnerabilities in those cases through research and logic, but in hindsight, teaching kids to defend a broader set of topics across philosophy, logic, and ethics would've been a more useful exercise.

I'd enjoy a site that posted one such debate each week, with two leading thinkers trading blows in written form, with judges, or perhaps the public, voting on a winner at the end. More interesting might be to let a coin flip determine who'd argue the pro or con side.


Via Wikipedia:

Waack/Punk is a form of dance created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles, during the 1970s disco era. This dance style was named punking because "punk" was a derogatory term for gay men in the 1970s. Naming the style punking was a way of turning this negative term into something positive. Within punking, a whack was a specific movement within the punking style. Although the heterosexual dance community enjoyed punking, they did not want to associate themselves with the negative, violent, and sexual connotations of punking and therefore called the dance genre "waackin". Later, Tyrone Proctor added the "g" to waackin to make it "waacking".
Waacking consists of moving the arms to the music beat, typically in a movement of the arms over and behind the shoulder. Waacking also contains other elements such as posing and footwork. Waacking puts a strong emphasis on musicality and interpretation of the music and its rhythm. It also took inspiration stylistically from movie stars such as Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and James Dean.

Sometimes a rabbit hole just wanders across your path and you stumble in. I had never heard of waacking until I tried an episode of Steven Universe in which one of the characters Garnet dances that style to, well, it's hard to explain and I'm not sure I understand what's going on in that show.

A YouTube search turned up videos like this one, which is I can't even fathom dancing like that to Prince (or some weird cover of Prince, license fees are a bitch) but the world is richer for the fact that someone can. Also, I don't know much about dance and even I could tell that Ibuki is a master of the form. At times it seems as if the footage is sped up, she moves so quickly. Amazing, and plenty more of her work on YouTube, including many examples of her destroying her competition. Is there such a title as best pound for pound waacker in the world?

If so, maybe Ibuki's competition is Yumeki, who also has quite a body of work on YouTube, including plenty of duets with and face-offs against Ibuki. They call themselves Bad Queens. Indeed.

I asked my sister, who loves dance and So You Think You Can Dance, if she had heard of this style. Of course she had, courtesy of an SYTYCD audition tape.

I'm very sad that such performances aren't available for me to attend in person here in the Bay Area.

First resort

A recent survey of online shoppers shows Amazon gaining share as the starting destination of choice.

Many point to the importance of being the default option on a popular operating system. For example, Apple's podcasting and mapping apps have massive market share despite not being seen as the best options in their categories because they are defaults on iOS.

But just as important are people's mental shortcuts. When I was at Amazon, we obsessed over being the "site of first resort." When it comes to search, Google is the site of first resort. When it comes to ordering a ride share, Uber is the service of first resort.

For us at Amazon, being the site of first resort for an online shopping trip was an obsession. This is why it was so critical to expand out from books to other product lines quickly. We didn't want to cement ourselves in shoppers' minds as the site of first resort for buying books but nothing else.

It's also why both Google and eBay were seen as existential threats. Both offered the potential of offering much larger selections of products than us and potentially stealing that coveted mental bookmark spot in the user's mind. If more often than not, a shopper couldn't find a product on Amazon but instead could find it on eBay or Google, slowly they'd habituate themselves to beginning their search on those services.

Of course, earning the mantle of online shopping default relies on more than selection. I don't know if Amazon offers more SKU's in its catalog than eBay and Google today, but it offers a superior customer experience end to end. Google and eBay don't handle fulfillment themselves, and post order customer service is dicey if something goes wrong. Amazon is the gold standard there, and that's part of what shoppers have come to rely on when they start their online shopping there.

A few years back I was in a wedding party, and I had to purchase a specific shirt to match the other groomsmen. I could only find it at Barney's, and the local outlet didn't offer it in my size so I ordered it from their website. The package was stolen from our apartment lobby, so I wrote Barney's customer service asking for a replacement shipment. They refused and asked me to take it up with UPS or FedEx, or whoever the shipper was. If it were Amazon, they'd have a replacement package out to me overnight on the spot, no questions asked. Needless to say, I'll never order from Barneys again, but it's amazing to think that Amazon's customer service is superior to that of even luxury retailers.

In hindsight, thinking Google might surpass us in shopping seems farfetched, but there was a time eBay had surpassed Amazon in market cap and was growing their sales and inventory in a way that inspired envy in Seattle. It turns out there was more of a ceiling on the potential of auctions as a shopping format than fixed price shopping, but in the moment, it was hard to see where that shoulder on the S-curve would be.

Beginning with the end

Tyler Cowen interviews Margalit Fox, the lead obituary writer for the NYTimes.

The criterion we look for, if we had to pick a single question that can be asked of every applicant at our gates, is: Did he or she change the culture?

Since death is a lagging indicator of cultural influence, it's reassuring but also depressing that we're now starting to see a shift away from obits for mostly white men.

FOX: No. But remember, think about what an obit is. It is not only the most narrative genre in the paper; it is the most retrospective. We are writing about the movers and shakers who made our world. I think of obit writing as the act of looking through a sliding window onto the past, a kind of window that slides back along the rails of time.
When I first started the job in 2004, we were writing overwhelmingly about the people on either side of World War II. We edged up into the Cold War. We’re now writing about Vietnam and the civil rights era.
And no matter how we feel about it in light of modern sensibilities, the stark reality of our world is, pretty much the only people who were allowed to be actors on the world stage in the 1940s, ’50s, were overwhelmingly white men.
I’m happy to say that in the 12 years I’ve been doing this job, as that window has slid up into the civil rights era and even the women’s movement, that page of ours has started to diversify.

One would imagine it's more efficient to pre-write obits for famous people, especially those who are veering closer to death, and indeed that's the case (with the exception of maybe Keith Richards, it's unlikely to be wasted work):

It is indeed the case that obits for many of these major historical figures — presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, old-time silver screen stars — those are indeed written in advance.
Things happen. Rockers OD. Planes go down. Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.

We had similar pre-written obits at Amazon back when there was a larger human editorial team there. Editors would assign obits for famous authors, musicians, and filmmakers/actors who were still alive but on the far side of the age curve. This batch of obits was referred to, with all due affection, as the ghoul pool.

It strikes me as a useful exercise, if you can get over the usual morbid associations around death in the West, to write an obituary for yourself and update it once a year, almost like maintaining a resume or LinkedIn profile.

Meaning without death

AA: If we can indefinitely prevent death, would it still be possible to create meaning without what Saul Bellow called “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything”?

I think so, yes. You have other problems with what happens when you overcome old age, but I don’t think lack of meaning will be a serious problem. Over the past three centuries, almost all the new ideologies of the modern world don’t care about death, or at least they don’t see death as a source of meaning. Previous cultures, especially traditional religions, usually needed death in order to explain the meaning of life. Like in Christianity – without death, life has no meaning. The whole meaning of life comes from what happens to you after you die. There is no death, no heaven, no hell… there is no meaning to Christianity. But over the past three centuries we have seen the emergence of a lot of modern ideologies such as socialism, liberalism, feminism, communism that don’t need death at all in order to provide life with meaning.

From reader questions for Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens.

Zygmunt Bauman

But by the end of the century, under pressure from various sources, those institutions were withering. Economically, global trade had expanded, while in Europe and North America manufacturing went into decline; job security vanished. Politically, too, changes were afoot: The Cold War drew to an end, Europe integrated and politicians trimmed back the welfare state. Culturally, consumerism seemed to pervade everything. Mr. Bauman noted major shifts in love and intimacy as well, including a growing belief in the contingency of marriage and — eventually — the popularity of online dating.
In Mr. Bauman’s view, it all connected. He argued we were witnessing a transition from the “solid modernity” of the mid-20th century to the “liquid modernity” of today. Life had become freer, more fluid and a lot more risky. In principle, contemporary workers could change jobs whenever they got bored. They could relocate abroad or reinvent themselves through shopping. They could find new sexual partners with the push of a button. But there was little continuity.
Mr. Bauman considered the implications. Some thrived in this new atmosphere; the institutions and norms previously in place could be stultifying, oppressive. But could a transient work force come together to fight for a more equitable distribution of resources? Could shopping-obsessed consumers return to the task of being responsible, engaged citizens? Could intimate partners motivated by short-term desire ever learn the value of commitment?
Finally, he worried, wasn’t there a risk that those whom “liquid modernity” had not treated well would turn to a strongman, a leader who promised to restore certainty and send cosmopolitanism packing?

From a remembrance of Zygmunt Bauman, who recently passed away. Given recent happenings in countries all over the world, Bauman's thinking on a variety of topics, including the Holocaust, seem particularly relevant. I like that term, "liquid modernity".

When I read the following, I couldn't help but think that were he alive and still writing now he'd be a leading intellectual blogger.

Any sober appraisal of Mr. Bauman’s work would conclude he spread himself too thin. Much of his writing was scattershot, aphoristic and repetitive. He knew nothing of disciplinary boundaries, veering into philosophy, literature, anthropology; it could be fruitful or dilettantish. Empirical evidence was equally unknown to him. Imagination and acumen counted for everything.
American social science doesn’t have much room for thinkers like Mr. Bauman. Our leading researchers prefer the concrete to the abstract, the causal claim you can rigorously test to the flowery theoretical description you can’t. And there’s clearly a lot to be said in favor of such a fact-based approach.
But we could do with more of the broad intellectual sweep and vision that Mr. Bauman brought to the enterprise. His writing — eagerly consumed by European audiences, especially — helped readers think about the times, and their own lives, in entirely new ways.