Review: Evolutionary Dynamics–Exploring the Equations of Life

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Exquisite in Every Respect, Two-Fifths Equations & Charts, April 3, 2008

Martin A. Nowak

I don’t do math, so I must disclose right away that the math was lost on me, except in the context of this equisitely presented book, I am compelled to recognize that mathematics as well as computation science is going to be a major player is the EarthGame, in modeling alternative outcomes for social and cultural complexity, and in cross-fertilizing disciplines by creating a common language.

I tend to be hard on publishers, so in this instance I want to say right away that the Belknap Press of Harvard University has done an absolutely phenomenal job with this book. The paper, the use of color and white space, every aspect of this book is exquisitly presented, and at an affordable price. I therefore recommend this book for content as well as for its artistic context, for both those who love mathematics, and those who do not, but want to understand the promise of mathematics for the future of life.

The text across the book is elegant, clear, easy to understand, and coherent. The summaries at the end of each chapter are in English, and for me at least, obviate the fact that I am mathematically-challenged.

I have a number of notes that merit sharing as encouragement to buy and read this book, one of just two that I found in the right context and price range as I venture into the intersection of modeling social complexity and doing real-time science in the context of an EarthGame where everyone plays themselves. The other book I bought and will read shortly is Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton Studies in Complexity). Too many otherwise worthwhile books are grotesquely over-priced, and the authors should release free PDFs online in protest and to have effect on this exciting emergent inter-disciplinary endeavor.

The author stresses early on that Information is what evolves–errors are mutations, mutation plus selection in a noisy (i.e. natural) environment is evolution. I like that idea, and point the reader to Hans Swegen’s “The Global Mind: The Ultimate Information Process” (Minerva UK, 1995)which first made the connection for be from DNA to World Brain.

The author inspires with his view that the field of evolutionary dynamics is “on brink of unprecedented theoretical expansion.” I must say, as one who is focused on connecting all people to all information in all languages all the time, I have been slow to understand that while that is a wonderful baseline, only models can project alternative scenarios into the future, and hence, the modeling of the past is but a prelude to the shaping of the future by displaying compelling alternative paths.

The author sees mathematics as a common language that can help disciplines interact, and when they do so, progress occurs. He speaks specifically of disciplinary “cultures” that must understand each other.

Early on he delimits the book, and in the process notes that mathematical biology includes:

+ Theoretical ecology
+ Poulation genetics
+ Epidemiology
+ Theoretical immunology
+ Protein folding
+ Generic regulatory networks
+ Neural networks
+ Genomic analysis
+ Pattern formulation

The main ingredients of evolutionary dynamics are

+ Reproduction
+ Mutation
+ Selection
+ Random Drift
+ Spatial Movement

Terms of interest (all explained in English not just mathematics):

+ Sequential space
+ Fitness landscape
+ Error threshold
+ Neutral versus random drift

Thoughts that grabbed me across the book (all from the author):

+ Evolutionary game theory is the most comprehensive way to look at the world.

+ Natural selection favors the defectors over the cooperators BUT if there are repeated interactions, cooperation is not assured, but is made possible.

+ Models show alternative scenarios–inclulding coexistence of all.

+ Evolutionary graph theory yields a remarkably simple rule for the evolution of cooperation.

+ Under natural selection the average fitness of the population continuously declines [we're there!]

+ Direct reciprocity is a mechanism for the evolution of cooperation (the collective intelligence world has been calling for reciprocal altruism and a shift to a gift economy with open money and an end to scarcity–I see all this converging).

+ War and peace strategies CAN be modeled (as my own books suggest, the problem is the information asymmetry that Charles Perrow speaks of. Elites make decisions that have consequences for all of us, but they lie to us (935 lies leading to the war on Iraq) and they also externalize costs into the future.)

+ A SINGLE INDIVIDUAL can move an entire population from war to peace.

+ 10 cooperators in a string comprise a sustainable “walker,” and is two such cooperative walkers meet, they can induce a “big bang” in which cooperatives sweep the game away from defectors.

+ Cooperators and defectors can co-exist for near-eternity.

+ Evolutionary graph theory can plot relationships (I think to myself, not only of people to people, but costs to things, time, and space).

+ Language makes infinite use of finite media–bulk of progress in last six hundred million years has been cultural, using language, not genetic.

+ The author credits Noam Chomsky with the Chomsky hierarchy relating language to mathematics. I read most of what Chomsky publishes, and had no idea he had done original work in mathematics back in the day.

+ Learning differs from memorization in that the learner is enabled to acquire generalizations that can then be applied in novel circumstances. I strongly believe that we must radically redirect education toward team learning, project learning, learning to learn, and learning in vivo, one reason I want to map every person, every dollar, every thing, every language, every idea, in Fairfax County.

+ Mathematical analysis of language must combine three fields (at least):
- Formal language theory
- Learning theory
- Evolutionary theory

The author concludes that mathematics is a way to think clearly. I cannot disagree, but as I put the book down, VERY PLEASED with the complete package of such very high quality, I was not convinced that mathematics can do intangible value and cultural nuance is multi-cultural context under stress and with time limitations.

The author provides both a bibliographic essay and a superb extensive bibliography, but if I could change one thing and one thing only in this book, it is that I would integrate the two. I have neither the time nor the inclination to look up each cryptic (Bloom, 1997) in the longer list. I would have preferred to see the actual bibliography organized by chapter, with all books on, for example, “Evolution of Virulence” listed there after the explicatory section. This is a nit.

I learned enough from this book to budget for and demand the full inclusion of evolutionary dynamics in all that the Earth Intelligence Network will strive to accomplish in the next twenty years.

Kudos again to the publisher. Nothing gives me more pleasure, apart from intelligent content, than very high-quality materials, thoughtful editing and lay-out, and honorable pricing. This book is a gem in all respects. BRAVO.

I did not appreciate Stephen Wolfam’s A New Kind of Science but treasure the book (another enormous gift to mankind at an affordable price) and urge the mathematically-gifted to take a close look at that work.

Other books that have caught my attention as I circle this area of interest:
Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems
Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World
The Philosophy of Sustainable Design
Green Chemistry and the Ten Commandments of Sustainability, 2nd ed
The Future of Life
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition
High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them

I would also point the reader toward Pierre Levy’s Information Economy Meta Language (IEML) as one approach to creating a universal dictionary of concepts, easily found on the Internet, and also Doug Englebart’s Open Hypertextdocument System (OHS), easily found at the Bootstrap Institute.

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