Steven Pinker, another smart Canadian.
There’s a great essay from Steven Pinker in the new Edge. He thinks carefully (which he’s so good at) about the main arguments made for group selection, and finds them lacking.
I think it’s a valid thought experiment, and potentially useful, to apply the principles of biological evolution (mutation, fitness, selection) to other levels, like molecular evolution (“lower” level, or less dependent on other structures and systems) and cultural evolution (“higher” level, or more dependent on other structures and systems).
I’ve tried to do so myself here. The problem is that it’s so easy to go wrong, and think imprecisely about the model. What, exactly, is the unit of replication and selection? What, exactly, does fitness mean in the context of your model?
One of Pinker’s major points in the essay linked above is that genes are the only unit that has a reliable, high fidelity replication method. And genes are the only biological unit for which is makes sense to talk about mutations.
Groups are not really replicable. Neither are individuals. Selection and mutation occurs at a genetic level, because that’s what actually gets copied (and that’s where replication errors can occur).
In my first post in this series, I wrote about the idea that reality is comprised of various “layers,” and I raised the question of how, in an evolutionary sense, do we “get” from one layer of reality to another. How did the molecular layer emerge from a universe that (at an early stage) included only atomic elements? How does the biological layer arise from the molecular/chemical layer?
We know many of the specifics of each “layer jump.” For example, we know that a type of chemical bond, the covalent bond (electron sharing) allows different elements to bind to each other and create molecules. In terms of how biological life started on Earth, we have some idea that it had to do with the evolution of self-replicating chains of nucleotides.
Is there a way to model these “layer jumps” in a general sense? If we could, we could make some incredibly interesting computer simulations. Perhaps we could model the emergence of biological life, of somatic forms, of social interaction networks, and eventually perhaps even intelligent entities. With sufficient processing power (maybe driven by quantum computing), we might be able to model an entire universe, including everything from the creation of galaxies and solar systems to the evolution of biological life to the development of culture.