Issue 1

Little Selfish Gene The little green men may live inside you

All alien-movies, the NASA, Seti and Fox Mulder are getting it wrong. Aliens almost certainly need no water or air to function and look completely unlike humans. I’ll also explain why they, more probably than not, do exist.

First a quick note on mathematics. When I tell people that I have a masters degree in maths, they have a misconception that I’m some sort of a human calculator. While most mathematicians are certainly better than average when it comes to multiplying numbers in their head, this isn’t what mathematicians normally spend their day with.

What mathematicians really do is to create models for all sorts of problems like measuring surfaces, traversing networks or for the housing market collapse. Create models-of-the-Whatever really, and then, within the abstract models, try to find meaningful relations between objects.

If the model is great and the relations reveal something more profound about the structure then mathematicians are happy, and it doesn’t really matter whether the model had anything to do with real life. Although it doesn’t hurt either.

The evolution of the evolution

When Darwin published his model about the evolution, there came a long debate. “Is it my grandfather or my grandmother that you think is descent from a monkey?”, asked bishop Wilberforce apparently in the Oxford Evolution Debate in 1860, and that wasn’t even the question that most mathematicians worried about.

If I asked you to describe how Darwin’s evolution works, you would perhaps say something along the lines of “first there was the monkey, then the monkey’s children mutated and were a slightly better fit for the environment; that happened many times, then came people”. Which sort of is true, but it’s too vague of a description for a mathematician. Darwin’s theory didn’t propose a good enough model to work with.

It left many open questions as well, for example: why are there so many suicides? Yes, there might be mutations when suicidal people are accidentally born, but natural selection should have taken care of that problem a long time ago. And yet, we see pretty much the same share of the population being suicidal, altruistic or homosexual throughout history.

Problem is, when a person dies all their features die with them: their hair colour, running speed, their suicidal tendencies, everything. Even if all else would have been a good fit for the environment, that organisation pretty much had it in the evolution-game.

Survival of the fittest

The problem was first solved by the evolutionary biologist and mathematician Ronald Fisher in the 1930s: he came up with better models, where natural selection was the act of genes rather than the act of the organism.

Scientist at the time started to realise that genes could be the driving force of evolution. An organisation can have any combination of genes which describe their features and traits. Genes can be active or inactive, and they can also get mutated occasionally. As such, someone might have the suicide gene that’s inactive: the organisation will never try to kill himself, and so the suicide gene can be passed on to others, and be part of the human DNA for kingdom come.

An almost-genetic algorithm

For a very simple, almost-mathematical model for the evolution, let’s assume the following three basic criteria.

First, let’s take an initial population of organisations. Each of those will have a list of genes that describe their features. (We will assume that this is a closed system, so no one else can come from the outside to mess up with our population.)

Second, let’s have them reproduce: every now and then all agents have to copy themselves, and make a mistake while doing so: the new agents will be mutated copies of the old ones.

And third: we need a time-bomb built into each agent to make sure that at one point they all die. (Otherwise the immortal organisation would win our evolution-game, which is not going to bring the population any further.)

With all that set up, we just created our own evolution: agents will copy themselves, some will survive and some won’t, but all of them will die at one point. If we also add a fitness function, we can tell how good of a fit a certain list of genes would be for an environment — this makes both computer simulations and life more fun.

A little selfish

If we go one step further, we can see evolution happening everywhere. In his book “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins builds upon the gene evolution model, and introduces the term “meme”, as the basic building block of the human cultural evolution.

The memes, the idea-bits are the genes in this closed system. Our minds (a collection of ideas) are the organisations, and to reproduce an idea you can simply tell it to someone. When you learn an idea from someone, the meme might get mutated: your friends might misunderstand some bits and add some new elements when they pass it on. The ideas are freely combined, mutated and reproduced. For this world the best fit is an idea that people tell each other the most.

Today, we are not only the physical organisation that we are, we are also the organisation of our thoughts: our memes define us just as well as our real-world features. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to think about our own mortality. I understand that my body died, yes alright, but: what happens to my thoughts now?

Evolution everywhere

And now we’ve seen the evolution in its abstract form, the genes and memes, so next up: closed systems of “evolutions” are everywhere. Simply look around yourself: websites are pretty similar to each other, is Facebook an evolution of MySpace? In corporate world: how did Microsoft an Apple, two organisations develop? Even the terminology is similar: they try to survive in this environment.

If we already defined evolution and organisations, how would we define life? Does it have to have eyes and a mouth, does it have to be able to talk to us? Or can it be anything that evolves, tries to survive, and — who knows, perhaps only in a billion years –, asks itself the same question?

For over a century, Seti was broadcasting a signal into space, expecting to hear something back. So far the signals don’t seem to have made any sense to those whom we sent the message to.

Maybe there is some space dust out there, some synthetic intelligence that reproduces, combines itself and improves a tiny bit every day towards being a better fit for this environment. Sending them sound waves wouldn’t make more sense to them than if someone threw sand in our face, every now and then.