28 January 2012

Lessons from a Cheating Cell

Back in December '11 I read an article on Science Daily about why all multicellular organisms start life as a single cell. I haven't been able to quite get it out of my head. It yearns to be told and its consequences explored.

A revealing quote,
"A multicellular body like the human body is an incredibly cooperative thing," Queller says, "and sociobiologists have learned that really cooperative things are hard to evolve because of the potential for cheating.
So we start as a single cell to make sure every cell is identical and therefore wont cheat. Because the genetic payoff is the same for every one of them.

This is true for everything from slime moulds to whales so it is highly likely true for any multicellular organism that has evolved on Earth or anywhere else. This would rule out some very interesting scenarios in science fiction but would in general leave our notions of alien and terrestrial life pretty much the same. But there is more to it than that. Similar arguments for cooperation and cheating exist for organisms within a community. We only need to think of theoretical cases, the Prisoner's Dilemma, or real world examples, the Tragedy of the Commons, to see that perhaps there is some relevance.

The Tragedy of the Commons, in particular, is a direct concern to all of us. With the recent news of the imminent collapse of the world mackerel fishing industry, a classic case, this phenomenon will affect us all. There have been successful schemes managing fishing resources so that sustainable yields are achieved such as with ITQs in Canada but I don't know how hard it would be to implement in other places, not just practically but also politically.. I'm not a fishing expert and I don't want to dwell on commercial fishing it was just a very convenient and timely example of cheating the system (in the sense of the Science Daily article).

On the grander scale of societies of organisms a similar process seems to be at work. Our nations are either aligned by ethnicity or culture -- genes or memes. Often both. But the genetic difference between individual humans is bigger than the supposed difference between races. Races are an illusion to make us cooperative (personal speculation). I guess we didn't have enough memes to unite us back then. Even still there is rampant cheating of the 'common good' in all our societies: crime, corruption, greed.

Our individuality endows us with great creativity. If we were all the same then how could that exist? Perhaps it can. But will evolution allow it?

We don't have to look far to find societies that have been evolving a lot longer than ours. Consider the ants. Or bees. Or termites. Genetically, closely related, reproduction controlled by one individual which enforces the relatedness of the workers. I'm sure evolution is pushing us in that direction ... but humans are different. We have a much longer lifespan so a much longer time between generations, and our creativity and intelligence gives us enormous problem solving ability at the individual level. So reducing creativity intelligence to produce a more harmonious society would likely result in a less 'evolved' neighbour wiping them out. Maybe it has happened already in our past. Over the 2 million or so years of hominid evolution interesting things could happen.

This offers no solutions in the here and now. Maybe it suggests that although we know humans can do good things, there are enough cheaters that we have to allow and plan for that. We have to head them off and manage our collective stupidity with individual intelligence. And vice versa.