Saturday, September 26, 2015

Selfishness and Altruism in Alien Civilizations

Selfishness and altruism have roots deep in evolution. Evolution is all about making genetic copies of the genes a creature possesses. Sometimes selfishness promotes the copy number and occasionally, altruism promotes it. This should be the same wherever evolution works, and in order for planets to possess intelligent life, they have to evolve it, unless they are colonies of a planet that did. So alien civilizations should, at an early part of their history, have individuals who display both selfish behavior and altruistic behavior.

Making gene copies is promoted by selfish behavior, as selfish behavior leads to two transient advantages, both of which lead to more gene copies. One is survival, and as long as making gene copies can be done by a creature, staying alive to do it makes sense. The other is access to resources needed to make gene copies and to preserve the ones which already exist. Different species might do this differently. In a species that has sexual reproduction, access to the other sex might be improved by having resources, meaning possessions, food sources, command authority in a group, or knowledge. Preservation of existing gene copies is promoted by the same set of possibilities.

In a species which demonstrates group behavior, and in which the genes of all the members of the group are similar, altruism that promotes the survival and reproduction of other members of the group is almost as significant for making gene copies of an individual as reproduction of the creature itself, and in some situations, may be more significant. Thus, in any alien society, these two behavioral modes should be visible.

After the alien species achieves some more brain power, gene copying is promoted by adult creatures teaching young creatures how to live, which is obviously a way to make gene copies. By assisting those who carry a creature’s genes to make copies of their own genes, they promote their own gene copying, and make evolution very happy. So, inter-generational information transfer soon becomes a mechanism for enhancing the making of gene copies. For this to work, memes have to be initiated. In other words, it is not enough to teach the descendants of a creature to better cope with the world, the first generation has to ensure that the second generation does the same thing, and teaches the third generation the same lessons. This is akin to having both hardware and software being copies, generation to generation. There is a hidden feature here. Where did the first knowledge come from? From trial and error, and experimentation on the part of some creature in an early generation, or it could be that the initial information that was bundled into teaching slowly emerged from genetic information. In other words, evolution could oversee a transfer of information about how to cope with the world from genes to memes. Perhaps the coding of information transfer is easier or more efficient if the genes code for inter-generational information transfer, rather than have all the information encoded into the genes themselves.

Once there has been some transfer of inter-generational information sharing from gene encoding to memes, everything works well, unless there is an interruption of the process, and some generation is left without any information transfer. Perhaps that is a recipe for a short life span and no gene copies, and only those creatures who specialize in maintaining the necessary environment for meme transfer spread their genes.

After this mechanism is established, then the additional learning that a generation gets from trial and error can be incorporated. It is so nice to see how evolution leads to tool use and the inter-generational teaching of the making and use of tools. The beginnings of technology have deep evolutionary roots. At this point, a blending of meme transfer and altruism can play a role, so that instead of a creature only informing his/her/its own descendants, the meme transfer can take place within the social group that exists. Education and training get invented by evolution.

In a sense, everything up to this point is on the track laid out by evolution. Evolution provides a motivation for certain behaviors because they lead to increased numbers of gene copies. But at this point, alien civilizations can start to diverge from this track because the cost of training and education is so low, compared to other survival behaviors. With a larger brain, superfluous memes can be invented, and there is little pressure to eliminate them. Perhaps the same can be said of genetic information. Carrying around genes that no longer code for anything is reasonably cheap for an organism, so there is little pressure to reduce the number of genes to the minimum needed for coding the entire organism. However, there are few visible signs of outmoded and left-behind genes. The signs of outmoded and no-longer-useful for increased gene copies memes are more visible. A creature learning things, or mis-learning things, can throw them into the stew of what is taught to the next generation, and if they do not necessarily reduce the number of gene copies made, they will survive.

For each generation, they have to learn the memes necessary for them to regulate their two alternative behavioral choices, selfishness and altruism. If these memes become corroded, but not so corroded that they do not provide some benefits, and if the environment is such that they have little effect on the actual number of gene copies made, the corroded memes can be preserved and propagated. By corroded, it is meant that the behaviors induced do not have an effect on gene copies, or if they do, they are far from optimal. But other factors in the environment overwhelm the corroded memes. So we can have memes building up the equivalent of ‘junk genes’, if such genes actually exist, and being promulgated. If the memes are part of a set, some of which are corroded, but the other part is effective, the whole shebang will be preserved. There is not much opportunity, except possibly over long times and with low effectiveness, of eliminating these corroded memes.

What this means is that there could be memes existing in the alien civilization that we cannot predict, as they are random choices that are not eliminated. It could also be that these corroded memes interfere with the civilization passing one or more of the grand transitions that it needs to do in order to reach the ability for star travel. There could be a meme related to selfishness that, in a resource-rich environment, promotes some sort of hierarchical structure which acts to preserve itself, and the act of preservation inhibits technology. There could be a meme related to altruism that leads to a Petri dish situation, where the resources are exhausted. Do not forget that memes are encoded deep into young individuals’ learning, and are only rarely questioned and challenged. Thus, corroded memes can possibly inhibit or prevent an alien civilization from traveling the stars, and coming to meet us. Can it actually happen – this should be investigated more deeply.

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