Bioepistemic EvolutionThis page briefly summarizes "bioepistemic evolution," a generalized form of evolutionary theory intended to merge the applications of that theory to biology and to social epistemology. Bioepistemic evolution rejects the use of such concepts as genes or memes or any other "fundamental replicator"as central to evolution. Instead it advances "data" as the best basic evolutionary concept and argues that genes should be treated as formatting the data on DNA. It then tracks the process of evolution as the interpretation of data into information and selection from that information to obtain knowledge and applies the results to understanding human traits.
Data and Genes in Evolutionary Theory
A Critique of the Gene Theory of Evolution
The Gene as an Inadequate Basis for Evolutionary Theory
Definition of the Gene
Generalizing Evolutionary Theory
Rejection of Genes or Memes as Replicators
Cultural Evolution and the Validity of Group Selection
Data Flow During Evolution
New Results from Bioepistemic Evolution
Most of modern evolutionary theory is based on the concepts of genes and of evolution, concepts that have become so linked that, taken together, the almost define evolutionary theory, or neodarwinism. In the world of neodarwinism, evolution is about genes as selfish genes, as units in the genetic code, as DNA sequences that code for proteins, even genes as fundamental replicators. Leading figures in this gene-centred approach to evolutionary would include figures like Williams, Hamilton, Wilson and Dawkins but many others have contributed. Their work has been very influential and, together, they have established the current view that the gene is the basic unit of evolution and that the gene and evolution are inextricably linked. The purpose of this essay is to argue that this linkage between genes and evolution, however obvious it may seem to biologists, is in reality much more "obvious" than it is real.
However influential the gene concept may be in evolution, I have a serious problem with it. In my opinion, the gene is simply not an acceptable foundation for evolutionary theory. Now, please, my biologically trained readers, do not misunderstand me here. This essay will not present a creationist viewpoint and I fully accept that genes exist and that "selfish" genes improved on what they replaced eliminating the idea that a species could be a unit of selection was a big advance but that success should not blind people to the problems inherent in the idea of genes as central to all evolution. I do think there are serious problems with this approach and I am surprised at how little serious criticism of it is ever published. I will argue that, in reality, genes are not basic to evolution at all. In my view, the gene-centred approach to evolutionary theory is wrong in principle and in substance and that those errors become most clear when one attempts to merge of biological evolution with other forms of evolution, namely intellectual and social evolution.
Biology is not the only environment in which evolution occurs and living organisms are not the only products of evolution. It has been recognized since the inception of evolutionary theory that societies evolve and compete with one another, just as do organisms. Many modern textbooks on evolution include a chapter on the evolution of culture and it would be very useful to be able to merge these different forms of evolution, biological and cultural evolution, into a single framework. Indeed, attempts at such a merger are high on the agenda of modern evolutionary debate. However, in the opinion of this author, the mistakes that mar those attempts commonly arise from the same source, namely a failure to grasp the relationships between data and genes in evolution. In other words, that modern evolutionary theory contains serious defects that should be explored much more than has yet been the case.
Of course, there is little point critiquing neodarwinism unless one can offer an alternative and this essay will readers to"bioepistemic evolution," which replaces genes with the concept of "data" at the centre stage of evolutionary theory. The bioepistemic approach to evolutionary theory begins with data which is arranged in numbered ranks, depending upon how the data is stored and selected. In each generation of each rank, data flows from a germ-line to actors. Readers may find this clearer if they note that, in biology, actors would include RNA, protein, cells and organisms. The biological activity of a protein interprets the data in the corresponding gene while the phenotype of an organism interprets the data in its entire genome. Natural selection selects those interpretations that will be deemed knowledge and which will contribute as input to the next generation of the evolutionary process. This process is biological evolution which, in bioepistemic evolution, constitutes rank1 evolution.
Bioepistemic evolution can be seen as a generalized form of conventional evolutionary theory and, in my view, it possesses greater explanatory power than does the more usual genetic description. It can, for example, interpret human social structure, sexuality and humor, none of which are easily interpreted by other approaches. The aim of this site is to introduce readers to this approach and some of its more notable results.
There are four reasons for rejecting the gene as the basis for evolutionary
1. Although the gene has empirical meaning, it has no satisfactory, theoretical definition.
The empirical meanings of "gene" come from atoms of inheritance in breeding studies and from the central dogma of molecular biology that correlates one gene to one enzyme. However, the central dogma is not absolute so that, while molecular biology explains the breeding results, it does not offer a definition of the gene. Sometimes genes are defined as "fundamental replicators" but this definition is inconsistent with the facts. Genes are not replicators, fundamental or otherwise. The smallest known replicators in biology are cells - as cells replicate, they replicate their genes.
2. Genes as we now know them are products of evolution as a process. Inconsistencies
arise if one makes the product of a process its primary input.
Genes contain precisely defined sequences of DNA that code for biologically functional proteins. Genes are products of evolution and it is logically inconsistent to make genes both the product of evolution and its basis. Such proposals inevitably lead to infinite regression when discussing origins. It is true that there is a cycle of evolution, so that each generation inputs into the next, but one should still seek a description that allows an origin without that infinite regress.
3. Biological evolution is not the only form of evolution.
Social or cultural evolution is well known, many people argue that the brain is a Darwinian machine and, according to the later Popper, even scientific method is evolutionary. (See Plotkins work "The Nature of Knowledge".) Social evolution is very different from biological evolution and, while it is true that genes shape the mind and so help to shape culture, their role in social evolution is quite different from their role in biology. Genes neither define the data involved in social evolution, nor carry that data from generation to generation. A form of evolutionary theory is needed that is common across both evolutionary processes and the gene-centred view fails to include social evolution. In my opinion, that failure is not redeemed by the memetic attempt at rescue.
4. The failure to define the gene means that biology does not cohere logically
with its underpinning sciences.
If science as a whole is valid, then all sciences should cohere into a single, united corpus of knowledge - a single coherent set of knowledge that, hopefully, will validly describe the detectable, external world. If biology is to cohere with its underpinning sciences then evolutionary theory, as the fundamental theory of biology, should use basic concepts that are definable from either chemistry or physics. In other words, to create a scientifically consistent theory of evolution, one should use basic terms that either emerge from underpinning sciences or are definable in those terms. The gene is consistent with chemistry, molecular biology has seen to that, but chemistry is not the gene's crucial content. The evolutionarily crucial content of genes is the genetic data that it carries and note again that it is data, not genes, that is common to all known forms of evolution. Now, unlike genes, data can be defined in physics and hence, I suggest, it is at the level of data, not at that of the gene, that the merger of biological, intellectual and cultural evolution should be attempted. An insistence upon a gene-centred view of evolution almost prohibits this attempt.
Despite the limitations of the gene as a foundation of evolutionary theory, genes are undeniably real things but it has proved very difficult to define them. Such a definition is very much needed and one will be offered here.
A gene is a data set located within DNA sequence. To qualify as a gene, this data must be so formatted that it can be interpreted by an organism into a separable biochemical activity and so may become manifest as a distinguishable, biological phenotype.
Readers wil note that, in this definition, data seen as the fundamental quantity of evolution. The gene, DNA and even nucleotide sequence, are all secondary quantities. Thus, gene are not defined here as one of the fundamental entities of science, nor as atoms of evolution. To be a gene, the data on DNA need not necessarily be translated into protein nor even transcribed into RNA, though these things are possible and very likely. The data in the DNA sequence need not be formatted as an unbroken, linear sequence, though this too is likely. The only requirement is that the organism can interpet the data in genes into separate, biochemical activities. (Note, the author would like to refine this definition to maximise its generality. He would be interested in any critiques readers may wish to offer.)
As is well known, the data on DNA is mostly formatted in such a way the DNA sequence is divided it into packets which are genes. The reason for this packeting of genomic data is in order to ensure that functional proteins are synthesized - in other words, the biochemistry of protein synthesis "packets" the data on DNA. It is an inevitable consequence of protein synthesis that these genes will behave as indivisible "atoms" of evolution because the protein whose synthesis they control must be synthesized whole to be functional. However, there is no known process in the assembly of culture that corresponds to protein synthesis and, consequently, there is no reason to think that cultural data will become packeted in the same way, into entities that resemble genes.
The most popular mergers are called "gene-culture coevolution" and "sociobiology." These approaches are not greatly different from one another and the lines between them are not hard and fast. If there is a difference it is that, in essence, sociobiology tries to form its merger by interpreting human society, or culture, in evolutionary terms or even that it attempts to derive culture from biological evolution. On the other hand, gene-culture coevolution attempts to draw analogies between biological and cultural evolution. Thus gene-culture coevolution often describes cultures as being divided into memes, much as the genomes of organisms are divided into genes.
Both approaches have their merits but, in the opinion of this author, they also have problems. Sociobiology suffers from a problem that besets virtually all forms of evolutionary theory, namely that it is very poor at making clear, testable predictions, though it is very good at interpreting phenomena once they have been observed. I have no solution to that problem - as I mentioned, the problem is common in evolutionary theory. Where I feel bioepistemic evolution improves on earlier approaches is that it constructs the analogies between biological and cultural evolution in a more rational way. The point here is that genes and culture are not really comparable, so that talking about gene-culture coevolution is rather like talking about chalk-cheese coevolution - it is a bad comparison that encourages invalid analogies to be drawn.
The most common analogy formed between biological and cultural evolution is to suggest, following Dawkins, that cultures are subdivided into entities analogous to genes that are given the name "memes." This idea has led to a whole field of "memetics." Nonetheless, despite the plethora of writings on memetics, there is no set of observational data that requires the existence of memes - as distinct from observations that are interpretable in those terms. One even finds memeticists accepting that memes can merge together or split apart, properties that contradict the analogy between memes and genes, which implies that the meme be conceptualized as an atom of social evolution. In summary, the idea of a meme has no good foundation in either theory or in observation. Memes seem to be merely the products of an invalid analogy between biology and culture. In an even more iconoclastic vein, one should add that the idea of the gene as a "fundamental replicator" in biology is also a hypothetical construct with no experimental foundation. The clear, experimental reality is that isolated genes do not replicate - the smallest, self-replicating unit of biology is the cell. Separate genes do determine separate phenotypes but they do so because they control the synthesis of separately functional proteins - no process is known in cultural evolution that would analogously partition cultural data.
It seems to me that, to form valid analogies between biological and cultural evolution, one must first identify the features that these two instances of evolution have in common; indeed, one would like to identify features that are common to all forms of evolution.
Accordingly, I would argue that what is needed is a new way of comparing biology and culture so that analogies between them become valid - this was my aim in constructing bioepistemic evolution. The starting point of bioepistemic evolution is to note that, although cultures contain nothing analogous to genes, it is nonetheless true that both DNA and culture do contain data and that both biological and cultural evolution involve processing data. The basic idea of bioepistemic evolution was, therefore, to track and follow the fate of data during each evolutionary generation. Hence, bioepistemic evolution analyzes evolution in terms of the data contained in the evolving system, be that evolving system an organism, a culture or any other entity.
Bioepistemic evolution begins by considering data. Genes are finite data sets, with data arranged in a linear format and encoded digitally. The coding base for genetic data is four in DNA, but changes to 64 (43) in triplet codons and to 20 in protein sequence. This biological data is then interpreted into phenotypes that contain data in a mostly nonlinear and analogue form. The fact that the formatting of this data changes during each evolutionary cycle implies that neither the digital encoding nor the linear format of biological data are necessary for evolution per se. The implication is that the digital encoding and linear nature of genetic data are aspects of evolution's expression in biology but are not necessary aspects of evolution per se and may not be found in other manifestations of evolution.
On the other hand, it does seem that evolution requires that finite data sets will be interpreted, replicated and selected in competition with other finite data sets. It seems that the evolving data sets need to be finite in a special sense, namely that the manner in which the data is interpreted must set the bounds around the interpreted data set; that, is, it is not acceptable that a data set will be bounded by some external constraint, the data set must be self-bounding. Genes set their own bounds in the sense that they code for proteins, each molecule of which must be biologically functional extensions to a protein's amino acid chain are usually deleterious and impair biological function. This view, that evolving data sets must be finite and self-bounding, is a quite recent addition to bioepistemic evolution, one to which I am led by the analysis of humor available on this site. Humor its is here argued, serves to interrogate the membership of social groups and so set bounds around human cultural data sets.
Granting that the gene is a finite data set, genetics can be seen as a subset of bioepistemic evolution. The data in the gene is interpreted into protein function and selected by natural selection as genes compete with other genes. Another example of an evolutionary data set would be a chromosome (or a set of chromosomes) which is interpreted into an organism and selected by competition of organism against organism. The boundaries around individual organisms are often self-evident but cultures are also examples of finite data sets, in this case interpreted into social groups and selected by competition of group against group.
The actors produce various possible interpretations of the data and the processes of evolution select from those interpretations to produce knowledge. In biological evolution, each organism is an interpretation of the data in its DNA. (An organism's phenotype is an interpretation of its genotype. Hence a phenotype is information derived from the data in the genotype.) Natural selection examines all the available phenotypes and selects those organisms, and hence genomes, that will contribute to the next generation. The selected phenotypes, product of this cycle of evolution, are level1 knowledge, which is encoded as data into the germ lines of selected organism for input into the next cycle of rank1 evolution.
Note that this description of evolution has said nothing about genes as "fundamental replicators." In fact there is no evidence that isolated genes can replicate, all the evidence is that they cannot. In biology, isolated genes cannot replicate independently, only cells and organisms can do this. Bioepistemic evolution recognizes this result and rejects the idea of fundamental replicators in evolving systems. Instead, bioepistemic evolution is built from the concept of stored data with biological evolution being described in terms of the data stored in DNA. This is the data that is formatted in genes. This is a departure from normal practice but it is not immediately obvious that it will produce a different pattern of predictions from the conventional genetic view. In fact, provided evolution is described purely in terms of the data on DNA and natural selection, the observational predictions that arise from this bioepistemic view seem identical with those that would be derived from a genetic view. It is when one begins to incorporate other forms of data, particularly social data, and other forms of selection, for example sexual selection, that the differences begin to emerge.
For example, the differences between bioepistemic evolution and conventional theory come into very stark relief when one examines social evolution. At present, one of the most popular approaches to the analysis of social evolution is memetics. Memetics arises from a suggestion by Dawkins that social data will be arranged into "memes" much as genetic data is arranged into genes - the proposal is, essentially that of a direct analogy. Now, bioepistemic does not actually challenge the existence of genes, but it does challenge their centrality to evolutionary theory. By implication it also challenges the logical validity of drawing this direct analogy between genetic and social data. Thus bioepistemic evolution implies, essentially, that memes simply do not exist, that the whole field of memetics is founded on a fallacy. Bioepistemic evolution regards genes as a format for data and the point of dismissing memes as nonexistent is to argue that cultural data, whether it be stored in the brain or on paper, is formatted in a manner that is quite differently from the data on DNA.
(This point can also be made by analogy with computerized word-processing. The fundamental material of word processing is text - that is letters, words, punctuation etc. The text in a word processed document is formatted according the file type used by its word processor. Thus, a text document written in Microsoft Word has a .doc format, one written in WordPerfect a .wpd format etc. but few people would suggest that the file type is fundamental to word processing. On the other hand text is fundamental to the activity of word processing and text is present in any word processed document. In the same way, I argue that data is fundamental to evolution and is present in any form of evolution. Genes, on the other hand, format the data of biological evolution and the genetic format adopted is imposed by the biochemistry of protein synthesis. It is in this sense that genes are not fundamental to evolution per se, they apply only to evolution expressed in a biological context and analogies drawn from the properties of genes will be invalid if they are made with evolving systems where the stored data is subject to a different pattern of formatting.)
Besides genetic evolution, rank1 evolution, bioepistemic evolution recognizes two further evolutions as being important aspects of human evolutionary history. These are intellectual evolution, rank2 evolution and social evolution, rank3 evolution, which, respectively, produce sensory knowledge, level2 knowledge, and cultural knowledge or social knowledge, which is level3 knowledge. The suggestion that a form of evolution occurs in the brain is due to the Nobel prize-winning American scientist Gerald Edelman. The idea Edelman advanced was that the brain is a Darwinian machine that inputs data gathered through the senses. This data is then put through an evolutionary process that, in his approach, would involves "selection" of neural connections but the details are far from specified. The bioepistemic approach would be very similar but would add that the data is first interpreted, which different interpretations generated by different brain modules and that the selection is from these different interpretations. Little more can be said about mechanisms here but this intellectual evolution can occur in an isolated brain, it does not require communication between individuals. In this rank2 evolution, selection takes place in the mind of the data receiver and the knowledge produced is sensory knowledge. Sensory knowledge is knowledge derived directly from the senses, it is knowledge of the colour of grass, of the ambient temperature, of touch etc.
This intellectual evolution concerns only individuals and, when an individual dies, the level2 knowledge they have accumulated dies with them. However, especially among the mammals, it is common for parents to pass learned knowledge on to their offspring. Also, many species live in groups and can communicate with other members of their group, the group comes to share a common body of knowledge and this shared knowledge is social knowledge or culture. In bioepistemic evolution, this social knowledge is level3 knowledge. Social knowledge is passed from one member of a group to another by means of demonstrations or, especially in humans, by means of language. The data in which social knowledge is encoded is, like sensory knowledge, stored in the brain and is presumably subject to the same formatting, though one can say little about that format.
Social knowledge defines a group and different groups of the same species are distinguished by their social knowledge set. When one group of a species competes with another from that same species, it is not just the genetic fitness of the individuals that is being tested but also the fitness of the social knowledge sets that define the two groups. In other words, cultural evolution involves selection by competition of group against group and selection of a data set that is non-genetic.
The previous paragraph makes a very important point because this a point in which bioepistemic evolution differs from conventional genetics. Many modern evolutionary theorists insist that group selection is not valid it does so to further its genetic self-interest - this is the selfish gene viewpoint, much championed by Dawkins. The denial of group selection is inevitable from that viewpoint, since the only data that enters into that evolutionary analysis comes from genes and DNA. Bioepistemic evolution leads to a different perspective on group selection because it is looking at two pools of inherited data which code genetic knowledge and social knowledge respectively. In respect of its genetic knowledge, an individual is acting as an individual and will act selfishly to further the needs of his or her genetic knowledge. In respect of cultural knowledge, an individual is an actor with a role analogous to that of a protein in genetic evolution. In that role, individuals must act cooperatively and altruistically to other members of their group.
In other words, bioepistemic evolution implies that group selection is valid and that group selective explanations of cooperative and altruistic behaviour are also valid. Here then, this author takes serious issue with current evolutionary theory and disagrees with the conventional wisdom. Group selection is the idea that social animals or humans are fit or unfit on the basis of the group to which they belong, in other words that they compete with one another in groups. My view is that group selection is valid, that it exists in humans and probably exists in other species. I would further support that view by referring readers to the bioepistemic analysis of humor and by noting that there are several other human behaviours that seem accountable only on a group selective basis; examples would include some of the cognitive biases, such as in-group out-group bias, whose role has evident parallels with that of an IFF, as discussed in the theory of humor.
Bioepistemic evolution follows the flow of data during the life cycle of an evolving system. The basic ideas used in following this flow of data come from three fields - molecular biology, information technology and evolutionary epistemology.
The central dogma of molecular biology is that data flows from DNA to RNA to protein. For most of our present purposes we can forget about the RNA and just say that data flows from DNA to protein. When stored in DNA, data does not usually have any biological or enzymatic activity, it is simply stored there. The data stored as genes in DNA does not generally become biologically relevant until it is translated into protein. We may say that the data in DNA is interpreted into a biological activity by its translation into protein.
The field of information technology defines "information" as "interpreted data." This definition merges with molecular biology's central dogma to say that the biological activity of a protein is an interpretation of the data stored on DNA. In short, the biological activities associated with proteins are the information derived from interpreting the data on DNA. The idea of a "system" also comes from information technology. In general IT defines a system as a data input, a process and a data output. For the purposes of bioepistemic evolution, this IT concept of a system is elaborated into that of an "evolving system." The life cycle of an evolving system involves an input of the data store associated with the system. The process must involve copying and variation in that data, as well as its interpretation into information. The various interpretations must then be subject to selection, which may be natural selection or some other form of selection, and the selected data is then the output of the evolving system.
The data output by the evolving system is "knowledge" and this data output provides the data input for the next generation, or evolutionary cycle, of that evolving system. This idea comes from evolutionary epistemology, particularly form the work of Prof. H. Plotkin and is discussed in his book, "The Nature of Knowledge."
In biology, evolutionary selection begins as natural selection and it is the biological activities of proteins that are selected. In biology, some organisms are selected to contribute to the next generation. The genomes of these selected organisms are the knowledge selected from that cycle of evolutionary selection. The data stored on the genomes of that selected progeny become the data inputs that will be further interpreted and selected in the next generation.
Hence, bioepistemic evolution sees a cycle of evolution for any organism, or any other evolving system, as passing its data through three stages (data, information and knowledge) which are connected by two process (interpretation and selection). Hence one generation of bioepistemic evolution involves the following sequence -
Data is interpreted into information which is then selected from to produce knowledge.
Expressed in this bioepistemic way, gene-culture coevolution becomes a coevolution between "data in genes" and "data in culture". This new coevolution is no longer a comparison of chalk and cheese, it is a comparison of data and data. From this comparison one can hope to draw valid analogies between the evolution occurring in culture and that occurring in organisms. However, to elaborate those analogies, one needs to study the ways in which the data in culture is interpreted and selected. For this reason, "The Architecture of Thought" is very concerned with the way data flows in cultures and with the ways in which evolutionary selection in humans interacts with culture.
In addition to making use of this data flow model, bioepistemic evolution incorporates certain other features of evolutionary theory.
- First, it recognizes the correctness of Darwin's argument that human beings probably did not arise from natural selection alone, but that sexual selection is a major factor in our evolution. This recognition of the theory of sexual selection makes it possible for bioepistemic evolution to address the question of human sexuality.
- Second, many evolutionary theorists argue that humans are a group selected species. This means, that humans form groups, tribes, teams or whatever and then we compete in those groups. These groups subsequently became the larger cultures in which we now live and, group selection argues, our individual evolutionary success or failure depends upon the evolutionary success or failure of the group or culture of which we are a member. Bioepistemic evolution automatically considers this aspect of evolution by the way it attaches social knowledge to the group that is the selected entity of group selection.
- Third, bioepistemic evolution argues that the two ranks of evolution inherent in the gene-culture coevolution picture is, itself, wrong and that human evolution involves more than two ranks of evolution. Plotkin extended the two rank system of gene-culture coevolution to three ranks of evolution by adding Popper's scientific logic to the list. (Plotkin used the word "heuristic" rather than the word rank. Also, while his inclusion of scientific logic may seem odd to those readers who are new to this line of thought, it is actually a perfectly logical step. One of Plotkin's main points is that knowledge is the general product of evolution and Popper's logic is the "scientific" way of creating knowledge.) Bioepistemic evolution extends this list further and incorporates four ranks of evolution by distinguishing sensory knowledge from social knowledge.
Taken together, this combination of new and old approaches to evolution produces several new and interesting results. Perhaps the most striking is its interpretation of sexuality, which is presented, at length, on this site. Bioepistemic evolution can interpret :-
- Normal human heterosexuality. It may seem a strange thing to say but human heterosexuality is very much in need of interpretation and differs markedly from the heterosexuality of other animals. Most observers think that this difference originates in the existence of large scale cultures that must be passed from generation to generation. I agree with them.
- Sexual deviation. By "sexual deviation" I mean phenomena such as homosexuality and sadomasochism. The statistical incidence of these phenomena seems to indicate that they have some sort of evolutionary origin (that is, they are not simply pathological traits or perversions.) On the other hand, it is hard to interpret these phenomena in conventional evolutionary terms since they offer no obvious reproductive advantages. Bioepistemic evolution offers an interpretation of them that is not only completely original but also unique in incorporating them into a single evolutionary framework alongside the biologically unusual aspects of human heterosexuality.
These new interpretations of human sexuality seem important and stem fairly naturally from Darwin's sexual selection mechanism when applied within the hierarchy of bioepistemic evolution.
Perhaps more elegant is the interpretation of humor that emerges from the same bioepistemic framework. An extended discussion of the origin of humor and its sociobiological role in humans is included on this site. This discussion is, in fact, more advanced than that given in my book.
Finally, of considerable academic significance but, perhaps, less general interest, bioepistemic evolution :-
- Allows social élites to be identified as the social entities equivalent to the genomes of living organisms.
- Justifies group selection as a valid evolutionary argument.
- Permits the structure of Popper's scientific logic to be better understood.
© This page is the "Bioepistemic Evolution" page and is copyright to the author, Dr. John A. Hewitt.
Last Modified 18 November 2005