If there is life, then there is more complex life as well?


Researchers in Switzerland have developed an Altruism algorithm that shows how altruism in a swarm of entities can, over time, evolve and result in more effective swarm behaviour.

For an ant colony, this would mean that, over time the individuals tend to sustain the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial, i.e. the swarm intelligence.

But isn't it the same with the cells in our body?

Doesn't this mean that, if there is life, then there is more complex life as well? Even if complexity means that the type of interaction between the individuals would be a social one...

And thanks to the researchers in Switzerland, doesn't this (partly) explain our existence?

draks ...

Posted 2013-12-18T23:35:05.453

Reputation: 708

As long as the life is reasonable simple, and being more complex adds something valuable, the answer is probably yes. If life is already pretty complex to begin with (like a bird), the conclusion is less obvious. A flock of birds probably doesn't qualify as a complex form. Whether a colony of ants qualifies, I don't know. – Thomas Klimpel – 2013-12-18T23:52:03.603

@Thomas ...for fungi, this becomes a serious biological question.

– draks ... – 2013-12-18T23:56:09.143

@Thomas and bacteria, simple celluar things, also count as life, which is reasonable simple. So life begins quite early... – draks ... – 2013-12-19T00:32:53.763

Be careful of easy uses of "complexity." Actually, bacteria have far more biological diversity than animals. And in terms of biomass, history, and diversity they represent so much more of "life" than all plants and animals combined that some take this to be a statistical argument against the very idea of progressive "complexity." Historically and even at present, the entire plant and animal kingdoms are more like a random blip in "life" than any observable trend. Anyway, I'd suggest that all "intelligence" and "memory" are distributed or "swarm" phenomena. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-10-20T19:53:01.120

@draks... just to make sure I understand... are you asking if groups of individual creatures could be considered a single life form if they cooperate closely enough, just like the cells in our bodies are individually alive, but they make up an single life-form -- us? – R. Barzell – 2015-10-20T19:54:26.240

@R.Barzell yes but not immediately. Over time. And I ask if this is a natural consequence? Of for example altruism... – draks ... – 2015-10-20T20:07:52.527

@draks so you're asking if a very altruistic (collective/hive) group of beings ultimately evolve into a single being? – R. Barzell – 2015-10-20T20:15:08.880

@R.Barzell hmm I haven't thought about this step. I just wanted to find the motor for our current existence and it's evolution, but yes. Do you dare an answer? – draks ... – 2015-10-20T20:54:45.437

@draks... Do I dare? Lol, not really. I think the others have provided better responses than I could :) – R. Barzell – 2015-10-21T12:35:05.927



While I agree with jobermark I am very leery of the terms "complexity" and "efficiency." The latter assumes a teleology or efficiency "relative to some end." Which could be simple bacterial growth towards increasing biomass and longevity. For this, their lack of "individual" cellular complexity but over genetic "diversity" has proven unsurpassably successful.

As to "complexity," I understand this is now highly mathematized, yet in general measures something like "parts-to-whole" and "possible interactions." I assume the determination of a "part" and a "whole" is somewhat axiomatic, with things like "swarm" now admitted into an overly strict dichotomy. As usual, the closer we look the more problematic the determinations appear. Most DNA in a human body is not human DNA. It is bacterial and microbial. Nor could "our own" cells survive as a "person" without these other "parts," making each viable homo sapiens technically a trans-species "swarm."

As your question implies, this problem of defining the atonomous "individual" apart from its cooperative system raises many social issues long debated before any "altruism algorithm." Obviously, human cultures "store" cooperative behaviors that increase the number of individuals and the complexity of interactions. These appear to collapse at intervals, somewhat as cells collapse when surface area expands at a faster rate than interior volume...a good analogy for the border problems of the Roman Empire.

A problem arises when modern liberal societies attempt to define the "individual" as an irreducible, legal "whole" with inelastic "rights." As the number of such participants grows, more and more "altruism" must be imposed. Liberals appear to dread such emergent structural "cooperation," the Communism and loss of identity parodied in "The Borg." Thus a bourgeois idealogical phobia about "too much equality" or even "excess altruism." (Can you image how stunned 19th century English speakers would be to hear politicians railing against the problem of "welfare.")

Personally, I do not see a huge problem of "too much altruism" or "too much equality" in human history. But while I am sympathetic to the noble aims of the Swiss researchers and have not looked at the study, I suspect the definitional problems are far too great to resist blatant biases and Panglossian conclusions. Logicians had already demonstrated the efficacy and necessity of altruism long before the Holocaust.

Nelson Alexander

Posted 2013-12-18T23:35:05.453

Reputation: 11 748


There are preconditions that must be met in order to get an altruism algorithm to produce benefits that reward the storage of additional complexity in living organisms (leaving aside the rather thorny question of what counts as "life").

So although on our planet these preconditions are usually met, there is no logical reason why they must be so (e.g. in a very dilute and highly agitated solution, there may be no opportunity for interaction and no benefit for complex behavior; certain types of life may not possess the capacity to be more complex, or the costs for increased complexity may be very high so that it does not develop). Furthermore, even if complexity is rewarded (and altruism or cooperation is not the only type of complexity that can be beneficial; it's also highly beneficial to encode information about the environment or expected environment if this can allow altered behavior that produces superior outcomes), it doesn't explain our existence without many other factors considered also, since you still have questions about what the upper bound of complexity is, why you should end up with social primates as the (most deeply) sentient beings on the planet, etc. etc..

Rex Kerr

Posted 2013-12-18T23:35:05.453

Reputation: 15 388

Can you please explain what you think of with no benefit for complex behavior? Further certain types of life don't need the capacity to be more complex, they create a swarm to achieve more complexity. And how is encoding information about the environment beneficial. Finally I could rephrase my question to: If there is life, then does it get as complex as it can? What would you answer? +1 thanks for your thoughts... – draks ... – 2013-12-19T22:26:19.750

2"Life gets as complex as it can" is practically a tautology. The point is that there are some environmental conditions which seem to limit the degree of complexity that life gets to, and it is not 100% clear that even if given relatively benign environmental conditions the development of multicelluar organisms with differentiated tissues (my definition of complex life) will occur with (near) ceartainty. – Dave – 2013-12-20T20:00:38.813

@Dave would finding multicelluar organisms on Europa or Enceladeus change your mind on the probability of development of life in the universe? – draks ... – 2013-12-24T13:27:19.320

Yes, finding any lifeforms that arose independent of Earth would be an important data point for a whole host of questions on evolution. – Dave – 2013-12-24T13:45:05.223

@dave why is it practically a tautology? – draks ... – 2013-12-24T14:38:01.723

@dave what is the simplest multicellular organism with differentiated tissues you know? about how many cells are we talking? – draks ... – 2013-12-28T16:08:40.320

@rex I would be glad to read your opinion on my questions... – draks ... – 2013-12-28T16:09:30.307

@draks... - I agree with Dave so far. – Rex Kerr – 2013-12-28T20:29:15.967

@Dave I've got a nice example here: Dictyostelium amoebae grow as separate, independent cells but interact to form multicellular structures when challenged. This gives an example that multicelluar organisms with differentiated tissues occur, when they have to...What do you think?

– draks ... – 2014-01-08T22:51:45.557

@draks... - That some normally single-celled organisms have an alternate behavior that is multicellular isn't evidence of occur when they have to. Plenty of other single-celled organisms would be assisted by multicellularity in some contexts, and don't change. Again, there is no logical reason things must be this complex; that they are is both a consequence of the details of physical laws and of the accidents of history (of life on Earth). – Rex Kerr – 2014-01-08T23:18:41.967

My intended use of "differentiated tissues" was to indicate something like nematodes for animals, and mosses for plants; I explicitly wanted to exclude things like slime-molds (probably fungi in general) and some forms of algae which can as easily be conceived of as "aggregates of individual cells" as opposed to being integrated organisms that really require the a combination of multiple cells in order to exist (at maturity). – Dave – 2014-01-09T14:09:18.143

"Life gets as complex as it can" is (roughly) a tautology: if life is not currently as complex as it can be, then it will evolve to become more complex (in some sense) -- if there are currently unexploited resources in the environment, then (given enough time) life will find a way to exploit those resources. Note: this does not necessarily mean that individual organisms become more complex: it could be an increased ecological complexity (i.e. longer chains/networks of A eats X, produces Y, B eats Y produces Z ...). – Dave – 2014-01-09T14:17:39.790

The final statement in my previous comment indicates why complex multi-celluar organisms (as found on Earth) may not be universal (or even the most likely) way that life becomes complex. However, before we can even address this question, we would need to establish that even basic lifeforms arise under a reasonably wide range of circumstances; hence the significance of finding /any/ extra-terrestrial life forms. – Dave – 2014-01-09T14:24:32.167

@Dave that is like saying "Geology will get as low as it can." Of course it is true in some sense, gravity rules, but, well, mountains... It is in some sense absolutely true, but not in a meaningful way. – None – 2015-10-20T20:07:44.260


But modern bacteria, as they evolve, become simpler, not more complex. They discard unnecessary DNA, and with it, opportunities to evolve, faster than they add new material, or they tend to go extinct. Complexity is a drain on reproductive speed, and competition is extreme.

By Barbara McClintock's model, they incorporate useful viruses and prokaryotes occasionally, taking a sudden step up in complexity, but they spend most of their time optimizing by pruning, and end up far simpler than the sum of the parts. The combination may ultimately end up simpler than the original cell, if the additional material provides some function of life in fewer letters and all the rest of it can be thrown away.

In a fully-populated-enough environment, this drive to austerity would keep life's complexity cycling around an optimal place, fairly low.

One could claim that this is because they have taken up the niche below the point where multicellularity pays off, and if there were not more complex forms above them, they would change. But actual examples of pre-Cambrian life don't bear this out. Bacteria, as far as we can tell from what little evidence they leave, actually seem to have been similar all along.

There is at least one theory that the Cambrian explosion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambrian_explosion#Possible_causes_of_the_.E2.80.9Cexplosion.E2.80.9D required an excess of available resources from some decisive change or outside event, in order to get over that basic trend downward onto a secondary slope upward in complexity.

Theoretically, there are multiple reversal points on the curve of advantage between complexity and efficiency. So, I would say no. And I would bet the model also tops out at some level where coordination reaches an optimum.


Posted 2013-12-18T23:35:05.453