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?

  • 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 Dec 18 '13 at 23:52
  • @Thomas and bacteria, simple celluar things, also count as life, which is reasonable simple. So life begins quite early... – draks ... Dec 19 '13 at 0:32
  • 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 Oct 20 '15 at 19:53
  • @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 Oct 20 '15 at 19:54

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.


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..

  • 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 ... Dec 19 '13 at 22:26
  • 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 Dec 20 '13 at 20:00
  • @Dave would finding multicelluar organisms on Europa or Enceladeus change your mind on the probability of development of life in the universe? – draks ... Dec 24 '13 at 13:27
  • Yes, finding any lifeforms that arose independent of Earth would be an important data point for a whole host of questions on evolution. – Dave Dec 24 '13 at 13:45
  • @dave why is it practically a tautology? – draks ... Dec 24 '13 at 14:38

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.

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