Sunday, August 29, 2010

The demise of the Selfish Gene

Went sailing with Daughter today but it was very windly and choppy - we went in before the race started as did 3 other more experienced sailors, and two more came in during the race.

This gives me a chance to read more of Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson (NTW) and in particular the Supplementary Information. This explains in devastating detail why "kin selection" simply doesn't work, and why measures of "relatedness" and "Hamilton's Rule" are highly misleading.

In fact they demonstrate that:
  • Hamilton's Rule almost never holds. Even if you recast it to redefine "relatedness" it is still wrong, and if you follow suggestions in (Gardner & al 2007) to redefine it as B(R)R>C(R) it becomes "very complicated to separate any effects and it generally provides no intuition whatsoever"
  • Relatedness does not reliably predict evolutionary outcomes. You can have populations with identical levels of "relatedness" which lead to completely different evolutionary behaviour, depending on the evolutionary dynamics involved.
As they dryly remark: "The quantitative analysis of kin selection relies completely on inclusive fitness theory. No other theory has been proposed to discuss kin selection. We show the limitations of inclusive fitness theory. We do not discuss implications of kin selection that might exist independent of inclusive fitness theory"

And towards the end of the SI they say "The epicycles of inclusive fitness calculations are not needed, given that we can formulate precise descriptions of how natural selection acts in structured populations."

It seems to me that we can build on these ideas to provide direct refutations of the "Selfish Gene" nonsense. Since it is clear that relatedness is a poor predictor of evolutionary outcome it should be possible to find:

a. Situations where genes that lead to the promotion of a trait are reduced or eliminated from the gene pool. (I have in mind when there are 3 traits A,B,C and B will dominate provided C invades A to a certain extent but not otherwise).

b. Situations (which I think actually may be common in eusocial insects and others) where it is non-genetic modifications (either learned behaviour or epigenetics) that lead to the evolution of a trait, and not genes at all.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Shooting down the exaggerated claims re Kin Selection

Picture from Harvard Gazette -Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
The key paper by Martin, Corina and EO Wilson is the front cover of Nature today (see commentary here). It basically removes the exaggerated claims about Kin Selection and "Selfish Genes". It is cited in my paper with Bob Pollack (which is due to come out in Oct/Nov) and no doubt will be cited by many others.

Here is a key element of their paper:
..we outline a general mathematical approach based on standard natural selection theory to derive a condition for one behavioural strategy to be favoured over another. This condition holds for any mutation rate and any intensity of selection. Then we move to the limit of weak selection, which is required by inclusive fitness theory. Here all individuals have approximately the same fitness and both strategies are roughly equally abundant. For weak selection, we derive the general answer provided by standard natural selection theory, and we show that further limiting assumptions are needed for inclusive fitness theory to be formulated in an exact manner.
  • First, for inclusive fitness theory all interactions must be additive and pairwise. This limitation excludes most evolutionary games that have synergistic effects or where more than two players are involved. Many tasks in an insect colony, for example, require the simultaneous cooperation of more than two individuals, and synergistic effects are easily demonstrated.
  • Second, inclusive fitness theory can only deal with very special population structures. It can describe either static structures or dynamic ones, but in the latter case there must be global updating and binary interactions. Global updating means that any two individuals compete uniformly for reproduction regardless of their (spatial) distance. Binary interaction means that any two individuals either interact or they do not, but there cannot be continuously varyingintensities of interaction.
These particular mathematical assumptions, which are easily violated in nature, are needed for the formulation of inclusive fitness theory. If these assumptions do not hold, then inclusive fitness either cannot be defined or does not give the right criterion for what is favoured by natural selection. We also prove the following result: if we are in the limited world where inclusive fitness theory works, then the inclusive fitness condition is identical to the condition derived by standard natural selection theory. The exercise of calculating inclusive fitness does not provide any additional biological insight. Inclusive fitness is just another way of accounting but one that is less general.

The great Mary Midgley is giving a talk at the RSA on a related topic on 20 Sept - which I plan to attend. Never heard her speak or met her, alas. I wonder if she knows about this paper?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Families - and Delayed Catastrophe Games

Although for obvious reasons I don't blog about them at the time, the big family events last week were because Elder Daughter, Son-in-Law and their baby MJ were staying. Will post some photos but laptops have been troublesome.

The initial simple model for Delayed Catastrophe Games shows some quite elegant results. In particular
  • If people are selfish, then you won't get 80% of the population actually willing to tackle global warming unless the catastrophe is within about 13 years.
  • If people are wholly altruistic this goes up to about 63 years.
  • People don't need to be altruistic about the whole of the rest of the world population: any reasonable "random" sample will do.
  • Even a 20% altruism level (in the whole population) will increase the time threshold quite significantly. But since countries have trouble getting popular support for devoting 0.7% of GDP to aid, is the real altruism level really much more than 1-2%?
Many congratulations to David & Samantha Cameron on the birth of their baby girl. I met Samatha for the first time on 5th July, she was delightful (and delightfully pregnant). I have sailed past Daymer Bay many times, most recently last month.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Good News, and Delayed Catastrophe Games

Daughter got her results so off to Trinity in October. Great celebrations, and family over for other reasons as well. So much entertaining and catching up with people.

Making some progress in thinking about Delayed Catastrophe Public Goods Games (or Delayed Catastrophe Games, not sure what to call them). Will be great to discuss this with Martin N. Bob Pollack plans to send our paper to various other Eminent Persons, and has done so already with one of his colleagues at Columbia.

I heard from someone working closely (as a Civil Servant) with a Minister in the Coalition that relationships really are good between the LibDem and Conservative Ministers. A general sense of amazement at the competence and constructiveness, compared to the last sorry lot.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ending Long-Term Unemployment with Negative Employers National Insurance

Whole series of family events as well as lots of work on. Yesterday we had all 4 of my great-nephews around and their mothers. They went out to the gardens after lunch - although I was working from home so could see quite a bit of them I couldn't spend very much time: getting some more very inetersting final results on our paper with Nowak.

Daughter came back from her Inter-railing very happy though a bit tired - we'll see what the A-level results today reveal.

Submitted a 1-page response to the DWP consultation on 21st Century Welfare. My key concept is to substantially reduce or eliminate long term unemployment by means of Negative National Insurance. For example:
  1. Everyone who had been unemployed for more than 3 months could have a personal Employment Premium which would provide an incentive (via negative Employers NI) to employ them.
  2. As the Employment Premium increased, benefits would reduce (by say 1% per month).
  3. But people to stop the reduction by doing voluntary work equal to the number of hours corresponding to their benefit at the minimum wage.
  4. In areas of top decile long-term unemployment, employers of someone who had been claiming benefits for 12 of the last 12 months would get (by negative Employers NI) 90% of the Minimum Wage (pro rata) for the 1st month, 80% for the 2nd etc... If the area was 2nd decile or the person “only” had 11 months unemployment the negative NI would start at 80%.
An approach like this would ensure that jobs were available (at least for one month) to anyone who was capable of providing economic value to an employer of at least 10% of the Minimum Wage. In practice most people’s value to an employer increases the longer they have worked for them.

The net cost would be modest because the Negative Employers NI would be offset by withdrawal of benefits and increased tax take whereas the 1% per month cut in benefits would be an immediate and cumulative saving. The rate of withdrawal of benefits as people earned money is a serious problem, in some cases it is as high as 85%. In my view these marginal effective tax rates should not exceed 50%. Even so this would mean that the Negative Employers NI only had a next cost to the Exchequer if it were higher than 50%.

Thus the net cost of essentially ending long-term unemployment would be one month's pay at the Minimum Wage (90%-50%=40% in Month 1, 30% in Month 2 etc..) which would be an utter bargain. Indeed if the Employment Premium had to go as high as 120% in certain very difficult cases it would still be only 2.3 months of Minimum Wage, and that is before we think about multiplier effects, VAT etc.

Worth debating I think....

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cornwall, Lucas, Harvard and USQR

Spent last week at family house in Cornwall, with UK Grandchildren, mostly without their parents who had to go back to work. Great fun but non-trivial. Weather very windy so I had only one of the 2 advanced Cat sailing lessons I planned: improved my trapezing no end but not yet able to helm from the trapeze.

Sony Vaio packed up on 2nd day completely, so had to buy another machine from HBH Woolacotts - an interesting Cornish business that I did not know before. Additional signs of increasing entrepreneurship in Cornwall are the Padstow Farm Shop, which was very impressive, and the refurbishment of our village stores, which now has a walk-in cool room for white wine, beers and cool soft drinks.

On Weds celebrated my brother's 50th birthday - at which the "guest of honour" was his godfather the great philosopher John Lucas. Now 81, he is working on a book on the moral basis of economics. Many points of contact with Amartya Sen - I'd love to introduce them.

Just got back from a 2-day visit to Harvard which was extremely productive although quite intense. We are noe very nearly ready to submit, despite having a brilliant new idea from Dave (which we will be able to put into the paper) and from Martin (which probably needs to be in the next one(?)). The Nowak, Tarnita & Wilson paper "The evolution of eusociality" should be coming out in Nature on the 26th Aug - watch for the fireworks. I learned that EO Wilson described one very high-profile media scientist as "the biological equivalent of Sarah Palin", though this seems to be to be very unfair ... to Ms Palin.

Have finished the paper with Bob Pollack,"The Great Commandment, Tao, and the Survival of Humanity" which will go to the USQR next week. Nowak is very interested in it: there seems to be the germ of a new idea about public goods games (although our paper is non-technical) and he's wondering about writing a commentary on it.

Big family events all this week - and lots on at work as well. We're hiring a new graduate who will be starting in Sept and my brother's business is hiring two. Maybe the jobs market will turn up - I think a lot of companies have decided that they have been working v v hard and amassing cash and can now expand to take advantage of the opportunities. Hope so anyway.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Kids for Kids, and the forming of the Coalition

On Fri to Kids for Kids supporters party, and heard an update from the brilliant and indefatigable Director Patricia Parker on the work they have been doing. Sadly Practical Action terminated their partnership, saying K4K was too demanding and wanted to know in detail what was happening with their money. So K4K now has its own office in Al Fasha - two rooms in a Ministry of Agriculture building, and employs the Programme Manager, who used to be with Practical Action, directly. He is a Dr (a qualified vet) and I very much hope to meet him when he comes over. I suggested that he should give a talk at Oxford and one at SOAS: this would be good for the students but also for him!

Met the new Consul from Sudan, who has just finished his Masters at SOAS after getting one of the very few First Class degrees from the University of Sudan (apparently just one awarded every 10 years). He spoke warmly about the work of K4K - the Ambassador has just left the country and will be replaced. Also met the fomer British Ambassador to the Sudan Dame Rosalind Marsden: will be interesting to see what she does next.

Yesterday a family gathering in Golders Hill Park to see my cousin, who lives in South Uist, her husband and children, and a nephew, niece and two great-nephews: the children are all very young and I had only met one before. I cycled up from my running club, forgetting the hills, and then cycled back home. Pity I didn't swim, but I had lots of work to do.

Finshed watching Five Days that Changed Britain. The collossal incompetence and bungling amateurism of Gordon Brown and his cronies is really salient. Quite probably they could never have made a Lib/Lab coalition work. But:
  1. When Brown rings Clegg and speaks to him for the first time, he gives him an earful. Telling, not listening. As Mandelson said "Gordon being Gordonish". By contrast for example Cameron says things like "the Civil Service have offered us three venues for a meeting, which would you prefer".
  2. At the critical time, Brown traipses off to Scotland, then has to traipse back. He then rings Vince Cable at 6am to give him an earful.
  3. When "negotations" begin with the LibDems, the Labour Negotators have no agreed negotating position, they just turn up for a chat. The Conservatives of course had studied LibDem policy in detail and had presented an 11-point set of proposals.
In the end, when running anything, competence and personal relationships matter a lot more than Policy.