A “Holiness Spiral” in Evolutionary Biology

Eliezer Yudkowsky’s unnerving example of mouse biology:

There is a segregation-distorter on the male sex chromosome of some mice which causes only male children to be born, all carrying the segregation-distorter. Then these males impregnate females, who give birth to only male children, and so on. You might cry “This is cheating!” but that’s a human perspective; the reproductive fitness of this allele is extremely high, since it produces twice as many copies of itself in the succeeding generation as its nonmutant alternative. Even as females become rarer and rarer, males carrying this gene are no less likely to mate than any other male, and so the segregation-distorter remains twice as fit as its alternative allele. It’s speculated that real-world group selection [among reproductively isolated populations] may have played a role in keeping the frequency of this gene as low as it seems to be. In which case, if mice were to evolve the ability to fly and migrate for the winter, they would probably form a single reproductive population, and would evolve to extinction as the segregation-distorter evolved to fixation.

That is, this allele does very well reproductively until it destroys the entire population of which it’s a member because there are no females left. Obviously this example doesn’t involve politics, but it has similar dynamics: Something that does well for the individual (gene or person) in the short run, while eating away at the individual’s own foundations. In the case of the mice it’s a gene that eliminates females; in the case of our current holiness spiral it’s white people shouting that white people are evil and should be attacked. Saying things like that identifies one as safely leftist(*) in the haute reaches of western culture these days. But of course it destroys one’s safety in the long run.

A holiness spiral has the aspect of being in the ocean on a raft, and hacking away at the raft with an axe because it somehow helps you in the short run, even as it guarantees your death in the long run. E.g. there are a bunch of people on the raft, and somehow a convention has gotten established that they single out the person who’s hacking away at the raft with the least enthusiasm and attack him. Everybody wants to hack at the raft at least as enthusiastically as everyone else. If they think about it at all, they’re thinking, “Sure, this behavior will guarantee that we all die eventually, but if I stop hacking I’ll die right now.”

Yudkowsky also mentions the possibility of viruses greedily killing their host before they can propagate to another host. Basically there’s no reproductive benefit to an individual member of the virus from reproducing slowly to keep the host alive: The other viruses also reap the benefit of the “prudent” one’s restraint, and they reproduce faster than the prudent one. So, prudent virus genes are out-selected. Given that, the surprising observation is that any illnesses ever propagate before killing their host. Yudkowsky: “I don’t know if a disease has ever been caught in the act of evolving to extinction, but it’s probably happened any number of times.”

* Comparatively safe. Fortunately, as the holiness spiral becomes ever more insane, it becomes ever less safe even to be a leftist. This reduces the incentive to engage in leftist holiness signaling, so is one of the things which may rescue us as people choose up sides in the impending civil war.

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