Principles of biological computation: from circadian clock to evolution

For the final — third — day of the Santa Fe Institute workshop on “What is Biological Computation?” (11 – 13 September) organized by Albert Kao, Jessica Flack, and David Wolpert, we opened the floor to short impormptu talks from all the participants. The result was 21 presentations organized in 4 sessions. As with my posts on the previous two days of this workshop (Day 1: Elements of biological computation & stochastic thermodynamics of life; Day 2: The science and engineering of biological computation: from process to software to DNA-based neural networks), I want to briefly touch on all the presentations from the closing day in this post and the following. But this time I won’t follow the chronological order, and instead regroup slightly. In this post I’ll cover about half the talks, and save the discussion of collective computation for next week.

If you prefer my completely raw, unedited impressions in a series of chronological tweets, then you can look at the threads for the three days: Wednesday (14 tweets), Thursday (15 tweets), and Friday (31 tweets).

As before, it is important to note that this is the workshop through my eyes. So this retelling is subject to the limits of my understanding, notes, and recollection. This is especially distorting for this final day given the large number of 10 minute talks.

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The science and engineering of biological computation: from process to software to DNA-based neural networks

In the earlier days of TheEGG, I used to write extensively about the themes of some of the smaller conferences and workshops that I attended. One of the first such workshops I blogged about in detail was the 2nd workshop on Natural Algorithms and the Sciences in May 2013. That spawned an eight post series that I closed with a vision for a path toward an algorithmic theory of biology. In the six years since, I’ve been following that path. But I have fallen out of the habit of writing summary posts about the workshops that I attend.

View from the SFISince my recent trip to the Santa Fe Institute for the “What is biological computation?” workshop (11 – 13 September 2019) brought me full circle in thinking about algorithmic biology, I thought I’d rekindle the habit of post-workshop blogging. During this SFI workshop — unlike the 2013 workshop in Princeton — I was live tweeting. So if you prefer my completely raw, unedited impressions in tweet form then you can take a look at those threads for Wednesday (14 tweets), Thursday (15 tweets), and Friday (31 tweets). Last week, I wrote about the first day (Wednesday): Elements of biological computation & stochastic thermodynamics of life.

This week, I want to go through the shorter second day and the presentations by Luca Cardelli, Stephanie Forrest, and Lulu Qian.

As before, it is also important to note that this is the workshop through my eyes. So this retelling is subject to the limits of my understanding, notes, and recollection. And as I procrastinate more and more on writing up the story, that recollection becomes less and less accurate.

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Elements of biological computation & stochastic thermodynamics of life

This week, I was visiting the Santa Fe Institute for a workshop organized by Albert Kao, Jessica Flack, and David Wolpert on “What is biological computation?” (11 – 13 September 2019). It was an ambitious question and I don’t think that we were able to answer it in just three days of discussion, but I think that we all certainly learnt a lot.

At least, I know that I learned a lot of new things.

The workshop had around 34 attendees from across the world, but from the reaction on twitter it seems like many more would have been eager to attend also. Hence, both to help synchronize the memory networks of all the participants and to share with those who couldn’t attend, I want to use this series of blog post to jot down some of the topics that were discussed at the meeting.

During the conference, I was live tweeting. So if you prefer my completely raw, unedited impressions in tweet form then you can take a look at those threads for Wednesday (14 tweets), Thursday (15 tweets), and Friday (31 tweets). The workshop itself was organized around discussion, and the presentations were only seeds. Unfortunately, my live tweeting and this post are primarily limited to just the presentations. But I will follow up with some synthesis and reflection in the future.

Due to the vast amount discussed during the workshop, I will focus this post on just the first day. I’ll follow with posts on the other days later.

It is also important to note that this is the workshop through my eyes. And thus this retelling is subject to the limits of my understanding, notes, and recollection. In particular, I wasn’t able to follow the stochastic thermodynamics that dominated the afternoon of the first day. And although I do provide some retelling, I hope that I can convince one of the experts to provide a more careful blog post on the topic.

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Idealization vs abstraction for mathematical models of evolution

This week I was in Turku, Finland for the annual congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology. I presented in the symposium on mathematical models in evolutionary biology organized by Guy Cooper, Matishalin Patel, Tom Scott, and Asher Leeks. It was a fun. It was also a big challenge given the short ten minute format. I decided to use my ten minutes to try to convince the audience that we should consider not just idealized models but also abstractions. So after my typical introduction of computational vs algorithmic biology, I switched to talking about triangles. If you would like, dear reader, then you can watch the whole session online (or grab my slides as pdf). In this post, I just want to focus on the distinction between idealized vs. abstract models.

Just as in my ESEB talk, I’ll use triangles to explain the distinction between idealized vs. abstract models.

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Fighting about frequency and randomly generating fitness landscapes

A couple of months ago, I was in Cambridge for the Evolution Evolving conference. It was a lot of fun, and it was nice to catch up with some familiar faces and meet some new ones. My favourite talk was Karen Kovaka‘s “Fighting about frequency”. It was an extremely well-delivered talk on the philosophy of science. And it engaged with a topic that has been very important to discussions of my own recent work. Although in my case it is on a much smaller scale than the general phenomenon that Kovaka was concerned with,

Let me first set up my own teacup, before discussing the more general storm.

Recently, I’ve had a number of chances to present my work on computational complexity as an ultimate constraint on evolution. And some questions have repeated again and again after several of the presentations. I want to address one of these persistent questions in this post.

How common are hard fitness landscapes?

This question has come up during review, presentations, and emails (most recently from Jianzhi Zhang’s reading group). I’ve spent some time addressing it in the paper. But it is not a question with a clear answer. So unsurprisingly, my comments have not been clear. Hence, I want to use this post to add some clarity.

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Introduction to Algorithmic Biology: Evolution as Algorithm

As Aaron Roth wrote on Twitter — and as I bet with my career: “Rigorously understanding evolution as a computational process will be one of the most important problems in theoretical biology in the next century. The basics of evolution are many students’ first exposure to “computational thinking” — but we need to finish the thought!”

Last week, I tried to continue this thought for Oxford students at a joint meeting of the Computational Society and Biological Society. On May 22, I gave a talk on algorithmic biology. I want to use this post to share my (shortened) slides as a pdf file and give a brief overview of the talk.

Winding path in a hard semi-smooth landscape

If you didn’t get a chance to attend, maybe the title and abstract will get you reading further:

Algorithmic Biology: Evolution is an algorithm; let us analyze it like one.

Evolutionary biology and theoretical computer science are fundamentally interconnected. In the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, we can see the emergence of concepts that theoretical computer scientists would later hold as central to their discipline. Ideas like asymptotic analysis, the role of algorithms in nature, distributed computation, and analogy from man-made to natural control processes. By recognizing evolution as an algorithm, we can continue to apply the mathematical tools of computer science to solve biological puzzles – to build an algorithmic biology.

One of these puzzles is open-ended evolution: why do populations continue to adapt instead of getting stuck at local fitness optima? Or alternatively: what constraint prevents evolution from finding a local fitness peak? Many solutions have been proposed to this puzzle, with most being proximal – i.e. depending on the details of the particular population structure. But computational complexity provides an ultimate constraint on evolution. I will discuss this constraint, and the positive aspects of the resultant perpetual maladaptive disequilibrium. In particular, I will explain how we can use this to understand both on-going long-term evolution experiments in bacteria; and the evolution of costly learning and cooperation in populations of complex organisms like humans.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve writen about all these topics already on TheEGG, and so my overview of the talk will involve a lot of links back to previous posts. In this way. this can serve as an analytic linkdex on algorithmic biology.
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British agricultural revolution gave us evolution by natural selection

This Wednesday, I gave a talk on algorithmic biology to the Oxford Computing Society. One of my goals was to show how seemingly technology oriented disciplines (such as computer science) can produce foundational theoretical, philosophical and scientific insights. So I started the talk with the relationship between domestication and natural selection. Something that I’ve briefly discussed on TheEGG in the past.

Today we might discuss artificial selection or domestication (or even evolutionary oncology) as applying the principles of natural selection to achieve human goals. This is only because we now take Darwin’s work as given. At the time that he was writing, however, Darwin actually had to make his argument in the other direction. Darwin’s argument proceeds from looking at the selection algorithms used by humans and then abstracting it to focus only on the algorithm and not the agent carrying out the algorithm. Having made this abstraction, he can implement the breeder by the distributed struggle for existence and thus get natural selection.

The inspiration is clearly from the technological to the theoretical. But there is a problem with my story.

Domestication of plants and animals in ancient. Old enough that we have cancers that arose in our domesticated helpers 11,000 years ago and persist to this day. Domestication in general — the fruit of the first agricultural revolution — can hardly qualify as a new technology in Darwin’s day. It would have been just as known to Aristotle, and yet he thought species were eternal.

Why wasn’t Aristotle or any other ancient philosopher inspired by the agriculture and animal husbandry of their day to arrive at the same theory as Darwin?

The ancients didn’t arrive at the same view because it wasn’t the domestication of the first agricultural revolution that inspired Darwin. It was something much more contemporary to him. Darwin was inspired by the British agricultural revolution of the 18th and early 19th century.

In this post, I want to sketch this connection between the technological development of the Georgian era and the theoretical breakthroughs in natural science in the subsequent Victorian era. As before, I’ll focus on evolution and algorithm.

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Local maxima and the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points

An economist and a computer scientist are walking through the University of Chicago campus discussing the efficient markets hypothesis. The computer scientist spots something on the pavement and exclaims: “look at that $20 on the ground — seems we’ll be getting a free lunch today!”

The economist turns to her without looking down and replies: “Don’t be silly, that’s impossible. If there was a $20 bill there then it would have been picked up already.”

This is the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points.

In this post I want to discuss both the importance and power of local maxima, and the dangers of simply assuming that our system is at a local maximum.

So before we dismiss the economist’s remark with laughter, let’s look at a more convincing discussion of local maxima that falls prey to the same fallacy. I’ll pick on one of my favourite YouTubers, THUNK:

In his video, THUNK discusses a wide range of local maxima and contrasts them with the intended global maximum (or more desired local maxima). He first considers a Roomba vacuum cleaner that is trying to maximize the area that it cleans but gets stuck in the local maximum of his chair’s legs. And then he goes on to discuss similar cases in physics, chemisty, evolution, psychology, and culture.

It is a wonderful set of examples and a nice illustration of the power of fixed-points.

But given that I write so much about algorithmic biology, let’s focus on his discussion of evolution. THUNK describes evolution as follows:

Evolution is a sort of hill-climbing algorithm. One that has identified local maxima of survival and replication.

This is a common characterization of evolution. And it seems much less silly than the economist passing up $20. But it is still an example of the fallacy of jumping to fixed-points.

My goal in this post is to convince you that THUNK describing evolution and the economist passing up $20 are actually using the same kind of argument. Sometimes this is a very useful argument, but sometimes it is just a starting point that without further elaboration becomes a fallacy.

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Quick introduction: the algorithmic lens

Computers are a ubiquitous tool in modern research. We use them for everything from running simulation experiments and controlling physical experiments to analyzing and visualizing data. For almost any field ‘X’ there is probably a subfield of ‘computational X’ that uses and refines these computational tools to further research in X. This is very important work and I think it should be an integral part of all modern research.

But this is not the algorithmic lens.

In this post, I will try to give a very brief description (or maybe just a set of pointers) for the algorithmic lens. And of what we should imagine when we see an ‘algorithmic X’ subfield of some field X.

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From perpetual motion machines to the Entscheidungsproblem

Turing MachineThere seems to be a tendency to use the newest technology of the day as a metaphor for making sense of our hardest scientific questions. These metaphors are often vague and inprecise. They tend to overly simplify the scientific question and also misrepresent the technology. This isn’t useful.

But the pull of this metaphor also tends to transform the technical disciplines that analyze our newest tech into fundamental disciplines that analyze our universe. This was the case for many aspects of physics, and I think it is currently happening with aspects of theoretical computer science. This is very useful.

So, let’s go back in time to the birth of modern machines. To the water wheel and the steam engine.

I will briefly sketch how the science of steam engines developed and how it dealt with perpetual motion machines. From here, we can jump to the analytic engine and the modern computer. I’ll suggest that the development of computer science has followed a similar path — with the Entscheidungsproblem and its variants serving as our perpetual motion machine.

The science of steam engines successfully universalized itself into thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. These are seen as universal disciplines that are used to inform our understanding across the sciences. Similarly, I think that we need to universalize theoretical computer science and make its techniques more common throughout the sciences.

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