Sunday, 13 January 2013


Delegation is an important type of biological interaction. In general, optimizers often find it beneficial to delegate tasks or functions to other optimizers. Delegation is common in mutualistic relationships.

An example of delegation occurs with gut bacteria. We can't break down foods as well as they can so we delegate this task to them. Another task we have some difficulty in performing alone is photosynthesis. However, we need to harvest energy from the sun to live. This task is delegated to plants, which we then eat or burn, and these days to solar panels as well.

Delegating tasks to other agents is often beneficial. However it also has certain risks associated with it. One is that the agents that you are delegating to go extinct. If this happens sometimes other ones can be substituted which play the role instead. Or sometimes, the organism has to struggle on without a partner. This latter phenomenon has been ably documented in the book The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms.

Another problem with delegation is that the symbionts have their own goals and these can cause problems. For example, while most gut bacteria are desirable, some cause diarrhea. Steve Jobs illustrates another example of how delegation can cause problems. He founded the Apple computer company, it grew - and the result was that Steve was removed from his managerial duties as head of the Macintosh division and eventually left Apple completely.

Delegation is relevant to within-brain evolution. Genetic optimisers construct brains and delegate their tasks to psychological optimizers. Genes require nutrients to survive and in animals the task of obtaining nutrients has been delegates to a separate evolving structure (the brain). This adapts to a changing environment much faster than the organism's genes do, but has a somewhat different optimization target (sometimes referred to as happiness). Often the two optimizing systems work together (and the organism becomes happy, fat and then pregnant). However sometimes things don't work out so well, and the organism may become pathologically obese, or turn into a heroin addict.

Delegation is relevant to cultural evolution because genes have often delegated tasks to brains, which in turn have delegated them to memes. Rather than programming behaviour directly, human genes have built flexible brains which can adapt to their environment rapidly. Those brains have, in turn, found it beneficial to avoid controlling behaviour directly, but instead to hand control over to "cultural software" - which has been downloaded from the ideosphere. This double layer of delegated control structures is part of what makes human behaviour so flexible and complex. In practice, there are often other levels of delegation: our cultural software often tells us to delegate tasks to other agents, or to "technological optimisers", such as computers.

Delegation it is part of symbiology. It is part of a more general process in which agents use (or manipulate) other agents. Related concepts include:

Slowly-reproducing agents often find it beneficial to delegate tasks to smaller, more rapidly-reproducing ones. This is because large organisms use small symbiotes to adapt quickly.

Vicarious selection

The concept of delegation has typically been discussed in the context of evolutionary theory as a form of "vicarious selection". The similar term "vicarious forces" was made popular by Donald Campbell (1965 and 1974).

Various theorists have previously related the idea to cultural evolution. F. Heylighen, & C. Joslyn (1992) published on the topic.

Agner Fog (1999) introduces the idea as follows:

Cultural selection processes can often be described as vicarious selection (Campbell 1965. The concept is also sometimes called preselection). The principle behind vicarious selection is that a slow and ineffective selection process is supplanted by a faster and more effective selection process leading in approximately the same direction, whereby the adaptability is increased. The vicarious mechanism is in some way created by the old selection process, and may possibly be checked by the latter - albeit ineffectively - if it runs away. Campbell mentions our choice of food as an example. If we eat something inappropriate we may die from malnutrition or poisoning, so the choice of food is ultimately determined by natural selection. Our immediate choice, however, is based on taste. The genetic evolution has designed our sense of taste in such a way that healthy food tastes good. The taste criterion is approximately equal to the criterion of nourishment, and in this way the selection based on taste has become a replacement for the much slower selection based on survival.
He concludes:

The concept of vicarious selection is important because the cultural selection process as a whole acts vicariously for the genetic selection, and indeed very effectively so.
As you can probably see from this page, I do not approve of the "vicarious selection" terminology. I think it is jargon. I feel about it the same way as I would if we called imitation "mimicry selection" or if we called coercion "threat selection". "Delegation" is a perfectly good term - and I think that biologists should make use of it.

Some folk sometimes use the terminology "principal–agent problem". This terminology also makes little sense to me. It is surely better to use the "delegation" terminology rather than using the term "principal-agent".


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