Using Robots To Understand The Genetics Of Selflessness

Swiss scientists searching for the "altruism gene" use robots to show why creatures, human and otherwise, sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

(Ed Yourdon)
(Ed Yourdon)
Lucia Sillig

LAUSANNE - "I would give my life for two brothers or eight cousins' is how a British evolutionist once described the kin selection theory. In nature, examples abound of social animals willing to sacrifice themselves for the wider good of their group, provided that the genetic closeness (how many genes they share) between them is high enough. By contributing to the survival of their genetic relatives, these altruistic individuals will propogate, passing on their genes within the species.

Still, quantitative tests on this theory have been difficult to perform in nature. But thanks to the use of robots, a team of Swiss scientists has been able to overcome the problem, in a study whose conclusions have been published in the PLoS Biology magazine this week.

Why do meerkats accept to go up a rock and keep an eye on potential predators? Not only does this kind of altruistic action prevent them from looking for food, but their conspicuous position also puts their life at risk. Worker ants are even more generous: incapable of reproducing, they toil for the benefit of their sisters, one of whom will someday become the queen. In the 1960s, biologist William Donald Hamilton formulated his famous rule of kin selection, which states that this kind of altruistic behavior can only occur if the degree of genetic relatedness is superior to the cost-to-benefit ratio for the altruist and the beneficiary of the action.

"We can speak of altruism when an action has a cost for the individual performing the action," says Laurent Keller, co-author of the study and member of the Department of ecology and evolution at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

In nature however, it is very hard to quantify the advantages and disadvantages of a certain action, which means that the phenomenon cannot be accurately measured. "There are many parameters that influence the way genes are passed on from one generation to another," says Michel Milinkovitch from the Department of genetics and evolution at the University of Geneva. "Scientists have a very hard time trying to pin down a single one of these parameters. In a colony of ants, climatic variations can completely change the equation."

Robots, on the other hand, can be controlled much more easily. Equipped with several infrared distance sensors, the robots move around with the help of two motorized wheels, explains Dario Floreano, co-author of the study and director of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the School of Engineering of Lausanne. The robots were placed into groups of eight inside a square arena, and were asked to push as many disks as possible – or food items – towards the wall. At the end of the exercise, they could either keep their gains (selfish behavior) or share it with others (altruistic behavior).

The robots have a network of 13 neurons, and an artificial DNA comprised of 33 genes connecting the neurons. Exterior signals received through the sensors are amplified from one neuron to the next on a scale ranging from 1 to -1, as determined by the genes. "The genome influences the way the information is processed," Laurent Keller says. "Different connection weights may result in very different behaviors," Floreano adds.

In the first generation of robots, the values were randomly set and the robots – which were divided in 200 independently evolving groups – behaved completely arbitrarily. At the end of each test, only the best performers were kept by the researchers. Their genetic codes were then recombined – as in the case of sexual reproduction – introducing a basic evolutionary variation mechanism of random mutations. The researchers conducted 500 generations of selection: the robots quickly became more efficient and learned to work as a group without any human interference.

The Swiss team also tested different parameters by playing with the cost-to-benefit ratio, and the level of relatedness between individuals. In groups formed by perfect clones – robots shared the same genetic code – the relatedness was equal to 1. For groups of four clones of the same model and four of a different kind, that number falls to 0.5, just like in the case of brothers. This allowed the scientists to put Hamilton's rule to the test.

Somewhere between computer simulations and in vivo observations, the robot tests are another step towards the real world, says Michel Milinkovitch. "It allows us to show that even simple systems can provide the necessary conditions for the evolution of altruism."

Laurent Keller says that the study has also proved the validity of the theory in the case of complex genetic architecture systems. One of the criticisms often raised against the Hamilton rule was that no one had been able to identify the altruism gene. "Our study shows that this feature is not actually related to a single gene but can emerge from a system," says the Swiss biologist.

Read the original article in French

photo - Ed Yourdon

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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