I never saw anything interesting when operating Tierra on my old computer. Perhaps I understand neither the assembly language nor the visualization well-enough. Or perhaps I should have designed experiments and let it operate for more generations. I was never into Core Wars either. John Conway's Game of Life was more my speed. I don't seem to have executables for any of these for my OS X Macintosh.
But I think Thearling and Ray (1994) describe a neat idea. In Tierra, programs composed of machine instructions reproduce, perhaps with mutations. Memory is not protected, and programs can overwrite one another's code. An ability to more successfully protect one's own code and data and overwrite others is selected for.
One can do repeatable experiments with a computer program. Each generation can be saved, and the simulation can be rerun from any point in time, with random number generators restarted with new seeds. Lenski et al (2003) report such experiments with Avida, a computer simulation much like Tierra. In Avida, evolving computer programs collect energy to run their code. Programs that can do advanced logical operators are more fit. Lenski et al show that the evolution of a complex feature may depend on the prior evolutionary history of an organism providing the potential of the last few steps, even if previous mutations do not increase fitness.
I was surprised to find last week not only that repeatable experiments with evolution have been performed on simulations, but that Richard Lenski has been performing such a repeatable experiment on real-world organisms - namely, E. Coli - since 1988. (I must have missed Carl Zimmer's article, of 26 June 2008 in The New York Times, on the Long Term Evolution Experiment (LTEE).) Anyway, Blount, Borland, and Lenski's 2008 article reports on recent results.
In the LTEE, populations of each generation are isolated in a solution containing glucose for the E. Coli to eat. The isolated solution, I guess, acts like the simulated core memory in Tierra. And the E. Coli of any generation and evolutionary history can be frozen and restarted, just as an image of the computer core memory in a simulation run can be saved and reloaded. One run yielded a mutation that seems to have surprised Linski. This mutation allows the E. Coli to thrive on citrate, whatever that is, in the solution even "under oxic conditions". The ability to sample previous generations and look at other isolated population histories starting from the same initial conditions allows Linski and his colleagues to understand something about this mutation even before genetic sequencing. It is not the result of a single gene mutating, but is dependent on prior mutations in the history. These prior mutations may not have increased fitness themselves, but prepared the E. Coli to become dramatically more well-adapted for their specific environment after a couple more mutations. History matters.
- Ayres, Clarence (1932) Huxley, W. W. Norton
- Blount, Zachary D., Christina Z. Borland, and Richard E. Lenski (2008) "Historical Contingency and the Evolution of a Key Innovation in an Experimental Population of Escherichia Coli", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences V. 105, N. 23 (June 10): 7899-7906
- Hodgson, Geoffrey (2008), "Interview" Revue de la Régulation (January)
- Lenski, Richard E., Charles Ofria, Robert T. Pennock and Christoph Adaml (2003) "The Evolutionary Origin of Complex Features", Nature, V. 423 (8 May): 139-144
- Thearling, Kurt and Thomas S. Ray (1994) "Evolving Multi-celluar Artificial Life, Artificial Life IV, MIT Press