One of the mainstays of human engineering is the idea of hierarchical assembly—the assembly of useful low level modules (a.k.a. building blocks) into useful modules at higher levels. Artifacts ranging from nuclear submarines to enterprise software are all constructed in this fashion. The building block hypothesis holds that genetic algorithms also construct solutions using hierarchical assembly, and that the basic building blocks used by these algorithms are short chromosomal snippets that confer above average fitness. Tantalizing as this hypothesis may be, it is based on strong assumptions about the distribution of fitness over a search space. I’ve criticized these assumptions in my dissertation and have proposed a different hypothesis based on weaker assumptions. This alternate hypothesis is grounded in a different metaphor—generative fixation.
Though not as ubiquitously recognizable as hierarchical assembly, generative fixation underlies progress in many areas. Like in the video industry for instance, which only really took off once the VHS/Betamax war had run its course. The “fixation” of VHS within this industry in essence generated new opportunities for advancement. For example, it permitted the development of the video rental business, which brought films from the back rooms of studio houses into living rooms everywhere. Had the tussle between VHS and Betamax continued, many of these opportunities might not have presented themselves. The economics of supporting two formats simultaneously would have been economically crippling for the fledgling industry.
VHS v. Betamax was a case where two contestants competed for dominance along a single dimension—the format accepted by video players. Consider a scenario consisting of multiple dimensions and multiple contestants in each dimension. Suppose, moreover, that no contestant in any dimension is outright superior. That is, the superioriority/non-superiority of the contestants in each dimension is dependent on the state of the contests in the other dimensions. This scenario describes the most commonly arising situation in natural evolution. Here, the “dimensions” are genetic loci, and the “contestants” are alleles. (Statistically, the scenario just described is more likely than one where one or more locus has an allele that is superior regardless of the frequencies of the alleles at other loci.)
The danger in such cases is that progress will stall because no contestant will come to dominate its dimension. The generative fixation hypothesis holds that in a system undergoing recombinative evolutionary dynamics, progress will continue. Although no locus has an allele that is outright superior, a small number of alleles belonging to different dimensions that play nice together (i.e. confer above average fitness as a group) will come to dominate their respective dimensions. In doing so, they will set the stage for the next multi-dimensional contest over the remaining dimensions. And so on.