A phenotypic view of evolution Evolution in Structured Populations

IBB, Multilevel Selection and Evolution

I have been meaning to write this, and have resisted because it is (locally) political, and it may be a declaration of the end of the University of Vermont.  

Our university, like many others, has started a budgeting procedure called IBB.  This stands for Irrational Brainless Budgeting, although the administration claims it stands for Incentive Based Budgeting.  In this post I want to explain why it cannot work, and why implementing it may have caused terminal damage to the university, and the 500 million years of data, and 100 years of theory I have to support these claims.

The idea behind IBB is that units (departments, colleges etc.) that produce more revenue should get a bigger budget.  Thus, if a college can grow its revenue by increasing its enrollment it is granted a bigger budget.  On the surface this makes sense.  It takes money to make money, so if a unit is making more revenue it makes sense that they should get more resources.  But this only makes sense on the surface.  The problem is that income tends to be relatively fixed – the number of enrolled students is approximately fixed, as is tuition; grant and contract income is unlikely to increase dramatically.  As a result, the best way to increase a unit’s revenue is to take revenue from other units.  This is exactly what is happening at UVM.  Right now you can take a “biometry” type class in any of four colleges (Arts and Sciences, Agriculture, Medicine, Natural Resources).  The incentives favor this because units gain resources by increasing their revenue, regardless of the cost to other units or the university as a whole.

Animals have been performing this experiment for 500 million years.  The most basal animals (sponges, jellyfish) have an IBB type reproduction.  That is basically any cell can give rise to reproductive cells (the “revenue” of living things).  As animals become more derived (“advanced”) there is a tendency to limit the cells that can become reproductive, until you get to animals such as vertebrates in which the reproductive cells are sequestered very early in development, in fact while development is still under maternal control.  

The importance of this is that the only way a somatic cell (say a liver cell) can increase its fitness is to support the survival of the whole organism and reproduction by the gonads.  That is, by only allowing reproductive cells to reproduce vertebrates have (nearly) eliminated competition within the organism, and provided the strongest incentive possible for cooperation among cells within the organism.

This is exactly the opposite of what IBB does.  IBB encourages self-promotion of units regardless of any effects such self-promotion may have on the soma (i.e., the university).  At this point I should mention that Sears used a similar budgeting procedure.  Sears had other problems, but I am certain that their accounting methods contributed to their demise .

The theory on this is well developed, and dates back to at least the 1960s (Griffing 1977). Selection for populations of interacting genotypes. Proceedings of the International Congress on Quantitative Genetics, August 16-21, 1976).  In recent years there have been major theoretical advances on the importance of group structure in crop improvement (e.g., Wade, Bijma, Ellen, Muir 2010 Group selection and social evolution in domesticated animals. Evolutionary Applications 3: 453-465).  This is an active area of research, and one that has resulted in large increases in agricultural yields.

A conceptual example will illustrate the results nicely.  If you plant 10 1 hectare plots with corn, you can either attempt to increase the yield per hectare by selecting the individual corn plants that produce the greatest yield (bushels of corn) or the hectare plots that produce the greatest yield.  If you select the individual plants with the greatest yield, paradoxically the yield per hectare goes down.  This really happens! (it happened in my thesis, which is how I discovered Griffing).  It happens because the individual selection favors plants that aggressively “steal” resources from their neighbors, resulting in a plot of “mean” plants that fight for resources rather than cooperating to raise overall yield.  On the other hand, selecting at the plot level promotes cooperation and establishes the best compromise between cooperation and aggressive self-interest that maximizes overall yield.

The implications for IBB should be clear.  IBB promotes aggressive self-interest of the colleges and departments within a university.  This will promote duplication of effort in different colleges, “poaching” of revenue resources, and ultimately increase the expenses to the university without increasing its revenue.

Finally, IBB is very much like a carcinogen.  A carcinogen may not cause cancer, but it does promote it.  More importantly, removing the carcinogen does not make the cancer go away.  Similarly, IBB does not cause redundancies, but it does promote it, and the results are long lasting, if not permanent.  In the biometry example at the beginning, IBB provided an incentive to develop redundant courses, which in turn provided incentives to hire faculty and devote resources to teach those courses.  Removing IBB will not make those faculty and resources go away.  Further, colleges and departments are notorious for not easily giving up resources.  For this reason, I fear that the damage done by IBB may be permanent.

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  1. Adam: I agree with the first part of your objection to using the terms derived and basal. I don’t think that the success of any taxa should be used as a metric for evaluating its phylogenetic relationship, hence I think it is irrelevant whether jellyfish and humans are equally successful. Also, I am not sure whether they can be compared because these are at different levels in the classification hierarchy.

    Charles: I agree with the analogy overall, but I disagree with your justification of basal as groups that branched off earlier in the tree of life. First, that is incorrect use of basal in a phylogenetic context. Second, branched off first compared to whom? From the cnidarian perspective, it is bilaterians that branched off first. I think you are thinking of taxa relations from an anthropocentric point of view, which is a limited and unhelpful way of thinking about it.

  2. Actually, the corn analogy fits very well. A pure individual selection (IBB) results in a bad outcome (lower average yield), but if you could figure out how to do it, pure group selection would also fail when non-productive individuals were allowed to persist as long as the average yield was high. A strategy that combines group and individual selection should provide the best solution. Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith both took extreme positions. The “correct” position is almost certainly some mix of these two extremes.

    For universities, the answer no doubt lies in a system were the incentives are aimed at improving the bottom line of the university by promoting cooperation among units (NOT IBB) and innovation within units (promoting changes within units that increase the bottom line of the university). This is the critical point: The changes that are supported must improve the bottom line of the university. Improving the bottom line of the individual units is at best irrelevant, and may be counter-productive.

  3. Actually, I thought about the wording a lot. This is why I avoid the terms “Primitive” and “advanced”. By “basal” I mean phylogenetic groups that branched off earlier in the evolution of life. Cnidarians are radially symmetrical, have a nerve net, and are diploblastic. There must be some language that identifies these as having a body plan that is less complex than vertebrates. I chose “basal” and “derived”, but if you have better terms, I am happy to here about it.

    Plants have modular growth, and essentially any cell can become a reproductive cell. They also have a growth form that would work sell with an “IBB” type control. Portions of plants (e.g., ramits) that do better get more resources. This is good for the plant as a whole, since the plant puts resources into sections of the plant that are doing well, and sections of the plant that are doing badly get few resources and die. This is seen in varigated plants that are freqyently taken over by shoots that lose their varigation and as a result are are better at photosynthesizing. It does not work so well in animals that have specialized tissues and organs that are essential for survival, put not themselves productive. The liver is such an organ. We must have it to survive, but its cells have polytene chromosomes, and could not form viable gametes. I would argue that universities are closer to animals than plants, in that they have units and even academic departments that are essential for a viable university, but do not make money for the institution.

    Finally, it is important to remember the point that incentives are not bad, it is just that the incentives in IBB are perverse. They tend to pit units within the university against each other, and will lead to redundancy, inefficiencies, and overall greater costs.

  4. Well, I am a professor (in a non-American school) and the same budgeting procedure is implemented nowadays in my university, attracting a lot of criticism.

    I think the arguments in this post repeat those raised by Karl Marx 150 years ago against the free market society. At the end of the day we have to choose between an emerging order, that reflects the selfish activity of individuals, and a social order planed by some bureaucratic center. This post promotes the second options, but history tell us that the choice is not so simple.

    I believe that what makes the difference is information. If the manager have quite a good understanding of the activity of the social body, then central planning is rational. However the complexity of a big system is usually very high, leaving no chance for such a Marxist managing techniques.

    Unlike corn fields, contemporary universities are big and complex institutions. Presidents, provosts etc have only very limited idea about what is going on in this or that department. Given that, one may guess that the only reasonable strategy is something like IBB, even though it carries its own problems as this post describes.

  5. “The most basal animals (sponges, jellyfish) have an IBB type reproduction…. As animals become more derived (“advanced”) there is a tendency to limit the cells that can become reproductive, until you get to animals such as vertebrates in which the reproductive cells are sequestered very early in development, in fact while development is still under maternal control.”

    I object to the ‘basal’ and ‘derived’ distinction. Unless you are talking about fossil species, both jellyfish and people have been evolving the same amount of time from their common ancestor AND are equally successful given that both are thriving today in their respective niches. Similarly, plants don’t have segregated germ lines and they are doing just fine!

    I don’t disagree with the premise that IBB is a bad practice for institution, nor that there could be unintended consequences. But I don’t think that comparing jellyfish and vertebrates really supports that point, and it perpetuates a false conception about the relatedness of life.

  6. Meaghan Emery: I don’t have rights to the photo, but individual selection (AKA IBB) is devastating to egg laying chickens housed in cages. They peck out each others feathers, and tend to kill each other. When selection is performed on whole cage egg production egg production goes up, and the chickens get fat and sassy.

  7. Just read this in full to my husband, Michael Cole, a Dartmouth Med School molecular biologist and cancer geneticist. He says “Absolutely brilliant,” and I concur. Thank you for this!

  8. The analogy to corn plants, cooperative vs. aggressive plants, is fascinating. I didn’t know this phenomenon existed in plants. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I share your concerns and am seeking to encourage cooperation and combat aggressive competitivity as much as I can. It’s the only way forward that I can see at present.

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