Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Darwin, Lamarck and the Progress of Education

Gregory Bateson made some acute observations about evolutionary thinking. Remarking that although Lamarck's basic idea of the 'inheritance of acquired characteristics' couldn't possibly be right, he pointed out that Lamarck's real contribution was the inversion of the scholastic 'Great chain of being', which saw a line of descent from God and the angels down to the man and the plants. Lamarck was the first to consider things the other way round. The fundamental consequence of this is that he is the first person to attempt to grapple with the question of 'mind' from first principles, using (I find this really interesting) "habit" as one of his axioms.

The effort was effectively blown out of the water in the mid 19th century by Darwinian theory. Darwin's mechanism, for all its genius, took "mind" out of the equation in the question of survival. Bateson says this can't be right:
"It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line or the sub-species or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its "progress" ends up with a destroyed environment." (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p457)
Of course, Darwin has affected us hugely well outside the realm of biology. From evolutionary economics to Marxist theory, anthropology, physics and genetics, each has been touched by the Darwinian mindset. And consequently, all of them exclude 'mind' as an integrated category for investigation (even psychology - which is unfortunate!). And that's to say nothing of education.

Education is riven with Darwinian thinking. The whole enterprise is about 'selection', being the 'fittest', 'competition' and performative excellence - all indebted to the British public school system (which, of course, Darwin was himself subject to - did Darwinism exist before Darwin?). When thinking about 'natural selection' wouldn't his mind wouldn't have cast itself back to his own formative years of schooling?

What's the problem here? And what's the solution? I think the problem is what might be called 'variable-ism' - a kind of reductionism to identifiable causal agents responsible for aspects of development and growth which are internal to an organism, but whose manifestation creates the conditions within which selection takes place. I only learnt in the last week that Comte wanted to call his new science 'social physics' - that's variable-ism. The best way to think about variable-ism is to examine the algorithms of genetic computing and to ask oneself "is this really how it is?" Genetic algorithms, after all, have to identify their core variables to begin with: each one is represented as an item of data in their 'genetic code'. Their dynamics (the evolutionary bit) is to hone the relationship between those different variables, and behaviour consequently changes. But where's the novelty? That, for GA enthusiasts, and for Darwin, is merely accident, which if caught by a selection process, becomes manifest as a new species.

Lamarck was concerned to explain precisely those characteristics of novelty and difference and the way that they appeared to be transmitted. We tend to have a view that his idea was in some way 'inferior', or that he was a proto-evolutionist. But maybe Darwin's idea crossed his mind. Had it done so, he would probably have rejected it because it didn't account for the mental processes which he thought were fundamental to the development of life.

Bateson's view is that development and growth are a balance between internal causal mechanisms and environmental "constraint". But 'constraint' has a particular technical meaning. It is what isn't there:

"In the world of mind, nothing—that which is not—can be a cause. In the hard sciences, we ask for causes and we expect them to exist and be "real." But remember that zero is different from one, and because zero is different from one, zero can be a cause in the psychological world, the world of communication. The letter which you do not write can get an angry reply; and the income tax form which you do not fill in can trigger the Internal Revenue boys into energetic action, be- cause they, too, have their breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner and can react with energy which they derive from their metabolism. The letter which never existed is no source of energy" (Steps, p459)
(I find this passage remarkable because of the similarity it bears to the more recent thinking of Bhaskar). Our current progress in genetic understanding, evolutionary processes and environmental development is based on the interactions between those variables that we can see (or identify through some process of analysis). What about what we can't see? What about what isn't there?

Curiously, information theory may give us a way of thinking about what isn't there. In Shannon's theory, information exists against the context of redundancy. I find that one of the most intriguing and exciting simple ideas which might (once again) allow us to turn things upside down. I also suspect that education might be field where it might most effectively be investigated: indeed, it might be necessary if education's progress (whose current madness knows no limits) is not to lead to the destruction of the social environment that sustains it.

1 comment:

Oleg said...

Excellent article, Mark - you've got to the essence of Bateson and why he's so important today.