Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Is Life Simple or Complex? Some reflections on John Torday's Evolutionary Biology

Recently, I've been studying the work of evolutionary biologist John Torday, after he posted a fascinating contribution to the Foundations of Information Science (http://fis.sciforum.net) mailing list. I wasn't alone among my friends in seeing this as something different, and potentially important: the conversations between friends when they say to each other "do you see...?" are very important indicators of what needs to be investigated further. This has been followed with a rich email exchange with Torday, prompted by my pointing out the similarities between his position and Stafford Beer's arguments for a copernican shift in the way that institutions organise themselves, which he wrote about in Platform for Change (and which I blogged about here: http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/beer-and-illich-on-institutional-change.html)

Torday insists:
"Life is simple. We complicate it due to our subjectively evolved senses". 
A more comprehensive articulation of this is contained in http://www.mdpi.com/2079-7737/5/2/17 (importantly, this is open access!). The second sentence above might be changed to "We complicate it due to our discursively evolved sense", but I haven't yet encountered a systems view which states that the discursive environment in which we all operate is epiphenomenal to more fundamental underlying mechanisms. Having said this, I suspected that with all the complexity of Luhmann's theory or Pask's conversation theory, etc (and their manifest failure to really make a better world), we were missing something.

Torday thinks that the fundamental thing that we miss is cellular communication. In saying this, he is saying something also articulated by "bio-semioticians" like Jesper Hoffmeyer. But Torday's theory is not the same as Hoffmeyer. He is a physiologist, and the empirical work he cites in support of his argument seems compelling to me. He cites the evolution of cholesterol from lipids carried to earth by asteroids, argues for a fundamental role of cholesterol in consciousness, and the connection between the skin and the brain. He argues that:
"All of the neurodegenerative diseases have skin homologs. And the Defensin mutation that causes asthma also causes atopic dermatitis in the skin."
These claims are referenced in the empirical literature. Torday's basic mechanism of cellular organisation through cell-cell communication is specifically a response to environmental ambiguity. This may be the same as a cybernetician would say: cybernetically, cells self-organise to mop up variety - at least if we can say that variety is ambiguity (is it? - it might be...). 

Doesn't the same thing happen in economics? Don't institutions reorganise their components to mop up the extra variety (new options) created by technological development and a discourse which reflects this? In other words, its not a direct causal connection between increased options and discourse and transformations of practice in institutions. It's an indirect connection where innovation increases options, and institutions self-organise in response to the increased variety (and uncertainty).

Discourse, then, is an epiphenomenon of cellular evolutionary mechanisms which are much deeper than our exchange of messages. Torday says complexity itself is an epiphenomenon: he's theorising at a much deeper level than Luhmann, but in a related cybernetic/mechanistic way. The current state of academic Babel would support his arguments, wouldn't it?

The work marks a scientific advance on the work of Bateson, Maturana and Robert Rosen who are the main cybernetic figures in biology. It's a reminder (to me) of the importance of the systems sciences staying close to field work in biology, physics, maths and technology.

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