Thursday 20 January 2022

Rethinking Growth: is it really about things getting bigger?

I had an interesting discussion with biologist John Torday yesterday about mitosis - cell division. Growth is such a fundamental category in biology that it is easy to draw assumptions about it: the reason why cells divide is to reach out further into the environment; the reason is to survive; the reason is so that the cells differentiate; the reason is to generate redundancy; the reason is because "life is growth"... etc. But if you were sitting on the boundary of cell, why would you decide to split and divide so that all of sudden there are two cell boundaries?

Part of the answer to this is that you might decide to split because the boundary you are sitting on is unstable. It might be unstable because the environment in which the cell is attempting to survive in is uncertain or ambiguous. But why then would division contribute to a better way of managing that ambiguity or instability? Wouldn't it just amplify it? 

This is the critical question, and the answer to it leads to a new way of thinking about growth. Because division doesn't create another boundary; it creates a relation between two cells. Growth is the conversion of a single boundary into a communicative process which provides new dimensions of variation, stability and observation: each cell becomes an observer and communicator with other cells. Increased variety equips the two-cell system with better equipment for managing the complex of the environment. But only so far: more division is necessary, so new cells further divide, further increasing the variety.

This increased variation has a particularly important property and advantage over a single cell: the two-cell communicative relationship provides for the construction of an anticipatory system. The cellular communication dynamics give rise to a higher-order selection mechanism which steers the cellular communication. The growth of this mechanism also suggests that at some point, there is a limit to the need for further sub-division. This limit is real, and known as the Hayflick limit: human cells can only divide and replicate between 40 to 60 times (Hayflick limit - Wikipedia)

Reflecting on this, the two key points that: 

  • growth through division is the creation of relations and communication
  • growth is limited
Suggests that our understanding of growth in other areas of life is also wrong-headed. Even movements like "limits to growth" misunderstand growth, seeking to suppress growth in various ways. Evolutionary economics, in the light of "Unified Growth theory", and "Endogenous growth theory",  has the same problems. They all concentrate on the "mass" that is growing, and not the relations which are created in the expanded entities which emerge. There is a need to understand growth from the biological facts. Growth is the creation of observer-relations in order to survive in a complex environment. The "cancer" that is growth beyond limits is a positive feedback mechanism where amplification of the complexity of the environment causes new relations to be continually generated. 

The Hayflick limit must be a point of stability: a point at which the local variety of the multi-cellular system and its non-local environment is in equipoise. That stability will arise from and depend on the evolutionary history of each cell, and the collective niche-construction that their communicative processes produce. Of course, different processes of growth will occur in different types of cells, and there will be communication dynamics between the different entities which are formed. But these are then higher-order levels of homeostasis in the organism. The dynamics of growth are punctuated by stabilities.

In our unstable world, it is these stabilities that have gone: what Stafford Beer called the "relaxation point". The reason why lies in the communication dynamics of those original cells. At a certain level of biological organisation, cells in seeking their best route to survival, may seek to deceive other cells. This is a fundamental and important mechanism of biological development.  But a bad habit. 

With our brains and our language, deception becomes something else entirely. No longer a means of survival, it becomes a means of control. The flow of energy of the biological system gets blocked and bloated in the social system. This causes more uncertainty, and in turn, it drives growth beyond limits. The need to understand biology's limits of growth is urgent if we are to understand what is happening to us in the social realm.


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