Thursday 8 February 2024

Agency from the Zygote Up

I've never understood what "agency" is. We do stuff. Is to say that "doing stuff" or maybe "selecting what stuff to do (and then doing it)" is "agency" to say anything at all? It's agency to say what agency is, after all. Not sure that gets us anywhere. Agency doesn't explain anything. 

Can we rob people of agency? People talk about giving person x agency, by which they mean person x has the option of doing things that (perhaps) they might not have otherwise had. But even in cases where people have very limited options for acting, they still do stuff. It's generally a good idea to increase the options for people to act, and sometimes people act in way which reduce the options of other people to act. Agency doesn't explain this though. 

But I want to know what it's all about, and "agency" doesn't help. So how about looking at this differently...

The problem may be with Darwin: we act to survive, because acting is selection.... to reduce the options for acting is to reduce the chances for survival. But do we act to survive? Or is survival a biproduct of something else? Disastrous actions which lead to a swift demise perhaps amuse us in jokes, or myths and allegories giving warnings like "don't do this". Those myths and stories are important for the survival of the species. But that is about information. 

So this is the perspective I am interested in: Phenotype as Agent for Epigenetic Inheritance - PubMed (

Paraphrasing this argument, acting gives rise to "information" - differences that make a difference. At a fundamental level, that information must be biological - the differences that make a difference are in the physiology of every cell. What are its dynamics?

The hormonal responses to "differences that make a difference" make a difference to cellular machinery. Specifically, there are epigenetic transformations to stress and other factors in the environment which will either be exposed through acting, or which will cause subsequent actions. Those epigenetic changes are carried back to the core of reproductive physiology - to the gametes. Why might this happen? Well. it's quicker than natural selection... 

The zygote that is the result of future interaction between male and female gametes therefore carries some blueprint of whatever environmental conditions imprinted themselves epigenetically on the agent's gametes at some point in their earlier existence. In other words, the information is carried forwards as a pre-programming of the next generation. 

Now is it too far-fetched to suggest that the point of "doing stuff" is that it is all about this "pre-programming". After all, it is the survival of the species which must be the abiding concern of evolution. And in considering this, species is not a collection of phenotypes - people, birds, insects, bacteria, etc. It is a process involving a collection of information-gathering entities which collectively perform information-harvesting in an ambiguous environment in which future generations will need to adapt and perform the same function. Fundamentally, the whole thing is a homeostatic process. 

I like this because it suggests that the practice of science and art is deeply related: both are about discovering information, and that this process is driven by the physiological imperative which feeds information discovery back to successive generations. Beethoven and Einstein were phenotypic agents performing this function, and - in their case - because of particular conditions, their information harvesting operation was particularly profound. 

I also like it though because it means that there is no life that is not profound. There is no life which does not contribute to the future possibility of human flourishing. No life is wasted. Yet there are questions here about those who are truly evil, or who inflict suffering which I need to think about. The uncomfortable answer to that is that information about evil is necessary. I suspect Shakespeare might agree. 

3 comments: said...

Great blog post. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. As for how/why math or music are assimilated, I am now thinking that the primary mechanism is the force of gravity (based on my experiment with zero gravity) being necessary for the protocell to support of homeostasis as the way that energy is conserved/constrained (and there's also the Einstein Field Theory (1961) about a force impinging on a curved surface producing energy.....the energy needed to sustain/perpetuate homeostasis of the cell), and that the other forces get dragged along passively? Based on this perspective, I think that math is our abstraction of all of that embedded in our physiology......what do you think of that? It's my answer to Jon Leiff's question about how the other 3 forces produced by the Big Bang are accounted for biologically- the strong and weak force are inherent to the biochemistry of the cell.....and electromagnetic force may be 'active', just don't know how other than that business about piezo genes that sense pressure in skin and other tissues and organs, but this is not primary. What do you think of this 'theory of everything'?

As for the existence of evil, like cancer, it is the 'wrong paradigm' because it doesn't sustain homeostasis. I assume that it exists because the 'right paradigm' exists, leaving open the option for evil?

Mark Johnson said...

I've been re-reading Mary Midgley's "Wickedness". It's a brilliant book, the last chapter of which is on evolution. You should look at it - Wickedness (Routledge Classics) said...

I'm reading "Wickedness", and without jumping the gun, but I am jumping the gun, as I read it I keep thinking it's all about homeostasis- the existential desire to stay alive, at all cost- so if you're in a rich and enriched environment you're more inclined to do 'good', but if you are in an impoverished environment, both emotionally and in terms of resources, you're more inclined to do evil? So the trick is to make people feel they are in a bountiful environment, even if that's not the case? Promoting creativity as 'something from nothing'?