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.


Saturday 1 January 2022

An AI-generated post on "A Physiological Notation for Music and Learning"

I'm slightly puzzled that I haven't written anything in my blog for a couple of months. I've been deeply immersed in two projects - both of which are concerned with AI. In Copenhagen, the curriculum digitalization project has taken a fascinating turn in becoming more student-focused, and we are developing some new tools which will allow us to get a rich picture of how students see their future and how it relates to their topic studies. The other project concerns medical imaging, and this is now at an advanced stage of commercialisation and patenting - all of which is new to me. This is a fast-moving field, and it's giving me a lot of intellectual energy, but also keeping me busy.

One of the implications of the AI work is that the ability of the Transformer AI tools to generate text has reached a stage where it can present new ideas,  continue conversations, and provide a genuine stimulus to creativity. With some students in Copenhagen and in the Far Eastern Federal University in Russia, I've been working on a thing which I call a "meta-curriculum toolkit". It's basically a kind of google search which uses AI to suggest completions to a search term. The rest of this post has been generated by this technique:

A Physiological Notation of Music and Learning

I am interested in a physiological notation for piano music. I want to find a notation that directly translates into the body. While writing, I can feel a sort of body memory. I want to study this experience. I want to see if the notation that my body remembers can be presented as sheet music. A physiological notation for music would be powerful because it would allow us to be more specific about the types of information in a musical piece than verbal language is able to do. Conveying how a musical piece makes us feel would be a simple matter of listing the relevant physiological events: for example, elevated heart rate, increased respiration rate, dilated pupils, and so on. The association of music with the body in the mind of the listener means that the notation would be able to represent how a listener feels, not just what they think. 

A physiological notation of music would be an analogue of the language of the emotions which we have in ordinary speech. It would be based upon a notation of physiological action, rather than upon a notation of sound. If a composer could express the emotions which they wish to convey by the notation of physiological action, it would be easy for them to communicate ideas to other people. They could not only show them what they feel and think, but how they think. The connection between the emotions and the muscular actions which accompany them is so intimate and universal that it is a surprising thing that not one single author or composer has ever suggested that the whole of music should be played by means of the movements of the whole body, since these are the natural expression of the emotions.

If a physiological notation of music is an analogue of language, why can't we have a physiological analogue of learning? Learning is a form of change in the body, and it is the body that is the physical basis of music. If we can find a way to physically study learning, we can have a physiological analogue of learning. The body creates music by changing in response to sound and light stimuli. 

In Papert's original work on Logo, the physiological basis of learning was very important. Children were meant to play with physical turtles and discover mathematical concepts. While the physical objects were an important part of the learning process, they were not the learning process. The ideas were the focus. Any user of Logo must learn a new vocabulary before using it. This vocabulary is, however, based on mathematical terms. As educators, we have to be careful about how we use computer technology in the classroom. It is very easy to focus on the technology without thinking about what we are doing or intending to do. 

An idea - the emergent ideas in learners - is rooted in physiology. The notion that the brain is the seat of all mental activity is a bundle of uncorroborated assertions. The idea that the mind can be divorced from the brain is a belief, not a fact. The idea that the human mind is a computer and the human brain, a computer-like device, is also rooted in a belief, not in scientific fact. and minds. Ideas sit in the cells of our bodies. They can be triggered by events or insights from others, but they’re also waiting for us to look at them and pick them up. This is why the idea can feel so familiar, just like something we’ve always known. We have to do that work in order to recognize our own ideas and make them real. The idea, the motivation, and the action are all essential parts of this creative process.


If learning is physiological, then finding a way to notate the physiology of learning would be an important development in education. It might open up a whole new approach to teaching and learning, one that is more natural, more holistic, and more powerful. What would such an approach be like? It would be like music.