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Biology 202
2006 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Neurobiology ? Sociology

Brooks Ambrose

"The basis of the parallel between organic evolution and human progress is what is known as the postulate of reductionism: that is, that biology should eventually be reduced to physics and chemistry and, correspondingly, the behavioral sciences to biology...A living organism, it is assumed, is an intricate physiochemical system; hence, human behavior is a particularly involved complex of the ways and factors of behavior present in subhuman species. Human values are viewed as being derived from and ultimately reducible to biological values which essentially entail maintenance of the individual, survival of the group, and evolution of the species (1) (2)."

"Man, as the old saying goes, is a denizen of two worlds. He is a biological organism with the physical equipment, drives, instincts, and limitations of his species. At the same time, he creates, uses, dominates, and is dominated by a higher world which, without theological and philosophical implications and in behavioral terms, can be best defined as the universe (or universes) of symbols. This is what we call human culture; and values-esthetic, scientific, ethical, religious-are all part of this symbolic universe. This is what man tries to achieve beyond satisfaction of his biological needs and drives; in turn, it governs and controls his behavior (3)."

- Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1959)

This paper problematizes the often explicit hope among neurobiologists that all aspects of behavior can be explained in terms of highly complex material structures, most often inter-assemblages of neurons. Through the language of general systems theory, I characterize the theoretical and empirical condition at which neurobiological theory necessarily reaches its limit as an explanatory paradigm. I posit patterns of human social action as one example of an anomaly beyond the reach of neurobiology. I end by asking speculatory questions about the nature of the theoretical revolution that could potentially resolve the anomaly I construct.

As it is central to the paper, I will begin with a discussion of general systems theory (GST). Sometimes accused of being an empty theory of everything empirical, GST is in reality any of a variety of highly abstract schema designed to organize theory itself; it is a theory of theories, and it relates to the empirical world only as mediated by the scientific paradigms that are its objects of inquiry (4) (5).

GST is a theoretical resource which researchers may use to more clearly articulate whether the formal logics of two scientific disciplines are sufficiently isomorphic to allow a productive exchange of formal theoretical relationships (6). GST establishes a common set of terms that have the capacity to abstract the formal logic of a theory to a plane where it can be compared to theories that seem relatively distant in normal academic parlance. As its practitioners clearly state, such a process of abstraction strips particular empirical theories of almost all of their content and leaves the theorist with only the most general relationships available within the theory (7). These general relationships are not without their usefulness. Indeed they can clarify relationships not apparent at concrete levels of analysis.

The category of cybernetic theory is an example of a generalized logic applicable across a wide range of phenomena and it is one we will make use of in our discussion. Cybernetic theory elucidates a particular type of relationship within a system, for our purposes, a living system (8). A cybernetic relationship exists between two structures, one high in energy and the other high in information. The energy structure represents a finite range of variability. The information structure establishes the particular value to which the energy structure responds. If the information structure sets a value within the range specified by the energy structure, the value is achieved by the system. In this case the information is said to control the energy. If the information sets a value outside of the range of energy, the value will not be achieved. In this instance the energy is said to condition the information.

How does the human organism fit into the logic of a cybernetic relationship? It is plausible to treat the body and behavior as a package constituting energy for the human organism. The question then becomes, what is the information that is in systematic relationship with that energy? Neurobiologists base their science on the premise that it is the material structure of the nervous system that is the structure of information in control of the body's energy (9).

Does the neurobiologist's response qualify as the type of biological reductionism that Bertalanffy denounces in the passage at the head of this paper? I think Bertalanffy's criticism stands only if there is a disjuncture between his preferred information structure, the symbolic universe, and the preferred information structure of the neurobiologist, the nervous system. In other words, does the neurobiologist take into account both of man's worlds, or just the non-symbolic world of "subhuman" behavior?

I am not in a position to evaluate this question, but I can lay down the rules of the game, which amount to the location of information in relation to the boundary of the nervous system. (For the sake of argument ignore DNA as a source of information in this construction.) Simply, if an information structure anything like a "symbolic universe" exists outside of the boundary of the nervous system but within the boundary of the human organism, the neurobiologist loses. If no structure of information exists within the human organism between the nervous system and the environment, then the neurobiologist wins.

If the first question is, "Where is the information that controls behavior located?" We must also ask the following question: for any given information structure within the nervous system, where was the pattern of that information originally constructed? If patterning within the nervous system has a birth in something other than a neural structure, the nervous system can claim credit only for acquiring the information, not for constructing it out of whole cloth. Also, what is the potential scale of this criticism? If five percent of the nervous system owes its organization to phenomena that are fundamentally outside of itself, then perhaps neurobiology has little to gain by submitting to the trauma of a scientific revolution. However, what if fifty percent of the organization of the nervous system is exogenous? What if eighty percent is exogenous?

Under these circumstances it seems clear that a researcher would not be able to understand a particular neurological pattern unless she already understood the exogenous information structures at play, be they symbolic patterns or something else. Any effort to achieve an understanding of these exogenous structures would require the researcher to extend beyond the bounds of an explanatory system in which the basic unit is the neuron.

To close, this discussion must be elaborated from the standpoint of a superior conceptualization of the difficult concept of information. Also, if it is true that the disciplines of sociology and biology intersected in the intellectuals of the General Systems Theory movement, it may be instructive to understand why they seem to have separated entirely by the present day.

Web References

1) Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. 1981. (1959). "Human values in a changing world." Ch. 2 in A Systems View of Man. Boulder: Westview Press. pp 9-22. Originally in New Knowledge in Human Values. Ed. A. H. Maslow. New York: Harper. pp 65-74.

2) Ibid, pp 14-15.

3) Ibid, pp 17.

4) At the core of GST is a dichotomy between theories that are descriptive and theories that are explanatory.

Descriptive concepts serve only to provide handles to approach empirical phenomena. Though often tied together by the logic of a nomenclature, within a given descriptive schema, concepts are in a strict sense analytically isolated from each other. Each is defined not by other concepts but by its empirical reference. Descriptive schemas can often be characterized as maps or catalogs. Generally weak on their own, descriptive schemas form a basic theoretical resource used in the creation of explanatory theory. As a result, the implicit "accuracy" of a description can directly affect the usefulness of an explanation derived from it. The neuroanatomy that underlies contemporary neurobiology is an example of a descriptive theory which was used heavily as a resource in the development of a more explanatory theory.

Explanatory concepts are relational, that is, they derive their meaning from other concepts to which they are systematically related. Unlike descriptive concepts which derive meaning from an empirical reference, explanatory concepts lose all meaning when isolated from the constellation of concepts defining the schema. For example, whereas within an anatomical schema the concept "foot" makes sense without the concept "ear," the concept of the lever does not make sense unless one grasps its relationships to the concepts of fulcrum, effort, and load. Understood together, the four concepts constitute an explanatory schema, an indivisible network in which a change in any component can be understood in terms of its effect on other components in the system.

5) Boulding, Kenneth. 1956. "General systems theory - The skeleton of science." Management Science. 2: 197-208. Reprinted in Emergence: Complexity and Organization; The descriptive/explanatory dichotomy corresponds roughly to the difference between "frameworks" and "clockworks," which are Boulding's first and second "levels of theoretical discourse" (pp 202). Because Boulding conflates categories of logic with particular models of logic, he makes the mistake of relegating "static" and "catalogical" models to the descriptive category and "dynamic" models to the explanatory category. In fact "static" models are often a viable basis for explanatory theory, comparative-static explanations within economics being a good example.

6) The GST's many models grow along two trajectories, one weak and one strong. Theory within the weak trajectory was developed with the intention of opening up lines of communication between increasingly specialized sciences operating within idiosyncratic theories. Respectful of the autonomy of scientific disciplines, the weak form of GST seeks to develop a common formal language that can serve as a set of "generalized ears... to enable one specialist to catch relevant communications from others". The strong form of GST also seeks to open up lines of communication, but it does so with the specific intention of prosecuting a critical reconstruction of one paradigm by another. The strong form of GST is like an intellectual Trojan horse coaxing one paradigm into a critical debate so that it can be colonized by the logic of an "invading" paradigm.

The weak form of GST tends to treat scientific disciplines as sovereign within relatively clear empirical boundaries. The strong form of GST is likely to emerge when these boundaries are contested, when two fundamentally different paradigmatic logics claim sovereignty over the same set of empirical phenomena.

7) Ibid, pp 197-198.

8) Grobstein, Paul. 1994. "Variability in brain function and behavior." In Vol. 4 The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. Ed. V.S. Ramachandran. Academic Press. pp 447-58. The relevant passage is the first three paragraphs of section two, entitled, "Behavior and the nervous system."

9) (Boulding, pp 198-199).

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