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Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution, teleology, complexity, development, and ...

Rich conversation in the G group on Thursday. Some notes of things I want to think more about, for whatever use they might be to others as well ...

It does seem possible to account for observations on biological systems without presuming either a plan or an objective, using the ideas of randomness, differential reproductive success, and the notion that things build on older things. And it further seems possible in these terms to account for apparent "progress" over time, ie for increasing "complexity". It is clearly not the case that the "environment favors complexity", since earlier, "simpler" organisms continue to exist. If one starts "simple", however, one can expect over time that the envelope of "complexity" will get greater, simply because of the random trying out of new things (a "left wall" effect). Increasing "complexity", in this story, is not a "goal" of evolution but rather a consequence of continuing random exploration of possibilities. Evolution does not move toward "complexity" but rather expands the envelope of "complexity" as a by-product of its randomness.

And that, perhaps, provides a basis for better defining what is meant by "simplicity" and "complexity"? "Simple" is that which can be relatively easily/quickly achieved by an evolutionary proccess? "Complex" is that which involves building on simpler things, and therefore takes more time/steps of exploration? How does that relate to our intuitive sense of "complexity", ie made up of more parts and harder to predict/explain? A curious issue that arose in the course of this discussion is whether the increase in the envelope of complexity during evolution can be thought of as "diffusion", ie a process having the same directionality as the second law of thermodynamics, rather than opposite directionality: increasing rather than decreasing "probability". Individual organisms may have greater improbability but the ensemble has greater probability?

Along these same general lines, it may prove useful to further explore some parallels between biological evolution and biological development (and literature and society?). The development of an individual living organism generally starts out "simple", with a single fertilized egg, and proceeds to a "complexity" (over lots of intermediate steps) involving many different specialized cells in an ordered and interdependent arrangement that is very improbable. Importantly, the specialized cells (essential for the new forms of increased complexity) are in some ways themselves "simpler" than the cell they originated from; they have much more limited generative capabilities being generally unable to give rise to a cellular diversity comparable to that of the fertilized egg. Presumably the same hold for evolution? Bacteria have the capability to give rise to all possible existing organisms, but elephants (and people) probably don't? The same is perhaps so for humans and social organization. A child can become either a biology professor or an english professor. A biology professor can't become an english professor? A novel can give rise to ... more novels but not?

In evolution (and ?) "You can't go home again"? Because change (at least of certain kinds, narrative?) is irreversible? And the brain (or at least part of it) tries to "fool us into non-narrative" understandings? In order to .... ? Because ... ? Itself all being a product of evolution?

Maybe non-narrative things are a way to advance the narrative?, ie non-narrative stories provide the grist from which further narrative stories are created? Just as new species of organisms create the possibility of additional species?






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