Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Life as chaotic equilibrium: An orderly but chaotic process

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From page 10 of The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore:

Darwin’s argument requires three main features: variation, selection and retention (or heredity). That is, first there must be variation so that not all creatures are identical. Second, there must be an environment in which not all the creatures can survive and some varieties do better than others. Third, there must be some process by which offspring inherit characteristics from their parents. If all these three are in place then any characteristics that are positively useful for survival in that environment must tend to increase. Put into Richard Dawkins’s language, if there is a replicator that makes imperfect copies of itself only some of which survive, then evolution simply must occur. This inevitability of evolution is part of what makes Darwin’s insight so clever. All you need is the right starting conditions and evolution just has to happen.

The evolutionary algorithm

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995) has described the whole evolutionary process as an algorithm, that is, a mindless procedure which, when followed, must produce an outcome. Nowadays we are used to the idea of algorithms, although Darwin, Wallace and other early evolutionists would not have been. Many of the things we do are based on algorithms, whether it is adding up sums, dialling a telephone number or even making a cup of tea. Our interactions with machines are particularly algorithmic and the prevalence of machines makes it easier for us to think this way – take a cup, put it under the spout, choose the drink, put in the right amount of money, press the button, take the cup out – if you do the right steps in the right order then the result is a cup of cappuccino, do it wrong and you have a mess on the floor. The computer programs that hold our medical records or run the graphics in our computer games are all algorithms, as are the ways we interface with word processors and financial packages.

Algorithms are ‘substrate–neutral’, meaning they can run on a variety of different materials. A human with a pencil and paper, a hand–cranked adding machine, and a digital computer can all follow the same algorithm for some mathematical procedure and come to the same answer. The substrate does not matter – only the logic of the procedure does. In the case of Darwin’s own argument the substrate was living creatures and a biological environment, but as Dennett points out his logic would apply equally to any system in which there was heredity, variation, and selection. This, again, is the idea of Universal Darwinism.

Algorithms are also completely mindless. . .

The environment itself is constantly changing because of all these developments, and so the process is never static. . .

Algorithms must always produce the same result if they start from the same point. This seems to suggest that, if evolution follows an algorithm, its results must be predetermined and predictable. This is not the case, and chaos theory explains why not. There are many simple processes, like dripping taps or moving gases, or the path drawn out by a swinging pendulum, which are chaotic. They follow simple and mindless algorithms but their end results are complex, chaotic and unpredictable. Beautiful shapes and patterns can emerge, but although the kind of pattern may be repeatable, the detail cannot be predicted without running the procedure right through. And since chaotic systems can be highly sensitive to initial starting conditions, a tiny difference at the beginning may lead to an entirely different outcome. Evolution is like this.

And that kind of sensitivity to starting conditions shows up constantly. I was peeling shallots and got to thinking about how they are all the same, in a way, but in detail each one is unique and some quite different from its neighbor. The variations in their configurations and shapes seems exactly what was described: following an algorithm (the genetic code for a shallot), but with small variations in initial conditions that leads to all the different shapes. And in a way, you can see how relentless is the process of evolution: even here, in the 10 shallots I was preparing, each one was a little different. Constantly varying, constantly interacting with the environment, whatever environment it is, since that also changes constantly and includes not only other lifeforms but also human choice (as in selective breeding). Reality is amazingly rich in detail at every level. And the same is true for memes—in writing this, for example, it is in a way like a lot of writing (same language, same sort of argument and exposition) but it is also unique (unless someone else has by coincidence written this same post, word for word—and that seems unlikely). So again: same sort of result, but specifically different.

And so many levels! Everything is clearly a process—nothing is static—so take a very brief process—say, a college student reading Starbuck’s “On First Looking in on Blodgett’s Keats’s “Chapman’s Homer”“ to a friend while smoking a pipe.

Now think of the various descriptions/scales. Start with the quarks. That brief process involved various perturbations of quarks, but that view, though certainly a view of reality, would not convey the full nature of the process. Nor would a view at the level of atoms or molecules. Or of cells and their metabolism. Or of the simple physical scene: the substances of which things are made. But there is a view other than the lifeform and physical views, and that is the view of the cultural meaning: the poem’s meaning as understood by the reader and his perceived intellectual/physical experience: his thoughts about the poem combined with the taste of his tobacco and the reason he is reading it to his friend. Obviously, there’s much in the way of emergent phenomena here, but at each level what we see is reality—just incomplete. And complete reality is everything together. Hard to get one’s head around.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Books, Memes

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