Petronella Tenhaaf on Wed, 14 Jan 1998 01:41:22 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Semiosis, Evolution, Energy: Interview with three Scientists 1/2

[These three interviews arrived already a while ago, but i prefered to
wait until we have a whole 'Science-packet' together. These conversations 
connect in a way to the thread on 'academism' and what's changing with
it's 'narrative' same as it's discourse networks or publishing system.
- in a multidisciplinary way. (also added a title) /pit]

Semiosis, Evolution, Energy: Interview with three Scientists
by Petronella Tenhaaf

     These interviews took place during "Semiosis,
Evolution, Energy: Toward a Reconceptualization of the
Sign," a conference held at Victoria College, University of
Toronto, October 17 - 19, 1997.  This was a cross-
disciplinary meeting organized by Edwina Taborksy of
Bishop's University and Barry Rutland of Carleton
University, to investigate the idea that "all phenomena are
energy configurations belonging to one and usually more of
three distinct codal orders: physical, biological and
conceptual."  In particular, theoretical biology crossed
paths here with problems that have been formally studied in
the field of semiotics: interpretation, meaning and
subjectivity.  My own interests as an artist and writer have
been located in the territory of crossover between biology
and subjectivity for some time, although not from a base in
semiotics per se.  More recently my work has become focused
on issues of representation in the field of Artificial Life
and possibilities for engaging with these issues in my own

     Artificial Life or Alife is a set of computer-based
practices that took form in the early 1980s in the southwest
of the U.S., incorporating ideas from complexity theory,
chaos theory, Artificial Intelligence and theoretical
biology, especially evolution and genetics.  Alife is
concerned with synthesizing life-like phenomena in
artificial media such as computers or robots.  Currently, it
tries to bring understanding to issues of how the real world
works, but at its inception Alife programmers as well as
theoreticians were committed to the idea of making synthetic
life-forms that would literally be successors to biological
life-forms.  Evolutionary computation, or artificial
evolution which is discussed below, is one of the key
methods of Alife.   

     One issue at the center of current theoretical biology,
that also affects Alife practices, is the tension between
the classical Darwinian evolutionary principle of natural
selection on the one hand, and the concept of self-
organization in nature on the other.  The latter is the idea
that implicit form emerges spontaneously at all levels in
the natural world, from the chemical to the organic.
Stuart Kauffman places self-organization at the centre of
his theory that life is not the result of randomness, but is
a probable emergent feature of the universe.  Further, he
has formulated the theory of the autonomous agent, a
construct that enables researchers to study and propose
answers to questions of self-organization and the origins of
life: what is a basic self-organizing unit, how does it self-
perpetuate, what are its sources of energy, and what forms
the constraints by which it is bounded?  This hypothesis
arose from theoretical biology and theories of dynamic
systems, but it has since been reverberating and resonating
throughout many other material and conceptual practices.

     Stuart Kauffman is Professor of Biochemistry and
Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently
a MacArthur fellow working at the Santa Fe Institute in New
Mexico.  Several of his key ideas permeate complexity
theory, among them: that order forms at the edge of chaos,
and that this edge constitutes the maximum conditions for
evolvability; that a-historical "laws of form" underly self-
organization at all levels in nature; and, that "fitness
landscapes" can describe the search spaces of dynamical
evolving systems.  His books include The Origins of Order:
Self-Organization and Selection in Nature and At Home in the
Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and

NT:   You spoke about the role of narrative in science,
which is key to what is happening now.  It's so new for
scientists to admit the importance of narrative
interpretation, the story they tell and also what they bring
to their methods.  One could call this the cultural context
of science.  But John Brockman [author of The Third Culture:
] says, as you know, that science is the only important and
interesting narrative now.  I wondered if you agree with
that. [[see also: www.edge,org or ]]

SK:  That's huge.  The connection that I made today with
respect to narrative is this thing that people have been
saying for a long time, but it's taken me fifty-eight years
to get to it, and it's right at the centre of biology, in
the notion of pre-adaptation.  It may be the case that you
do not have categories, that there's no finite statement
ahead of time of the context-dependent causal consequences
[in evolution] that allow the emergence of novel functions.
And what you have to do is tell the story, you have to ask,
did you see what happened.

This is a different issue than John Brockman's.  His is the
notion that some of the most important cultural events that
are going on these days have to do with the impact of
science on the world in which we live.  And of course that's
no news, that's been going on for at least a century or a
century and a half.  I guess what John is trying to say is
that there seems to be emerging a new class of writers who
happen to be scientists.  Of course, it's a little self-
serving perhaps, although I don't mean that to sound nasty.

It is true that scientists are beginning to write more, but
it's been around for a long time.  I do think that John has
done a good job, despite  his critics, of drawing a number
of us into writing semi-popular books that are meant to
explain our ideas to a fairly broad populace, and I think
that that's fine.  There is of course an either amusing or
terrible book that the American physicist Alan Sokal just
published in France, with a Belgian co-author, roughly
speaking debunking or claiming to debunk, whichever is
either more or less ascerbic, deconstructionism.  I haven't
read the book yet.  [Sokal is infamous for his parody of
postmodernism "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a
Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Theory" in the
"Science Wars" issue of Social Text, 1996.]

NT:  We have people now in the cultural sphere talking about
the end of critical theory and using Sokal as an example to
back up their claim.  They say, look the real people, the
people who are doing the real work, think that when we speak
it's just academic jargon.  And then of course, it's
associated with the left and we become just a bunch of
marxists.  It's a weird disempowered time for people in the
arts in a certain way (SK:  yes, the "illiterati") because
we don't have any theory anymore.  When Brockman says we've
got theory, it becomes really interesting to think about.

SK:  It is interesting to think about it.  But you know, you
mere literati were busy painting the walls of Lascaux in the
Dourdogne 14,000 years ago with images of horses and bison
and whatever else was around, that were figurative,
imaginative, powerful, evocative groundings and soarings
that preceded anything that anybody else has done.

NT:  Preceded interpretation.

SK:  And now go look at Notre Dame or Chartres and if your
spirit doesn't soar then some part of you is blind.  So, who
says that the only way to engage the world is via scientific
theory and, so to speak, the capacity to predict.  In fact I
don't know if what I was trying to say today about
autonomous agents is correct, as I said I'm not sure that
it's science or not.  [Kauffman is suggesting that some of
the hypothetical propositions about autonomous agents which
he made at the conference may be more narrative than
science, for example, taking the cell as an instance of an
an autonomous agent and proposing that "a cell has embodied

In relation to prediction, I like to tell the story about
Gertrude the squirrel 60 million years ago with the extra
flap of skin under her arms, jumped by Bertha the owl.  And
Gertrude jumped out of the tree and said Aagh, and got away
and now there are flying squirrels.  So in the unfolding of
how the biosphere becomes and becomes next, most of what
happens cannot be articulated ahead of time.  The categories
do not pre-exist, in the sense that if it's true there's no
finite pre-statement of all of the context-dependent causal
consequences that will be useful.  You gotta go live it, not
talk about it.  And that means that art and praxis are as
embedded in what unfolds next as anything that us theory
types sit back with our abstract concepts and do.

NT:  Perhaps I have it more than other artists because I'm a
bit of a scientist manqué, but I am aware of a sense of envy
of other types of praxis .

SK:  Like?

NT:  Well, that science praxis shapes the material world in
a more crucial way than art praxis.

SK:  Well, does it?  For example, would you rather be Newton
or Shakespeare?  It isn't so obvious is it?

NT:  It isn't so obvious, why make it a contest.

SK:  Sure it is the case that science has done an enormously
fine job and is continuing to do the job of shaping all
kinds of ways that we know the world.  But there is a
distinction that philosophers have drawn for a long time
between knowing how and knowing that.  So you know that the
planet we live on happens to be a sphere, that the sun is 93
million miles away; and you know how to tie your shoes, and
you know how to drive a car; and you know how to make a
living and you know how to be an artist and I know how to be
a scientist and I make my living as a scientist, but I
cannot give you the prescription for it.  I can lead you to
my practice, and you become after all a student, right, you
live with me and you learn what it's like to be a scientist
and become it, as you could perhaps teach me to become an
artist.  So there is something about practice and wise
practice that's deeper and older and more profound than
knowledge that.  We shouldn't all despair, there's much more
to life than science.

NT:  No I don't feel despairing.
In self-organization, and the idea of the a-historical
nature of self-organization at all its various levels, to me
there seems to be a kind of -- well not fatality, that's too
strong a word -- but a kind of inevitability, which in a way
is contradictory to the other statements you were just
making about non-predictability or non-stateability.  Do you
have a comment about that?

SK:  Yeah, confusion.  One way of saying it is that when the
space of the possible is vastly larger than the actual will
ever be, history enters.  It is true that the universe is
profoundly non-ergodic [ergodic: in mathematics and
statistics, of or pertaining to the condition that, in an
interval of sufficient duration, a system will return to
states which are closely similar to previous ones].  We will
not make all possible proteins, "we" meaning the universe.
So history is all over the place.  Physics has dealt with
that which is largely repeatable, and biology is obviously
an historcial science.  So the puzzle that we have is well-
recognized but maybe it's getting harder, not easier:  what
does it mean to have a science that simultaneousy is of that
which is non-repeatable; where there is also the possibility
of general law; but there is also the actuality of history,
accident, the filigrees of chance and biological variation
with accumulation of those filigrees.  It's wonderfully

NT:  I was at ECAL [the Fourth European Conference on
Artificial Life] this summer in Brighton with the "second-
generation" Alifers.  They were so overwhelmed by the
problem of whether Alife is science.  I come at it from my
own cultural perspective, wanting to say, why even worry
about that, it's a creative, narrative terrain.

SK:  That's okay, it's a creative and narrative terrain.
But there's something else at stake -- I'll speak as a
scientist.  We are rolling over from largely a 2000 to 3000
year history of science that takes things apart -- which is
a bit silly:  Newton put things together in four laws, and
got an awful lot out of it.  But reduction, in a way, has
been the task of taking things and finding out what their
parts are.  So we are now faced increasingly with the task
of trying to do the inverse, namely put it back together.
And nobody really knows how to do this.  So let me call it
synthetic science.  And the puzzle in artificial life is,
roughly speaking, if we simulate something on the computer
and it looks interesting on the screen, how do we know that
has anything to do with how the world works as opposed to
being just a cute computer game?  And this is a very
important epistemological debate, because part of what we
want to do is find out how the world works, as well as
making nice computer art and other things.  So we have to
understand how it is that when we make models of relatively
simple parts that interact with one another, we have some
chance of believing that that which emerges, that which
comes forth as the collective emergent behavior of these
interacting parts, has anything to do with the real world.

A simple case, already complicated, is statistical
mechanics.  You have the atoms of a gas bouncing around in a
box, and the average energy they transmit to the walls when
they bounce off them is pressure, and the average kinetic
energy is temperature.  Well, so that was the first success
a century ago.  And one knew what one was comparing to what,
one was explaining something called temperature and pressure
by the motion of these little particles.  Now in the U.S.,
we make a voter model on a computer of Democrats and
Republicans, given some demographic distributions with some
theory about how voters allocate their votes given their
basket of wishes, and we wonder if it has anything to do
with how the real world works.  We really do have to work
out what we're learing about the world, or not, from this
kind of mode of doing theory.  And it's actually a wonderful
transition.  We're just, just at the gateway of development
of the capacity to do integrative science.  So we have to
know the integrative part, and we have to know whether or
not it's science.  It isn't going to be easy, but it's
really a profound change in how we do science.

NT:  This I can perceive.  But it's hard to perceive at what
level the reconnection with wholeness takes place.


     Claus Emmeche is a Research Fellow and head of the
Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies in
the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.  A
theoretical biologist and philosopher of science, his area
of research is the semiotics of explaining emergent

NT:  There are actually two aspects of what you spoke about
that I'm particularly interested in.  One is the idea of
inner qualities of the organism that one could model, and
the other is the modeler's "frames of perception" that
evolve in relation to this.

CE:  Yes, how to conceive of the mental models that the
organism builds up in ongoing interaction with the
environment.  The first question is about qualitative

[con't in in part 2]
----- End of forwarded message from Pit Schultz -----
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