Thursday, May 26, 2016

How do you say "physics" in the tongue of biology?

Okay, so we have our chimpanzee banging away at typewriters.  Each keystroke is assumed to be random (this is a thought problem, not a hiring problem).  Let’s limit the keys to the twenty six letters of the alphabet so I don’t have to count the keys on my laptop.  How long does it take our pan troglodytes to produce Shakespeare’s Richard the Third
Well, our hairy scribe will produce one “n” about every twenty-six strokes.  Multiply 26 by 26 and that is how many strokes will be needed to produce the first two letters “no”.  Assuming that Bonzo types 260 letters a minute, how long will it take him to turn out Now is the Winter of Our Discontent Made Glorious Summer by this Son of York?
I once actually calculated this out and quickly determined that it would take more time than the kosmos has existed for our chimp or indeed a whole army of chimps to get even halfway through that first line. 
I like to use this popular thought problem to test my philosophy students.  Could chimpanzees produce a Shakespeare play by random typing?  The answer is that not only could they do so but they would inevitably do so, given enough resources including time.  The problem is that the requirements are so vast as to be, for all practical purposes, impossible.  She who agrees with what I have just said is capable of thinking logically.  He who refuses to acknowledge even the contingent possibility is not. 
One might say that Darwin explained how it was not only possible but actual that that random typing produced chimpanzees.  What you need is some means of saving the good letters.  If every good letter survives and every bad letter perishes, then every twenty six strokes will get you one letter closer to My Kingdom for a Horse! 
Darwin can explain how you get from the simplest replicating organisms to certified public accountants because replicating organisms, by definition, have a means of saving and compiling the good letters in the DNA (or RNA) script.  But how do you get from inorganic chemistry to those UR organisms? 
Physicist Jeremy England has an intriguing guess.  His work is discussed in “How do you say “life” in Physics” by Alison Eck in Nautilus.  England addresses the problem that life presents to physicists. 
To the physicist steeped in statistical mechanics, life can, in this sense, appear miraculous. The second law of thermodynamics demands that for a closed system—like a gas in a box, or the universe as a whole—disorder must increase over time. Snow melts into a puddle, but a puddle does not (on its own) spontaneously take the shape of a snowflake. Were you to see a puddle do this, you’d assume you were watching a movie in reverse, as if time were moving backward. The second law imposes an irreversibility on the behavior of large groups of particles, allowing us to play with words like “past,” “present,” and “future.”
The arrow of time points in the direction of disorder. The arrow of life, however, points the opposite way. From a simple, dull seed grows an intricately structured flower, and from the lifeless Earth, forests and jungles. How is it that the rules governing those atoms we call “life” could be so drastically different from those that govern the rest of the atoms in the universe?
England’s guess is that the solution turns on irreversible shifts in states of atoms.  Here is my version, which mixes the metaphors in the Nautilus articles.  Someone jumping a fence with a pogo can jump back, given that she has enough energy to do so.  That’s a reversible change in state.  Someone being shot out of a canon cannot return.  His flight is irreversible. 
How does this work at the atomic level? 
A group of atoms could take a burst of external energy and use it to transform itself into a new configuration—jumping the fence, so to speak. If the atoms dissipate the energy while they transform, the change could be irreversible. They could always use the next burst of energy that comes along to transition back, and often they will. But sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll use that next burst to transition into yet another new state, dissipating their energy once again, transforming themselves step by step. In this way, dissipation doesn’t ensure irreversibility, but irreversibility requires dissipation.
Now, if I understand the argument, a shift in a configuration of atoms that dissipates the energy required to effect it is a means of saving information.  If the configuration acquires more energy and then jumps to yet another new configuration, then information is in effect compiled.  The third configuration has a history.  To really understand what it is, you would have to know the steps that led up to it.  To the extent that that is true, the history involves the compiling of information.  The gaggle of atoms is saving the good letters. 
This is a very long way from explaining how genuine organisms emerge out of the inorganic soup.  It doesn’t give us any idea of the chimpanzee typing odds.  It does give us an idea of how the simplest mechanics might have produced a selection pressure that tilted inorganic processes towards the emergence of life. 

The origin of life is one of the major mysteries.  The fact that life did emerge on planet Earth tells us that inorganic nature contained within it the seeds of life.  I like that idea.  England may be onto an important clue as to where those seeds lay and how they germinated.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

What is the human thing? 2

I have been reading Aristotle’s Categories tonight.  I first read it as an undergraduate philosophy major at the University of Arizona.  As always when I return to this master I am again astonished by the power and durability of his thought.  Twenty-three centuries after his death, he continues to illuminate and be illuminated by the efforts of those who try to become wise by asking one question after another. 
I confess that I did not know until tonight that his word for categories is the same word that is frequently used for an accusation.  To categorize someone, in common language Greek, was to accuse him of a crime.  So to identify Donald Trump as a man is to accuse him of something.  This is the sort of thing that Martin Heidegger would have written a whole, incomprehensible book about. 
The Categories begins with a basic fact about language.  We use some words as homonyms, which sound identical but mean entirely different things.  Think of baseball bat and vampire bat.  I got that example from a fellow grad student Kevin Long.  Sometimes we use words as synonyms, as when we speak of sexually reproducing organisms and asexually reproducing organisms.  Finally, we sometimes use words as paronyms, as when we say that someone who does politics is a politician.  That last term, unfortunately, never made its way into English. 
From that point of departure, Aristotle dives deep into metaphysics.  Consider this statement: “the leaf on the tree is green”.  Green is what we say about the leaf.  The leaf is what we say green about.  Aristotle uses that distinction as the basis of what is more or less real.  The things that are most real are the things that are never said about anything else.  We might say that a tree leafs out, but we never say that this here tree “that here leafs”.  The leaf is a real thing which can be green and fresh or brown and withered.  The latter terms are meaningful and true only if they describe something real. 
The term for real thing-ousia in the Greek-is usually translated as substance, and for a very good reason.  The same words in both languages indicate both a substratum that undergoes change (the iron that goes from black and cold to red and hot in the blacksmith’s forge) and the property of a “man of substance.”  See note on Heidegger above. 
For Aristotle, the only genuine, “primary” substances are individual things.  His examples are always organic: this here human being or this here horse.  His real things are the real things in the common sense meaning of the words, the things we can see and touch.  Aristotle is presumably arguing with his equally famous teacher, Plato, who taught that apparently more abstract things like beauty, truth, and goodness were the real things. 
Having made this point, Aristotle immediately qualifies it in Plato’s direction.  He does so by making a distinction between primary substance (this here horse) and secondary substances like horse and animal.  The latter are secondary (and hence not quite genuine) substances because they can be said about something else.  So one can say that Ken Blanchard is a human being and an animal but one never says that this is a Ken Blanchard or that this Ken Blanchards about anything but yours truly. 
We do, however, speak about species and genus (horse and animal in his examples) the same way that we speak about individual creatures, as when Aristotle says that the human being is the political animal.  In this case, the human being is what political animal is said about.  This gives Aristotle a way to stack the candidates for genuine substance in order of reality.  Species (horse) is more real than genus (animal) because the latter can be meaningfully predicated of the former (a horse is an animal), yet less real than Seabiscuit, which cannot be predicated of anything.  
The problems that Aristotle is addressing here continue to haunt biology to this day.  What is the biological substance?  David Hull and Michael Ghiselin have argued that a species is not a class but an individual.  I am the particular person I am not because I look like my father but because my mother and father begat me.  Dogs are dogs not because they have this or that definitive trait but because they were sired by other dogs. 
While I don’t necessarily buy into this, I think they are onto something.  Evolutionary biology fleshes out Aristotle’s thinking by extending it backward into organic time.  Organisms branched off into plants and animals.  Animals split into distinct species.  Yet all of this depends, at every actual moment, on actual organisms, then and there, surviving, being fruitful and multiplying.  Aristotle’s candidates for substance are ranked as they are in evolutionary history.  Pretty good for a guy who never looked into a microscope. 
I will close this post with a little quote from Aristotle (Categories sec. 5). 
It seems that no substance is more or less [what it is]… I mean that no substance can admit of degrees in itself.  For example, the same substance, a man, cannot be more or less a man as compared to another.  One man cannot be more a man than another, in the same way that one that one white thing can be whiter than another white thing or one beautiful thing more beautiful than others. 

Take that, my Southern ancestors!  Aristotle recognized, a good two thousand years before Jefferson, that all men are created equal.  Darwin may or may not have been motivated towards his work by an opposition to slavery, in fact confirmed Aristotle’s reasoning.  No human being is more human or whiter than another.  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What is the human thing?

The working title of my paper for this year’s IPSA meeting in Poland is “the Darwinian dynamic of Aristotelian Political Animals.”  A bit clunky, but I am sticking with it.  The argument between modern liberalism and socialism turns on the question whether the interests of human societies are subordinate to those of individual persons (liberalism) or vice versa (socialism).  This is the political application of a fundamental metaphysical question: is the human thing the individual or the polis?  I propose that Aristotle’s answer to this question is yes.  What emerges from Aristotle’s thinking (whether he intended this or not) is that the human thing is the dynamic relationship between the citizen and the city.  Here is the beginning of my treatment of this question. 
What is the human thing?
One way to approach this question is to consider the nature of parts and wholes.  The one is fundamentally subordinate to the other.  A doorknob is a part of and hence essentially subordinate to a door because the definition of the former necessarily includes the latter.  You can’t understand what a doorknob is unless you understand what a door is; however, you don’t have to understand the knob in order to understand the door.  The same is true of semicircles and circles. 
Applying this to biology, a hand or a kidney is part of a body and cannot exist or be what it is without being integrated into a body.  Logos must proceed from the whole to the parts in order to understand the phenomena.  Aristotle also argues that the body is essentially secondary and the soul primary, for a body without a soul (a corpse) isn’t really a body anymore.  It is just a lump of interestingly shaped material.  The soul, as he puts it in the De Anima, is the actuality of the body. 
So what about the relationship between the individual human being and the political community?  In the Politics, Aristotle famously states that an individual who is no part of such a community is like a severed hand.  Of course unlike a severed hand, an isolated individual can go on living; however, he cannot live a human life.  He is like a beast or a god, below or above the human thing.  That seems to answer the question decisively in favor of the polis as the human thing. 
In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle takes the opposite approach.  He begins with the individual as the primary thing and family, friendship, and citizenship emerge from the individual’s pursuit of the good things for himself and for those he cares about.  So which is it? 
Aristotle grappled with a similar problem with various attempts to identify the fundamental unit of biology.  At first glance it seems obvious.  A horse is a horse, of course.  From that fundamental thing, present to observation, one can abstract in two directions.  One can go downward to the parts of the horse: legs and organs and organic matter.  One can go upward to the species to which the animal belongs and thence to genus, etc.  But these logical steps are necessarily abstractions.  A leg only makes sense as a leg if it is part of a whole animal.  The species, likewise is real only in the sense that it is something true about this here animal: that it belongs in this category. 
Yet Aristotle was also drawn in the other direction.  What is most knowable is that which is less subject to qualification.  To say that a horse has four legs may not be true of this particular horse since she might lose a leg and yet remain, for a little bit at least, a horse.  It is reliably true of the horse species, however, and so the species is more knowable.  If the knowable is the real, and this is a necessary assumption for all rational understanding of nature, then the species is more real than the individual. 
This conundrum should be understood in the context of Aristotle’s argument with Plato.  Plato’s Socrates can down decisively in favor of the species form.  He argued famously that the form is primary and exists independently of the individual.  When Aristotle makes the individual primary he is reducing the species form to a mere abstraction.  When he makes the species primary, he is nonetheless keeping his distance from Plato.  The horse species is nothing more nor less than all the horses present in every place and time. 
Aristotle’s equivocation on this topic has its analogy in the problem of the species in modern biology.  Is the species a set of characteristics by which we place an individual into a more or less artificial class?  If it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably… a duck.  Alternatively, a species can be understood as a large object scattered across time.  Chimpanzees are this branch of the ape clade and human beings are another.  A third alternative is Ernst Mayr’s definition of an interbreeding population of sexually reproducing creatures.  Each approach has its power.  None can settle the matter in its favor. 
To ask what is the human thing is to arrive at the same dilemma.  The most obvious answer is that it is the biological individual.  Social groups, including the primary social group which is the political community, are institutions.  Individuals do the instituting.  Yet Aristotle had a point in his Politics.  If a linguistic community is an institution then so is an individual linguistic animal, the latter cannot become what she is without the former.  Without a family or its functional equivalent a human person can neither survive to adulthood nor acquire that capacity for logos that is the definitive characteristic of human beings.  It is possible to go a step further and point out that all human communities are possible because of the history of the human species on earth.  Perhaps that is the human thing and particular societies stand towards it just as individuals stand towards groups. 

I will argue from Aristotelian principles that the human thing is neither the individual nor the polis but, instead, is the dynamic relationship between the two.  Individuals create societies and vice versa.  This is possible precisely because the individual and the group are each asserting themselves against the other.  This is not explicit in Aristotle’s writing; however, it is more or less intentionally what his thinking is pointing toward.  It makes sense of Aristotle and, I will argue, it makes sense of both the theoretical questions discussed above and of their explicitly political implications.  Applying Darwinian biology to Aristotle’s principles will allow us to understand both the human thing and, necessarily, the political thing.