Sunday, January 20, 2013

Simple Summaries of Things to Know -Not so Simple

By Gary Berg-Cross

I don’t trust (by definition) oversimplifications, but as an aid to a longer journey of understanding I can enjoy a wise, clever and well informed mind’s pithy summarizations.  A case in point is Richard Feynman (fierce & avowed atheist even as a young man and evidenced by his family battles to opt out of Jewish celebrations):

At almost thirteen I dropped out of Sunday school just before confirmation because of differences in religious views but mainly because I suddenly saw that the picture of Jewish history that we were learning, of a marvelous and talented people surrounded by dull and evil strangers was far from the truth.

                       Richard P. Feynman to Tina Levitan, February 7, 1967

He expressed a new affirmative stance this way:

"I thought nature itself was so interesting that I didn't want it distorted (by miracle stories). And so I gradually came to disbelieve the whole religion."
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)

Well that’s not the generalization I’m thinking of, valuable as it is as background.  It more in the realm of Physics as published in his famous Lectures on Physics, including the layman accessible material re-published as Six Easy Pieces.  There he argued that the most important scientific knowledge - from physics to biology - is the simple fact that all things are made of atoms. Here is how he phrased it:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied...
Six Easy Pieces, p.4) 

Everything made of small units like atoms is a key idea to understanding the world and it plays out in more than Physics. Feynman sees it in biology too – 

everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.”

Well I might not agree entirely here, but a physics point of view explains much and it took, as RF notes :
“some experimenting and theorizing to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.”  (Six Easy Pieces, p.20) 

A temping simplification, but perhaps we need to be cautious of this as the most useful basis for our understanding. I think that you can argue, as Biologist Ernst Mayr has, for the importance of biology/evolutionary biology as an independent science, different from chemistry/physics and deserving of its own, distinct philosophy. Reductionist “understanding” of reality, I would argue, is too naive a jump and doesn’t get us to fuller explanations. In the diagram below you can see this view and how it gets extended form the molecular level to a meso-view of Biology and then on to Psychological realm of things like knowing and belief followed by populations of people.  Gee, maybe I can explain why some populations believe in God.  

Not so fast.  It gets complicated, so we need to qualify things as we move on from small grain atoms to meso- and psych-social phenomena.

It seems to me that basic unit frame is misleading for biology, since lower level functions cannot explain the functions of more complex organization of matter as are always found in living things. As I have in the diagram we have emergence.

It is even more misleading at higher scaled phenomena. Still there is much that can be imported from a Physics and Chemistry view into biology.  I’m thinking here is biology as physical networks. In the 1930s, physiologist Max Kleiber, put a number on this general idea. He showed that an animal's metabolic rate is proportional to its body mass raised to the power of 3/4 .  This relationship has been found to hold across the living world from bacteria to blue whales and giant redwoods, over more than 20 orders of magnitude difference in size.

Scaling laws based on exponents in which the denominator is a multiple of four apply to a host of other biological variables, such as lifespan.  In the 90s West, G. B., Brown, J. H. & Enquist(1)  found an explanation for the scaling laws in the dynamics of organisms‘ internal transport of nutrients and other resources
"There's maybe 200 scaling laws that have quarter powers in them," says West.

OK, so there is that.  But my candidate for a key idea is Evolution. Evolution unifies Biology and as Richard Dawkins said, nothing in Biology makes sense without evolution. That’s a highly informative propositions up there with matter is composed of units. One might also put it as a theory that the world is steadily changing, so organisms transform over time and this takes place via natural selection.   Daniel Dennett provides the importance of the idea more elaborately:

'in a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.’

I like this appeal to unifying key ideas across scientific domains. Call it consillience if you like as E. O. Wilson does. And, not surprisingly, evolution also plays a key role in evolution, although that is a more recent development of note.
Human, cognitive evolution, is one of those candidate areas to provide a pithy insight.  I would make a start on a summary in the somewhat simply in the Feynman and Dawkins sentence style:

The capacity for human cognition is the result of evolutionary processes and is manifest in such processes as cognitive biases and reasoning.

Of course we may throw in some units that are involved in evolution.  Genes, RDA and DNA come to mind but they work as part of a system and so does natural selection.  Things seems a bit more complicated.  I’ll come back to that.

Various branches of Psychology including the recent thrusts in evolutionary psychology and decision science are the advanced outposts of experimentation and theorizing to investigate this idea framed as a hypothesis.  The WASH MDC chapter’s January lecture by Elizabeth Cornwell on “The Evolution of Sex” was a tour de force excursion in this realm.  By connecting the topic to “Why God is so Concerned with Sex” Dr. Cornwell takes a first step towards what might be some things to consider in the connection of evolution to issues of Religion.

But to get closer to that topic we might step back to the idea of atoms and such.  I didn’t provide a key sentence for Chemistry and that stands between Physics and Bio.  One thought is that we might put forward the Periodic Table as listing the chemical units. But many, many things of interest are molecular and thus higher units. We might suggest as a key thing to help understanding this constructed chemical world something about the chemical bond and how units get put together.  And it is this varying ways of composting structures from units that gets increasingly interesting and complicates things.  By the time we get to Biological organisms we are into a multitude of relations and many of then like individual development and specie’s variations are contingent.  Here history matters in ways it doesn’t to an atom and that makes stating a laws for biology a bit more difficult.

In physics, laws are intended to be universal.  In evolution, such laws seem hard to come by.  Even the "law" that acquired characters are not inherited has exceptions, because not all heredity depends on the sequence of bases in nucleic acids (something noted by John Maynard Smith) So Evolutionary theory is NOT a “law” derived as things are in Physics from mathematics. It’s not that we can’t make summary statements, but that the steps to go from there to some well understood and somewhat complete explanation gets pretty drawn out.

Think of gas atoms colliding to produce gross phenomena like pressure. Sure we have a PV=NRT equation that lets us figure some things out.  There is no such simple, closed law for evolution.  It matters what the history of atoms of bio -species and genes has been.  Our Bio candidate of evolution is not a "law" in the mathematical sense of the term. One’s tendency to be chubby gets partially explained by genetics but it is dynamic and interacts with many factors life. As part of the biological part we might have integrate the networks of Biology from neural networks, genetic and metabolic networks or patterns of protein interaction.  It’s all important and part of interlocking systems that have evolved over time.  And then it gets to interact in humans with culture.

For all these reasons of contingency and varied relations one is drawn into saying more about what seems a simple thing to begin with.  And perhaps it is these summaries of the interactions that are involved that should be part of what we need to know and would pass along as wisdom to a post apocalyptic world. That and advice to be skeptical. As Feynman put it:

“I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Image Credits

Simple Explanations

Richard Feynman:

Reductionism Diagram:  by Gary Berg-Cross from a talk to the Evolutionary Society, “Arguing for Biological Autonomy” &  Biological Reality, Discussions of E.Mayr’s 25th book, What Makes Biology Unique?:Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline

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