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March 17, 2005 10:14 AM   Subscribe

"An autopoietic system is one organised to respond to the world. Prod it and it will react homeostatically, striving to reach a new accommodation that preserves its integrity. There is a global cohesion - a memory of what the system wants to be - that reaches down to organise the parts even while those parts may be adding up to produce the functioning whole."
posted by all-seeing eye dog (29 comments total)

 
But what is stopping them once they feel they have identified genes responsible for intelligence, verbal ability, criminality, or whatever?

This is a bad thing?
posted by jikel_morten at 10:31 AM on March 17, 2005


It's a bad thing when one makes the assumption that mandatory modifaction of such variables could and would be legislated in order to tailor fit individuals into society's expectations, rather than the other way around.
posted by lyam at 10:38 AM on March 17, 2005


It might be bad if all the people with the 'right' genetic traits for higher intelligence decided to 'clean up the world's gene pool' (in the Nazi fashion) by ridding it of individuals in whom such traits were absent. That would be very bad for some people. I'm sure you could think up a few other bad outcomes too, if you wanted to.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:43 AM on March 17, 2005


It might be bad if all the people with the 'right' genetic traits for higher intelligence decided to 'clean up the world's gene pool' (in the Nazi fashion) by ridding it of individuals in whom such traits were absent. That would be very bad for some people. I'm sure you could think up a few other bad outcomes too, if you wanted to.

Ok, but that isn't quite the angle I was taking...
posted by jikel_morten at 11:00 AM on March 17, 2005


all-seeing eye dog writes " It might be bad if all the people with the 'right' genetic traits for higher intelligence decided to 'clean up the world's gene pool' (in the Nazi fashion) by ridding it of individuals in whom such traits were absent"

But then where would we -- I mean, they! -- get their gardeners?

Seriously, the threat isn't so much in cleaning up the gene pool (though that is a threat) but in deliberate construction of "worker castes".

Brave New World anticipated this, of course, but Vernor Vinge has an interesting take on this as well, in A Deepness in the Sky, concerning the intentional triggering in individuals of a form of autism, to keep them obsessed with narrowly focused intellectual pursuits, to the exclusion of all else -- sort of perpetual, super grad students.

Perhaps the extreme lack of genetic diversity on the human species is an underappreciated benefit?
posted by orthogonality at 11:01 AM on March 17, 2005


It also woule create yet another class gap. Enhancement technologies would become available to the rich first.

Sounds like GATTACA.
posted by goatfish at 11:02 AM on March 17, 2005


I'm not sure why Rose wrote this. His points seem like common sense:

We currently don't fully understand the brain, and many of our models are very crude.

There is a potential for knowledge of the brain to be put to harmful use.

Money is involved in scientific research.

Of the three, the last is the only one that is troubling. The other two deserve a resounding, "So?" This has been true of every emerging science ever. It just means we have to work on revising and refining our theories of the brain, and be vigiliant against potentially harmful uses. I don't see the "Brave New World" scenario as being very likely. I think the troubling applications would come in the form of employee requirements or the like. Also, his idea of "harmful uses" is odd:
"But the "user pays" model is unsettling none the less."
I don't agree with this. Assuming the user knows what he is doing and the drug companies/whatever haven't used subversive means to trick him (which may well happen, but that's a separate issue), then why not? If a user knows the risks and decides the benefits are worth it, let him pay.

But what is stopping them once they feel they have identified genes responsible for intelligence, verbal ability, criminality, or whatever?
I doubt the results would be as extreme as what all-seeing eye dog said, but they could be very bad. For instance, insurance companies raise the rates the charge you based on how big of a risk you are. If you were found to be genetically predisposed to certain behaviors or diseases, they would probably want to charge you more. Employers might want to know some of your genetic information for similar reasons, to know if you are predisposed to things like alcoholism, mental instability, violent outburts, etc. Not to mention just general discrimination against people who have less-than stellar genes. This is all assuming such information were known to the world, but organizations like insurance companies can already look at your medical records, so it doesn't seem too far-fetched.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:05 AM on March 17, 2005


"An autopoietic system is one organised to respond to the world. Prod it and it will react homeostatically, striving to reach a new accommodation that preserves its integrity. There is a global cohesion - a memory of what the system wants to be - that reaches down to organise the parts even while those parts may be adding up to produce the functioning whole."

Sounds like jelly.

Reading the quoted bit I get the agreable sense that I'm understanding something profound. But the concept 'autopoietic' lacks bite when there's not a working model of an autopoietic system.
(I was hoping for an applet that I could prod with my mouse)

Not having RTFB, 'autopoietic' sounds like the metaphore du jour of the mind.
Goodbye to steamengines and computers.


On the eugenetic thing: our ideas of what is desirable in a member of society are very much subject to fashion. But the gene-pool that has been adjusted (constrained) to fashion is the stock for millennia to come. So the ability of the human race to adapt to change would probably be severely impaired when we'd be able to pick and choose the available genes.
We are just not wise enough.
posted by joost de vries at 11:18 AM on March 17, 2005


joost de vries writes " On the eugenetic [sic] thing: our ideas of what is desirable in a member of society are very much subject to fashion. But the gene-pool that has been adjusted (constrained) to fashion is the stock for millennia to come. "

And as Alexander Dumas wrote, "The custom and fashion of today will be the awkwardness and outrage of tomorrow--so arbitrary are these transient laws."

But the gene pool has been constrained by fashions for millions of years already. Indeed, the smart money says that those fashion trends may be the reason for the extraordinarily rapid evolution of human intelligence.

Darwin first pointed out the fashion-master: sex selection. It's responsible for such outlandish fashions as the peacock's tail -- and for the peahen's delight in the peacock's tail.

Geoffrey Miller, in The Mating Mind re-invigorates this less appreciated of Darwin's theories and speculates that a nimble brain proved attractive to members of the opposite sex, which attraction accelerated brain development. And indeed, sex selection is responsible for a number of "run away" phenomena in evolution, phenomena which are otherwise difficult to explain.

Of course, it's not only a big brain that humans have found sexy: flat heads, light skin, small, deformed feet, tattooed faces, filed teeth and even the beehive hair-do have all had their moments in the sun.

I'm reminded of a story about an American soldier stationed in occupied Japan after the Second World War. Supposedly, he chanced upon a Japanese girl he found stunningly attractive -- but who was shunned as unmarriageable in her native village for her "ugly" Occidental looks. Naturally, he snapped he up and they presumably produced stunningly attractive -- or disgustingly ugly, depending on how your attractiveness meter is calibrated -- Japanese-American progeny.
posted by orthogonality at 11:45 AM on March 17, 2005


I like the article's critical take on reductionist neuroscience. In lay society people like Ray Kurzweil are getting lots of attention with their writing about machine intelligence and people like Bennet get lots of attention for writing books like _Consciousness Explained_ while in the sciences people are getting lots of recognition for making blunt instruments like Zoloft but NOWHERE is anyone getting attention or money for actually studying consciousness outside of a empirical poke and record scenario or doing any out of the box work on brain function. We really don't have any idea about what gives rise to consciousness, to the individual's reality, but there is a constant assumption at work that our knowledge of the brain's mechanics is adequate. As it stands I think that in many important ways a practicing Taoist understands a lot more about human consciousness than neuroscientists do.

To quote from last week's Deadwood: "Why do I keep envisioning a snake biting its own tail?"
posted by n9 at 12:03 PM on March 17, 2005


Our ideas of what is desirable in a member of society are very much subject to fashion, our feelings of what is desirable in a mate are not that much subject to change. An important distinction.

Physical characteristics that are the result of 'runaway' sexual selection, such as the peacock tail, or women with breasts so big that their shoulders hurt, only can occur as the result of a consistent significant selection over hundreds of thousands of years. A single fashion hardly outlasts a decade.

Fads of flat heads, deformed feet, tattooed faces, filed teeth and beehive hair have no effect on the gene-pool as they are expressions of culture, not genes.
posted by joost de vries at 12:17 PM on March 17, 2005


"There is a potential for knowledge of the brain to be put to harmful use.

"Money is involved in scientific research.

"Of the three, the last is the only one that is troubling."


To me what's troubling is that the money inolved in the research so often comes from people who obviously want to put their knowledge of the brain to harmful purposes (namely, advertisers who've hired marketing psychology firms in hopes of taking all that pesky 'choice' out of 'consumer choice.') Marketing psychology is a growth industry, one that expressly operates under the assumption that subverting people's brain functions to sell them products is okay. That looking for ways to manipulate people's choices in this way at all is considered morally acceptable is just bizzare to me.

The possibility of being turned into a living robot: That's way more frightening than the remote threat of a pogrom, from where I sit. Here's another link related to marketplace psychology and recent research suggesting that economic choices aren't rational.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:20 PM on March 17, 2005


Joost: Although "autopoiesis" is a new word for me, homeostasis (which seems to be the same thing, pretty muc) is a well-established phenomenon.

Sangermaine: Rose's point seems pretty clear that, given what we know of the way drug companies work today--inventing behavioral "diseases" that can be cured by drugs in their portfolio and aggressively marketing those cures, etc--we have every reason to be concerned. Also behind Rose's point is that the current fad for pharmacology in psychiatry has given the mechanistic, reductionist view of our brains more prominence (there's a chicken/egg question in there that I won't get into).
posted by adamrice at 12:27 PM on March 17, 2005


de vries, I am intrigued. Fashion results only from a range of diversity. The acceptance of fashion is as much a physical lure as an inner realization of personal similitude, in other words a communication of the 'minds eye'.

Plato toyed with this idea in the Republic, Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. When society wants to battle against the extremes, things are lost within history, language and the fated soul.

Right conduct should be treated different from the functionality of the mind and body.
posted by Viomeda at 12:29 PM on March 17, 2005


n9 writes "people like Bennet get lots of attention for writing books like _Consciousness Explained_"

Er, Daniel Dennett. And it's well worth reading (but far from easy, at least for me -- Darwin's Dangerous Idea is easier, but also well worth reading).
posted by orthogonality at 12:32 PM on March 17, 2005


Er, Daniel Dennett. And it's well worth reading (but far from easy, at least for me -- Darwin's Dangerous Idea is easier, but also well worth reading).

Yeah, actually, the main thing that caught my eye about this article was the 'mind as autopoietic system' idea... Dennett's a functionalist, right? Or maybe he's an epiphenomenalist? Anyway, the possibility that consciousness is actually an integral part of the causal chain of mental function is what appeals to me...
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 12:42 PM on March 17, 2005


Why have we all become so dependent? It is this dependence that keeps giving power to the world of psychiatry and drug manufacturing. Have we lost the ability to accept or not accept treatment? Society is convinced that the ideal self lies dormant in us somewhere but we have been trained to believe we cannot accomplish this by our own will. We expect an immediate answer, a tool and a magic drug to provide these answers. Advertisers and corporations will keep doing what they do. I see the problem in the weakness of society itself.
posted by Viomeda at 12:49 PM on March 17, 2005


Steven Rose is an old proponent of nuanced and predominantly environmental explanations for human behavior. He was a member of a UK group called, I think, Dialectical Biology, which espoused an explicitly leftist use and exploration of biology. He's no quack. His biggest book was cowritten with Richard Lewontin, who is (or was) the Agassis Chair in Evolutionary Genetics at Harvard, and was called Not In Our Genes. It was a very convincing debunking of some of the very bad science that passes for genetic theory and proof of heritability. Lewontin has written extensively about this, and about how much we don't know about what is inherited in human beings.

The stakes are actually much more concerning than money. It may be that we have a bad or incomplete model of the human mind, but that model informs all kinds of decisions. Sure, funding gets allocated according to it, which only perpetuates the problem; but in my field, which is mental health, there are all kinds of faulty and damaging claims made for a biology of the mind that do real harm. Tardive Dyskinesia is just one of the problems associated with treatment based on a faulty biological model of mental illness.

I'll be interested to read this book.
posted by OmieWise at 2:36 PM on March 17, 2005


OmieWise writes "Steven Rose is an old proponent of nuanced and predominantly environmental explanations for human behavior. He was a member of a UK group called, I think, Dialectical Biology, which espoused an explicitly leftist use and exploration of biology. He's no quack. His biggest book was cowritten with Richard Lewontin"

And Rose and Lewontin, along with fellow Marxist Stephen Jay Gould, lent an aura of scientific credence to the lynching of E.O. Wilson.
posted by orthogonality at 3:27 PM on March 17, 2005


n9: but there is a constant assumption at work that our knowledge of the brain's mechanics is adequate

Can you provide an example? You mentioned Dennett. In Consciousness Explained, Dennett's closing paragraph begins "My explanation of consciousness is far from complete. One might even say that it was just a beginning." I've read quite a few brain/consciousness type books, and they've all made statements to the effect that we know relatively nothing about the brain.

n9: As it stands I think that in many important ways a practicing Taoist understands a lot more about human consciousness than neuroscientists do.

You realize that that kind of "understanding" is simply a belief that has no basis in science, right?


viomeda: Why have we all become so dependent? It is this dependence that keeps giving power to the world of psychiatry and drug manufacturing.

I see the problem in the weakness of society itself.

What are you dependent on, and why is that "dependence" a weakness?

I've taken aspirin, antibiotics, and Paxil at various times in my life. I've taken none as "an immediate answer" or "a tool and a magic drug to provide these answers." And I find your assertion that I took these drugs because I'm too weak to will myself to health offensive.
posted by Bort at 3:38 PM on March 17, 2005


ugh, Bennet, of course. Last paragraph or no, I found the first hundred pages of C.E. to be a bit less humble and a bit more 'we're almost done figuring this out.' It has been ten years, though.

As for the understanding of a taoist being unscientific... well, that's an interesting assertion in more ways than one. I'd have to say that completely ignoring the inner experience, the workings of the consciousness (as opposed to the brain's mechanics) is pretty obviously the worst possible way to study consciousness. Empiricism and quantitative experimentation are certainly useful things, but that doesn't mean that there is no science in contexts that they cannot be used.

Furthermore, since everything that has ever been experienced or done, that was ever observed or communicated or come to be known ever was mediated and evaluated by one or more minds (these things that we know so very little about) I would say that it is somewhat looney tunes to to say that there is much that we know about the world that is of a harder science than the limit of our understanding of mind as seen from the inside, so to speak.
posted by n9 at 9:44 PM on March 17, 2005


Dennet! I wrote the wrong name again. drat.
posted by n9 at 9:44 PM on March 17, 2005


n9 writes " Dennet! I wrote the wrong name again. drat."

Dennett. Two "n"s, two "t"s.

I think you're repressing something. ;)
posted by orthogonality at 9:48 PM on March 17, 2005


orthogonality writes:
And Rose and Lewontin, along with fellow Marxist Stephen Jay Gould, lent an aura of scientific credence to the lynching of E.O. Wilson.

I'm sure it won't surprise you when I say that that is not how I would characterize the debate between them.
posted by OmieWise at 5:46 AM on March 18, 2005


women with breasts so big that their shoulders hurt, only can occur as the result of a consistent significant selection over hundreds of thousands of years

If this were truly a universal preference, then why so many flat-chested ladies still around? And why so many cultures that actively prefer and genetically reward small breasts?

The more one looks into sexual attractiveness in history, the less one can assert that any single feature or type of feature is universally attractive across time and culture. Varying preferences are often much more than 'fads'; historians argue them as responses to available nutrition, climate, natural resources, social/class status, etc. Which is much more complex than "everyone thinks big boobies are sexy." Which complexity the book's author is encouraging us to consider.

Sounds like a great book, and a provocative link. Thanks.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on March 18, 2005


n9, I would say that anything limited to introspection or meditation is inherently unscientific by its nature - it is totally subjective. I'm not saying that it should be entirely discounted; instead, I think such introspection can and does lead to theories that have merit. But, those theories must be objectively verified.

Empiricism and quantitative experimentation are certainly useful things, but that doesn't mean that there is no science in contexts that they cannot be used.

I disagree with that statement. No experimentation = no science.

BTW, earlier I said we know relatively nothing about the brain - I should have said mind. We know quite a bit about the brain, though certainly not everything. Its the brain to mind connection that we know very little about.
posted by Bort at 9:18 AM on March 18, 2005


I disagree with that statement. No experimentation = no science.

Bort: You make a lot of good points, but I still disagree a bit about the point that cultivated froms of introspection (such as those adopted by various schools of meditation) can't approach a kind of science. Theoretical science has often been informed by the subjective ('intuition,' 'a priori' understanding, etc.)... Newton, Einstein, and just about every major figure in theoretical science relied heavily on intuition (even their aesthetic sensibilities) to formulate their revolutionary theories. Sure, those theories had to be supported by the evidence to hold any influence, but as it turns out, they were.

Buddhist insight meditation and other forms of meditation aren't like prayer: The object of attention isn't some devotional object or deity (although meditative visualization may sometimes make use of symbolic devotional objects and deities, these symbolic objects are typically understood to serve merely as iconic representations of various aspects of the mind). The object of attention is the mind, and its processes and mechanisms. By formalizing various first-person approaches to studying the mind from the inside out--that is, through close observation of how various mental processes operate on the first person experience of consciousness--meditative sciences attempt to apply the experimental method to consciousness itself.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 10:22 AM on March 18, 2005


all-seeing eye dog: We're not that far apart, metaphysically. :)

To avoid irrelevant word play, I'll retract my no experimentation = no science statement. I still believe it, but whether A or B counts as a science is not really important, IMO. :)

I agree that introspection can lead to valid theories. But if your introspection leads to theory X and my introspection leads to theory Y, how do we determine which is correct? (assuming they are mutually exclusive) The only way I know to make that determination is through objective verification - which is impossible with a purely mental experiment. Or, to put it another way, I find it hard to put the kind of trust that I do in, say, engineering into something that is the result of unverified theories - no matter how they are derived.

So, back to what is really important, IMO. And that is being able to tell correct theories from incorrect theories. To me, that is what objective experiementation gets you (in the long run, anyway).

As an aside: Some of my favorite theoretical physics readings were about the Einstein / Bohr thought experiments regarding quantum theory. Great stuff that I highly recommend to anyone interested in such things.
posted by Bort at 3:41 PM on March 18, 2005


OmieWise writes " orthogonality writes:
"
And Rose and Lewontin, along with fellow Marxist Stephen Jay Gould, lent an aura of scientific credence to the lynching of E.O. Wilson.

"I'm sure it won't surprise you when I say that that is not how I would characterize the debate between them."


Read this, it's long but actually pretty enjoyable, and get back to me.
posted by orthogonality at 4:20 PM on March 18, 2005


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