Tag Archives: evolution

Plato’s Horse And The Concept of Universals – Can You Have Life As We Know It Without Rules That Govern It

My young daughter’s precious Labrador puppy, Violet, has grown up, and recently turned two. As a family, we usually traditionally have Schnauzers as pets, and it’s been strange but nice to have a different breed around the home, and Labradors have great personalities. What struck me forcibly when Violet came in to our life, was that while she has a very different shape and form to our two Schnauzers, she is as instantly recognisable as a dog, as all our dogs are. It again struck me when the family watched a program on the most loved one hundred dog breeds in the UK (for those interested Labradors came in first), that while each of the different breeds had very different characteristics – think Chihuahua as compared to a Great Dane, or a Pug compared to a German Shepherd – they are were all instantly recognisable by our family members watching it, and I am sure just about all the folk who watched the program, as being dogs rather than cats, or lamas, or sheep. In the last few years of my academic career (and perhaps at a subconscious level for my entire research career), after having been an Integrative Control Systems scientist for most of my career, trying to understand how our different body systems and functions are controlled and maintained in an optimal and safe manner, I have come to understand, and have been exploring the concept, along with great collaborators Dr Jeroen Swart and Professor Ross Tucker, that perhaps general rules are operating across all body system control mechanisms, whatever their shape or form, and we recently published a theoretical research paper which described our thoughts. In my new role as Deputy Dean of Research at the University of Essex, I am fortunate to be working with the Department of Mathematics, helping them enhance their research from an organisational perspective, and it has been fascinating working with these supremely bright folk and seeing the work they do, and having it reiterated to me that even simple mathematical principles are abstract, and not grounded in anything in the physical world (for example knowing that 1 plus 2 equals 3 does not need any physical activity for it to be always true). All of these recent activities have got me thinking of the long pondered issue of universals, their relationship to rules and regulation governing and maintaining life, and which came first, the rules, or the physical activity that requires rules and regulation to be maintained in order for the physical activity to continue and be both organised and productive.

Universals are defined as a class of mind-independent (indeed human-independent) entities which are usually contrasted with individuals (also known as ‘particulars’ relative to ‘universals’), and which are believed to ‘ground’ and explain the relation of qualitative identity and resemblance among all individuals. More simply, they are defined as the nature or essence of a group of like objects described by a general term. For example, in the case of dogs described above, when we see a dog, whether it is a Labrador, Schnauzer, German Shepherd, or a myriad of other breeds, we ‘know’ it to be a dog, and the word dog is used to cover the ‘essence’ of all these and other breeds. Similarly, we know what a cat is, or a house, or shoes, despite each of these ‘types of things’ often looking very different to each other – there are clearly enough characteristics in each to define them by a universal defining name. Understanding universals gets even more complex though than merely thinking of them as being just a name or group of properties for a species or ‘type of thing’. Long ago, back in the time of antiquity, one of the first recorded philosophical debates was about universals, and whether they existed independently as abstract entities, or only as a term to define an object, species or ‘type of thing’. Plato suggested that a universal exists independent of that which they define, and are the true ‘things which we know’, even if they are intangible and immeasurable, with the living examples of them being copies and / or imitations of the universal, each varying slightly from the original universal, but bound in their form by the properties defined by the universal. In other words, he suggested that universals are the ‘maps’ of structures or forms which exist as we see and know them, for example a dog, or a horse, or a tree, and they exist in an intangible state somehow in the ‘ether’ around us, ‘directing’ the creation of the physical entities in some way which we have not determined or are currently capable of understanding.

In philosophical terms, this theory of universals as independent entities is known as Platonic Realism. After Plato came Aristotle, who felt that universals are ‘real entities’, like Plato perceived them to be, but in his theory (known as Aristotelian Realism), he suggested that universals did not exist independent of the particulars, or species, or ‘things’ they defined, and were linked to their physical existence, and would not exist without the physical entities they ‘represent’. In contrast to realism, Nominalism is a theory that developed after the work of these two geniuses (Nominalists are also sometimes described as Empiricists) which denied the existence of universals completely, and suggested that physical ‘things’, or particulars, shared only a name, and not qualities that defined them, and that universals were not necessary for the existence of species or ‘things’. Idealism (proposed by folk like Immanuel Kant) got around the problem of universals by suggesting that universals were not real, but rather were products of the minds of ‘rational individuals’, when thinking of that which they were looking at.

This dilemma of both the existence and nature of universals has to date not been solved, or adequately explained, given that it is impossible with current scientific techniques, or perhaps psychological ‘power’ in our minds, to be able to prove or disprove the presence of universals, and folk ‘believe’ in one of these different choices of universals depending on their world and life points of view. Religious folk would suggest that the world is created in God’s ‘image’, and to them God’s ‘images’ would be the universals from which all ‘God’s creatures’ are created. In contrast, with respect to evolution, which is diametrically opposed to the concept of religion, it is difficult to believe in both evolution and the presence of universals, as evolution is based on the concept of need and error-driven individual genetic changes over millennia in response to that need, which led to different species developing, and to the variety in nature and life we see all around us. In the evolutionary model therefore, the concept of universals (and the creation of the world by a God as posited by many religions) would appear to be counter-intuitive.

While a lot of debate has focused on ‘things one can see’ as the physical ‘particulars’ which are either a product of universals or not, there are more abstract activities which support the existence of universals independent of the mind or ‘things that they are involved with’. For example, the work done by Ross, Jeroen and myself developed from the realisation that a core principle of all physiological activity is homeostasis, which is defined as the maintenance by regulatory control processes or structures of physiological or physical activity within certain tolerable limits, in order to protect the individual or thing being regulated from being damaged, or damaging itself. Underpinning all homeostatic control mechanisms is the negative feedback loop, where when a substance or activity increases or decreases too much, initiates other activity as part of a circular control structure which has the capacity to act on the substance requiring control, and normalises or attenuates the changes, and keeps the activity or behaviour within required ‘safe levels’, which are set by homeostatic control mechanisms. The fascinating thing is that the same principle of negative feedback control loops occurs in all and any physical living system, and without it life could not occur. Whether gene activity, liver function, or whole body activity, all which have very different physical or metabolic regulatory structures and processes, all are controlled by negative feedback loop principles. Therefore, it is difficult not to perceive that the negative feedback loop is a type of universal, but one that works by similar ‘action’ across systems rather than ‘creating’ a physical thing in its likeness. Mathematics is another area in which folk believe universals are ‘at work’, given that even the simplest sums, such as one plus two equals three, needs no physical structure or ‘particular’ for them to always be such, and true. While we all use mathematical principles on a continuous basis, it is difficult to believe that such mathematical principles do not ‘exist’ in the absence of humans, or any physical shape or forms.

So where does all this leave us in understanding universals and their relevance to life as we know it? Perhaps what one’s viewpoint is regarding the existence of universals depends on one’s own particular epistemological perspective (understanding of the nature of knowledge and how it is related to one’s justified beliefs) and world view. Though I can in no way prove it, I believe in universals and would define myself as a Platonic Realist. This viewpoint comes from a career in science and working with exceptional scientists like Jeroen Swart and Ross Tucker getting to understand the exquisite and universal nature of control mechanisms which keep our bodies working the way which they do. However, I do not believe in any God or religion in any shape or form, and have greater faith in the evolutionary model, which is counter-intuitive relative to my belief in the presence of independent universals. Therefore, the potential similarities and differences between religion and universals, and evolution and universals described above is clearly redundant for my specific beliefs, and there is probably similar confusion in core beliefs for many (particularly research involved) folk. However, it is exciting to think (at least for me) that there may be universals out there that have no link to current activities or functions or species, and which may become evident to humans at some point in the future, by way of the development of new species or new ‘things’. Having said that, I guess it could be argued that if universals do not exist, progress and the evolution of ideas will lead us to new developments, species or ways of life in an evolution-driven, error-associated way. One cannot ‘see’ or ‘feel’ a negative feedback loop, or a maths algorithm, or universal for even something as simple as a dog, which is why perhaps to a lot of folk with a different epistemological viewpoint to mine it is challenging to accept the presence, or indeed the necessity, of and for universals. But when I look at our Labrador, and ‘know’ as such it is a dog as much as a Schnauzer, Chihuahua, or German Shepherd is, I feel sure there is the Universal dog out there somewhere in the ether that will perhaps keep my toes warm when I leave this world for the great wide void which may exist beyond it. And surely, given what a stunning breed they are, the Universal dog, if it exists out there, can only be a Labrador!

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Memes and Genes – Transition of Cultural and Social Identities Beyond the Physical Realm

On holiday the last few weeks in the town of my birth with my young children got me reflecting on memes and their role in maintaining personal and cultural attributes across generations and time. We have lived through more than half a century where in science the ‘gene era’ has dominated, perhaps because of the remarkable breakthroughs that have occurred in genetics and molecular biology since the discovery of the nature of DNA and how it replicates in the last half of the previous century. In the gene model of life, everything we are and do is encoded in our genes, and these genes are physically transmitted to our children, who become a copy of ourselves (blended of course with our spouses genes) and who propagate our DNA further through their own children and then on to future generations of offspring.

This gene model makes mostly sense for our physical makeup, but the problem with it is of course lies in the behavioural and social realm, which are intangible and cannot be directly related to specific genetic activity, and which also appear to be both propagated and ‘passed down’ through generations in a manner similar to genes transmission. In the last few decades such ‘heritable’ social behaviour have been described as memes (also described in the past as ‘culturgens’), which are defined as an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, and which act as a unit of culture, idea, or practice that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable or mimicked behaviour. So in the analogy of my children, looked at from a meme perspective, it would be that they pick up behaviour I am exhibiting, or have exhibited in the past and exhibit it themselves in their own future lives. In the analogy of my old hometown, social routines or behavioural actions and potentially prejudices that occur in the time of one generation who lived there will continue to occur in the following generations – for example having Christmas lunch with ones extended family, singing Christmas songs each year on Christmas day, and even taking a holiday break at this time of year as a regular occurrence – all of these behaviours we do as ‘routine’ were done by out parents before us, and will likely be done by our children after we are gone, given they are experiencing these activities as seminal occasions of their early youth and are therefore memes – so memes such as these are in effect ‘propagated’ across generations in a similar manner to how DNA is propagated, but exist as a social entities, or as behaviours, which are external to our own existence and have a ‘life’ of their own. In extreme versions of meme theory, humans don’t exist to propagate their own DNA but rather to ensure the propagation and maintenance of the memes of which they engage with, although of course social and behavioural memes cannot exist without human life and interactive activity. There are also of course different ‘sizes’ or levels of complexity of memes – for example Christmas lunch would be a relatively simple meme, while religion in its entirety would be an example of a complex meme.

Like physical genetic based evolution, where advantageous traits are maintained and develop while negative traits eventually disappear, memes that survive for long periods of time and over multiple generations surely are advantageous to the communities where they exist. However, some memes, such as innate cultural prejudices which exist in communities or cultures over many generations, such as racism or jingoism, can of course be self-defeating and damaging, and one can even argue a case that patriotism for a particular cause or country, which is a another example of a complex meme, can lead to conflict with other countries or cause, and perceptions of superiority in those that are patriotic. Therefore memes like patriotism, let alone jingoism and other prejudicial memes, need to be examined carefully by those who have the power to encourage or enhance their propagation.

Memes are of course of particular interest and relevance to those who move to different places or live in populations with diverse cultures, where one’s own meme experiences may be very different to those around one in a new or culturally diverse environment, or those whose job it is to try and change a particular culture or way of life which is perceived to be either ‘out of step’ with either the ethos of more general / universal social environments, for example society memes which are prejudicial to some of its own society or those of others around them, given that memes by the definition above are self-propagating and potentially conservative / resistant to change.

So going back to the holiday thoughts – when seeing my son or daughter behaving in a way that I realized was a ‘mirror’ of my own behaviour, made me realize how important it is to be aware of memes, and how one’s actions and behaviours can be transmitted across generations. Equally, being in the hometown of my birth made me realize how the more complex social memes are ‘alive and well’ in that place of my youth, and continue of their own will, for good or for bad. Despite many years living in different places and continents, the memes which I noted were still strong and ongoing there had a magnetism of their own, given the memories they evoked of times past from the halcyon days of my own youth, and I realized again therefore how important it is to sift through each meme carefully, in order to determine which memes are positive and which are potentially negative both for one’s own life and wellbeing, and perhaps more importantly, for those around us and in society in general. There is perhaps a need to try and curb the negative both in ones own behaviour, and in one’s social environment in which the memes exist and propagate, in order to attenuate the propagation of the potentially negative memes, either behaviourally or socially. Of course, whether one as an individual has any real control over them, is another story!


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