Saturday, 16 July 2011

Evolving Everything

- knowledge…lives in the muscles, not in consciousness - John Dewey - Human Nature and Conduct - 177 -

I've been thinking about technology and bodies a lot recently. Frequent readers of this blog have probably heard that topic come up here more and more often over the last year, and to be honest I think it's what I'm going to be spending most of my time on over the next few years: what are the specifics of the embodied reader meeting an equally embodied reading technology (be it Kindle, iPad or codex)?

Maybe it's because I've been reading about Evolutionary Epistemology again. I've written about Henry Plotkin's work on EE a few times, and again I'm finding myself drawn back to it as, to me, it's the most coherent and persuasive branch of the subject. I thought I'd post something which might find its way into my thesis, but mostly just scratches my current EE itch (and is a bit off topic from e-reading). The idea of applying EE beyond biological evolution just appeals somehow.

I'd like to discuss the vision of EE that Henry Plotkin outlines in Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge as the simplicity of his theory clearly matches the bare-bones mechanism of evolution - the three forces of the variation, selection, and reproduction/heredity of individual members of a species within an environment - that enables ideas like Universal Darwinism to function. I would like to argue that Plotkin's approach allows us, through it's stripping out of the specificities of biological organisms' reproduction and genetic encoding of information, to talk about EE as it might apply to technologies in their alternative environment (alternative to climates and predation and suchlike) of human culture. With non-artefact, i.e. biological entities their environment is easily defined: everything in the milieu in which they exist which can have an impact upon their development or surviving long enough to reproduce. But for technologies that milieu is more specifically defined, though the same principles apply. I would like to argue that we are the defining selective forces for our artefacts, human users are the environment for our technologies. As I hope to show alongside this discussion of EE, we provide selective pressures in a manner very similar to traditional evolution.

Plotkin's central idea is that as organisms adapt to their environments, via evolutionary selective pressures, what they pass on to their offspring in each generation is not just genetic instructions for building new bodies, but knowledge about the world that came before them (hence EE). His most striking example is that of the stick insect: a stick insect looks like a stick not because it tries to, but because generations of stick-insect parents survived better the more that they looked like sticks and avoided becoming prey long enough to reproduce and pass on genes which stipulated increasingly stick-like bodies. Plotkin argues that the stick insect's body has a knowledge of an aspect of the world far greater than its own mind is capable of.

This immediately raises the question “why use the word 'knowledge' to describe an adaptation?”, and Plotkin asks the question himself: “why take the further step of equating adaptations with knowledge?...How can the wing markings of a moth [for example] be knowledge?” (Darwin Machines, 117). Plotkin defends the word choice on the grounds of looking at what knowledge, in 'everyday life' means, saying that “knowledge, in its most common meaning, denotes a mental state that bears a specific relationship to some features of the world” (4). When we say that we “know” something we're stating that there is parity between two things “a brain state, which is a part of organismic organization, and the world itself...which is the feature of environmental order relative to which that brain state stands” (117). Knowing someone's name, or where our house is, or what a book looks like, we incorporate that thing we know into ourselves in some way; we have modified ourselves to reflect an aspect of external reality.

For Plotkin there must be a brain state which represents the thing in the world, or the aspects of the thing in the world we have access to:

knowledge is always something that comes in two parts. There is the 'knower's end' of knowledge, comprising feelings, brain states and, of course, the means of expressing the knowledge; and there is the 'world's end' of knowledge, which is that aspect of the world that is known. All knowledge is a relationship between the knower and the known (pp10-11).

Now this is not to say that there's a miniature version of the world playing out within our brains, simply that for an act of knowing to occur there must be a state of cognition and memory which has a physical instantiation and which maps to our experience of, recall, or interaction with an object in the world, and in that sense might be said to incorporate and represent it.

By envisioning knowledge in this stripped down sense we are able to use the word to describe adapted biological organisms' relation to the world. Evolutionary adaptations, like everyday human knowledge, also always have a

relational quality. Every adaptation comprises organization of an organism relative to some feature of environmental order…The wing markings of a moth stand in relation to the nervous system of a predator, specifically the way in which that nervous system is wired such that the ‘eye’ [of the moth's markings] startles the predator and perhaps causes it to flee…All human knowledge has the same two-component relationship that adaptations have (pp116-117).

This matching of body or brain states to world states is the underpinning assertion for Plotkin's vision of EE. Adaptations conform the bodies of the evolved organism to the worlds that housed its lineage; stick insects' bodies are the sum total of the knowledge acquired from the environments of its ancestors. In this way stick insects incorporate an aspect of the environment into their being: simply, they are material instantiations of the knowledge that the environments which preceded them favoured insects which looked like sticks.

My question now becomes “Are technologies manifestations of knowledge of the environments which shaped their lineage?”

For our stick insect, her ancestors were a mix of more or less stick-like insects; the fact that she exists today shows that her ancestors were the most stick-like. The gene pool of early insects generated billions of more or less ‘sticky’ bugs over time, through various mutations, and those that most resembled sticks, who were better camouflaged, avoided being eaten, and survived to reproduce and pass on their stick-like natures to their offspring resulted in our current stick insect - an instantiation of the sum total of the biological knowledge of the aspects of the environments incorporated into the bodies of her ancestors living in them through natural selection and passed on to their offspring. If we want to say that equipment can be a similar instantiation of knowledge then, as with the bare-bones evolutionary theory used above, we must find, in some way, parity between an artefact and the stick insect.

To begin with, evolution must be in place, which, as before, requires individuals, an environment for them to exist in, and the three stages. Let's use a simple artefact for our example.

The modern machete is a ubiquitous tool in many tropical countries where it's used to cut away vegetation when travelling through dense jungle, to harvest tough crops such as sugar cane, and in the home for butchering practices where a cleaver is a common alternative in other parts of the world. It's essentially a long knife, typically set into a wooden or plastic two part haft that is bolted together through a full tang. The machete, for our discussion of EE, is the individual, and, unlike the stick insect's experience, its community of potential human users are its environment.

Variation in knife manufacture and design is clear; from the first stone blades used by early hominids, through to multi-component contemporary cutting tools, the sheer variety of blade lengths and shapes, handle styles, materials, number of components, etc. is staggering. This is to be expected of a tool which has been put to so many different uses around the world and for so long. Each new development comes from a mutation which alters the range in which a feature is expressed. In a culture where knife blades are usually between two and five inches, a 15 inch blade is a mutation which, if used successfully, permanently alters the potential range of blade lengths for future generations of knives.

The contemporary, relatively standardised machete comes from a process of selection dictated by its environment. The stick insect's ancestors ran the risk of being eaten if they were not significantly stick-like. For every mutation which made them more vulnerable, predators, as part of the environment, frequently stopped them living long enough to reproduce. But for every mutation which made their genes more likely to provide a range of colouring akin to their surroundings, a range of appearances more accurately fitting the vectors of a twig, then the environment rewarded that trait by allowing it to be passed on. The insects' bodies matched a world state which remained consistent over generations; their biological knowledge of that aspect of the world grew; they had incorporated an appearance to be found in their environment into themselves.

Machetes don't look like any aspect of their human environment, but, I would argue, the same process of selection occurs. Fitness to the environment for equipment is the same as for insects in as much as it's about matching a state so that the environment doesn't obliterate the traits your particular instantiation is expressing. In a tropical climate the machete shape is the best fit for its environment. This is not to say that the machete matches the jungle, or incorporates an aspect of the jungle, it doesn't. The machete has no evolved knowledge of jungle environments. But it does have a knowledge of how part of its environment intersects with the jungle, how human users experience the jungle. A short stone knife is no use for clearing jungle plant life, so when metal came along, which allowed for thin, strong blades which could be carried easily, it was adopted. Metal also introduced a new variable: blade length. A longer blade allowed for large slashing motions to be made - inefficient for precision work, but perfectly suited to human passage through tropical terrain. This is what the machete matches, this is what the machete incorporates, the repeated moment where knife users meet the jungle, the aspect of their environment related to blade length, just as the individual stick insect is the product of past insects' repeated intersections with predators unable to distinguish between sticks and insects. Blades would have become longer and longer as users discarded shorter blades and created, or requested the creation of increasingly machete-like knives, and, similarly, blades that were too long or unwieldy would have quickly been rejected.

This is the moment of reproduction/heredity. Stick insects, having successfully evaded the selective pressures of their environment, would mate and return their particular combination of genes to the gene-pool, causing new phenotypes to express them in new ways, more or less successfully. The machete doesn't have genes, and it can't facilitate the creation of the next generation of long bladed knives, but the third evolutionary criteria of reproduction/heredity I believe still stands. When the stick insect mates this is also an adapted behaviour, and therefore, in EE, also an instance of knowledge. The ability to mate relies on knowing, in Plotkin's conception of the term, that there will be other stick insects in the environment with which mating can occur, i.e. other stick insects are part of the environment of the individual stick insect, and they have internalised that aspect in the same way as any other adapted trait. When offspring are produced an aspect of the environment (another stick insect in this case) has caused our individual stick insect's genetic material to be reproduced. Machetes have a knowledge of the consumer forces of its environment of users; its traits also get reproduced when an aspect of the environment causes them to be, i.e. when a long bladed knife is used successfully an individual user is more likely to recommend it to other potential users, and to produce or request this trait themselves when they next need the tool. Thus a machete's blade is a knowledge, not only of how humans encounter jungle plants when moving through them, but also of the consumer forces which can allow such a blade to come into being and be repeated. Blades that are too short are rejected, blades that are too long are rejected, blades which have a trait that marks a fitness to their environment have that trait reproduced in the next generation; blade length is a heritable trait in knives.

In a discussion of EE Tommi Vehkavaara (.pdf) argues that

The ability to act successfully presupposes the knowledge how to act successfully. Discoursive [sic] linguistically expressed justification is not always necessary - if the ability to act is (successfully) demonstrated, no argument can overcome this ultimate proof of knowledge. This kind of demonstrable knowledge connects us to other forms of life - every living creature needs at least some knowledge how to act successfully (in its environment). Of course, knowledge does not determine the action it enables, it is just the precondition for the action. Although an action can be seen as a presentation of knowledge, the actual action is not necessary for the existence of knowledge - knowledge is potential action, the power to do (210, emphasis in original).

A stick insect is put into action in the act of being a stick insect; a genotype is knowledge in potential, a living phenotype is knowledge in action. Every second that the stick insect is alive it demonstrates that it has a knowledge of the consistent aspects of the environments which led to its being, that there will likely be oxygen to breathe, food to eat, light to see by, predators to evade, and other stick insects to mate with. The machete differs in that it doesn't act second by second, it only acts during use; the stick insect also only puts knowledge into action when it is in concert with its environment, it just happens to never be outside of that environment. A stick insect born into a vacuum doesn't act, it has nothing to know and simply ceases, it might be argued, in some way to even be a stick insect. A machete outside of use also doesn't act, it cannot demonstrate, and therefore cannot prove its knowledge until that concert with its environment begins. But the moment that it is picked up it comes into action, and the success of its use is a measure of its knowledge. This fact actually allows us to use the notion of an Evolutionary Epistemology of Artefacts (EEoA) to define the term artefact: anything that manifests a fit with an environment, but that cannot act without the impetus of another individual is an artefact. Artefacts exist as potential knowledge until they are in use, they have, in Vehkavaara's terms, “the power to do.”