Reading: Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective

Complexity in Ecological Systems. by Robert E. Ulanowicz

It’s about ecology, complexity, and a considerable bit of philosophy. Very readable. Unfortunately only available in dead-tree.

“Life itself cannot exist in a wholly deterministic world!”

Concept: auto-catalytic loops

This book explains how evolution works. Evolution works by “try shit and see what happens” — perturb and test, quickly discard the not-better.

Competition is one method for test. It is a weak one, unsatisfying to explain (to me) how life got so interesting so fast. And keeps getting more and more interesting, faster than fits the time scale of generations.

Auto-catalytic loops are the next selection method, as described here. A water-plant’s leaves provide surface for bacteria. The water-plant even encourages the bacteria to grow there, why? Tiny zooplankton come to eat the bacteria, and are captured by the plant. The three form an auto-catalytic loop of helping each other; they can’t survive nearly as well alone. Once a loop like this forms, any organism that contributes to the loop, contributes to itself. It is selected for on its own merit, which is increased by other members of the loop: the loop advantages all its members. The loop becomes its own tiny system and emerges as a thing, its own evolutionary power. If another organism can serve the purpose of the zooplankton better, the loop will adopt that one and the zooplankton will miss out, maybe die out.

Certain dogs undergo strong selection pressures from the auto-catalytic loop with dog owners: the better they are at making humans happy (looking cute, convenient size) the more humans take care of them. (That’s all me, the book doesn’t make such stretches)

Everything interesting is a circle. It happens with our ideas too: religion supports unity which supports group advancement which strengthens need for inclusion in that group which strengthens religion. Beliefs turn into communities which reinforce the beliefs.

Or in programming, more frequent deploys lead to safer deploys which leads to more frequent deploys. You can join the TDD virtuous cycle, where you build clearer mental models of the code, which are preserved by automated testing, which leads to better design and more TDD. Or the strongly-typed-functional-programming virtuous cycle: using strong (mathematical) abstraction leads to a solid mental model, which feels good, which leads to further abstraction (which leads you to a place where people outside this cycle can’t understand the code, but you do), and the code is very predictable, which leads you to propound FP and learn more of it.

Concept: propensities

Auto-catalytic loops introduce a new form of causality. Why are things as they are? Because there’s some internally-consistent loop that keeps them that way. (The random historical events that led to the setup of that loop are less useful to understand.) Why are women not in computer programming? Because they don’t think of themselves as the type, because they don’t see other women doing it. Which leads to men don’t think of women as programmers, which leads them to assume women they meet aren’t competent programmers, which drives women out of programming, which means younger women don’t see themselves in programmers and don’t go into it. Or aren’t seen as potential architects, and people push the strongest ones in to management instead. It all perpetuates itself.

But that’s not causal, right? No one literally pushed a woman into management. They might have encouraged her, but she chose to make the switch. She has free will.

Causality as we are used to thinking of it, as forcing, as push, is a weak concept. It doesn’t explain human action. It doesn’t explain biology, it doesn’t explain squat about the systems we live in. Newton’s Laws are satisfying in their determinism, but they’re only an approximation, an edge case.

The bacteria doesn’t have to live on the water-plant. But it finds it useful, and then even its individual demise supports the species by enhancing the auto-catalytic loop. No one forces it to live on the leaf, and it doesn’t always, but more and more often, it does.

Human action is the sum of many influences, many of them random. Including our consciously formed intentions. Including how happy our dog made us this morning. Including the perceived expectations of others, the social pressure we feel from our communities. Including the incentives set up at work. Including what smells good right this moment.

All of these influences on us are not forces in the “push” sense. Yet they matter. They change our propensities, the likelihood of doing one thing or another. And propensities matter. Because we do have free will: the ability to consciously influence our own decisions. (Okay, now I’m totally into the content and message of Dynamics in Action, which is the book whose references led me to Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective). We don’t have control over our decisions, though; our environment and every higher-level system (auto-catalytic loop or community) we are part of also affects what we do. We are not self-sufficient; humans aren’t human without other humans, without our relationships and institutions and cultures, nor without changing our personal environment.

It helps to recognize that push-forces, deterministic forces that compel 100%, are a rare edge case. Useful in analyzing collisions of solid objects. Statistical mechanics, useful in analyzing aggregate behavior of many-many unintelligent particles, is another edge case. The messy middle, where everything interesting happens, works in propensities: a generalization of “force” which changes probabilities without setting them to 1. (Now I’m totally into Popper’s A World of Propensities, which I reached from the references in Ecology: the Ascendent Perspective, and which is now my favorite paper.)

Auto-catalytic loops are more powerful forces of evolution than individual selection. They’re hard for us to see because they work in propensities, not forces. And indirectly, by changing the propensities of other organisms in the loop.

Science as I learned it in school (especially in my Physics major) doesn’t explain real life. No universal, deterministic law can. “There appears to be no irrefutable claims by any discipline to encompass ecological phenomena,” much less human workings! If science insists that “all causes are material and mechanical in origin,” that we can explain politics based on particles if we just push hard enough, science is not believable. It leaves us to supplement it with religion, because it does not explain the world we experience.

If we widen our thinking from forces to propensities, and from individual selection to auto-catalytic loops, we get closer. And there’s math behind this now. This book doesn’t include all of Ulanowicz’s math behind the concept of ascendency, but he references papers that do. There is math behind propensities, rigorous thinking. Scientific thinking, in the broader sense of science, of models that we can test against the real world. We have to move “test” beyond the edge case of controlled, isolated experiments. We have to appreciate knowledge that is not universal, because each auto-catalytic loop creates its own rules. What is beneficial in TDD is different from what is well-fitted in strongly-typed FP. Programming really is a harder field for women; it has nothing to do with the women as individuals and everything to do with the self-reinforcing loops in the culture. Reality is richer than deterministic laws.

Oops, I forgot to explain ascendency. Instead, this book (and its friends) inspired a whole personal philosophy. Win?