Friday, February 03, 2006


A not-so-cranky anonymous poster at Chris's blog has pointed to the work of Liana Gabora, who teaches in the Psychology and Computer Science department at the University of British Columbia, and is also an adjunct professor with the Leo Apostel Center at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Gabora gives the following account of her work:

My work focuses on the origins and underlying mechanisms of creativity, and implications for the evolution of culture. At the crux of the issue of how creative thought is possible, and of how ideas adapt to new situations, build on one another, and evolve, lies the problem of understanding the flexible way we use concepts. Thus my interests in creativity and cultural evolution have led to work on the development of a contextual theory of concepts. Finally, the process of comparing and contrasting the evolution of biological and cultural form has led to some fledgling efforts toward a general theory of evolution.

Gabora's ideas on worldview and cultural evolution strike me as sophisticated and reasonable. Although I cannot sign on to the view that evolution offers the best paradigm for explaining historical transformations in culture, Gabora's take on Evolutionary Psychology is imaginative and careful enough to merit the attention of all but the most diehard critics of that school of thought. At any rate, Gabora's work touches on some of the ideas I've been kicking around lately, so I'd like to take notice of a few of her papers.

In Ideas are Not Replicators but Minds Are, Gabora takes on the idea of memes. At issue is how to analogize from our knowledge of biological evolutionary processes to our view of the development of concepts. The possibility that we may be dealing here with three incommensurate views of evolution is not lost on Gabara, I think, so it is only fair to entertain the counterargument that these may yet be unified under a single paradigm. Here is the abstract:

An idea is not a replicator because it does not consist of coded self-assembly instructions. It may retain structure as it passes from one individual to another, but does not replicate it. The cultural replicator is not an idea but an associatively-structured network of them that together form an internal model of the world, or worldview. A worldview is a primitive, uncoded replicator, like the autocatalytic sets of polymers widely believed to be the earliest form of life. Primitive replicators generate self-similar structure, but because the process happens in a piecemeal manner, through bottom-up interactions rather than a top-down code, they replicate with low fidelity, and acquired characteristics are inherited. Just as polymers catalyze reactions that generate other polymers, the retrieval of an item from memory can in turn trigger other items, thus cross-linking memories, ideas, and concepts into an integrated conceptual structure. Worldviews evolve idea by idea, largely through social exchange. An idea participates in the evolution of culture by revealing certain aspects of the worldview that generated it, thereby affecting the worldviews of those exposed to it. If an idea influences seemingly unrelated fields this does not mean that separate cultural lineages are contaminating one another, because it is worldviews, not ideas, that are the basic unit of cultural evolution.

Gabora takes up the question of abiogenesis in Self-Other Organization: Why Early Life did not Evolve through Natural Selection. Again, I am not convinced that the two views of evolution under consideration belong together under the rubric "evolutionary theory," but Gabora does note the important distinctions. and there may be something to her idea of "lineage transformation through context-driven actualization of potential." The abstract:

The improbability of a spontaneously generated self-assembling molecule has suggested that life began with a set of simpler, collectively replicating elements, such as an enclosed autocatalytic set of polymers (or protocell). Since replication occurs without a self-assembly code, acquired characteristics are inherited. Moreover, there is no strict distinction between alive and dead; one can only infer that a protocell was alive if it replicates. These features of early life render natural selection inapplicable to the description of its change-of-state because they defy its underlying assumptions. Moreover, natural selection describes only randomly generated novelty; it cannot describe the emergence of form at the interface between organism and environment. Self-organization is also inadequate because it is restricted to interactions amongst parts; it too cannot account for context-driven change. A modified version of selection theory or self-organization would not work because the description of change-of-state through interaction with an incompletely specified context has a completely different mathematical structure, i.e. entails a non-Kolmogorovian probability model. It is proposed that the evolution of early life is appropriately described as lineage transformation through context-driven actualization of potential (CAP), with self-organized change-of-state being a special case of no contextual influence, and competitive exclusion of less fit individuals through a selection-like process possibly (but not necessarily) playing a secondary role. It is argued that natural selection played an important role in evolution only after genetically mediated replication was established.

Gabora's Amplifying Phenomenal Information: Toward a Fundamental Theory of Consciousness resonates with some of Mariela Szirko's ideas, and also, I think, the idea of affordances which I've been meaning to revisit with reference to Jordan Zlatev's work. Anyhow, here is the abstract to Amplifying Phenomenal Information:

Fundamental approaches bypass the problem of getting consciousness from non-conscious components by positing that consciousness is a universal primitive. For example, the double aspect theory of information holds that information has a phenomenal aspect. How then do you get from phenomenal information to human consciousness? This paper proposes that an entity is conscious to the extent it amplifies information, first by trapping and integrating it through closure, and second by maintaining dynamics at the edge of chaos through simultaneous processes of divergence and convergence. The origin of life through autocatalytic closure, and the origin of an interconnected worldview through conceptual closure, induced phase transitions in the degree to which information, and thus consciousness, is locally amplified. Divergence and convergence of cognitive information may involve phenomena observed in light e.g. focusing, interference, and resonance. By making information flow inward-biased, closure shields us from external consciousness; thus the paucity of consciousness may be an illusion.

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:10 PM.


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