Natural selection
Ethology Notes
Situated Cognition of the Biological Kind
Notes on the natural limits to genetic determinism
(revised July 2, 1997)

The wonder we experience with the discovery of micro-scale order in living things is due to the way in which organic design comes about: not by sculpting an amorphous block into shape, but by building molecule by molecule, atom by atom. How do we do it? The theoretical physicist David Bohm, who worked with plasma physics before he turned his mind to the quantum theory, once remarked that matter contains most of the information required to make life--it just needs a little bit of additional information. That information, chemically stored in long molecules known as genes, specifies the operations of the chemical nanomachinery.

The genes do not need to contain a blue-print of the finished organism; most of the information, as Bohm pointed out, is already in matter, or in its particular configuration in the environment. In a further extension of Vygotsky's (1962) notion of cognitive scaffolding (see Clark 1997), the active information of the genes can and do rely heavily on the complex structure of their natural environment. Biology is a prime example of embodied cognition, and the fact that natural selection could only have favored the cheapest and most parsimonious solutions to the problems of constructing organisms means we automatically escape genetic determinism. It was simply too costly.

Instead, life hobbles along, with moderately risk-buffered systems, opportunistic, fallible--at times, triumphant. In an analogue of reducing the cognitive load by epistemic action (Kirsch & Maglio 1994), think of the debris with which the fragile sea anemone disfigures itself to recreate, behind its debilitating crust, the conditions under which its chemical technology can still operate, placing atom next to atom. Freedom is sheltered by constraints.

Our variable fortunes are not simply the result of a collossal brain, or a skewed society; they represent the likely outcome of information systems built by natural selection.

(Related note: Thomas Bouchard's twin studies seem to indicate that even monozygotic twins reared together are only between 41% and 65% similar in the personality traits measured (e.g. stress reaction, aggression, traditionalism.  See "Personality Similarity in Twins Reared Apart and
Together," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 54, no.6.)


Natural selection
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© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles