Sunday, December 3, 2017

What do ravens do?

"As behavioral ecologists, we try to reveal rules of behavior as though we were discovering truths.  In reality, the word 'rule' as applied to animal behavior is a verbal shortcut.  A 'rule' means nothing more than  a consistency of response.  It is not adherence to dictum.  Animals adhere no more to rules than we do by showing up at the beach when its 110 degrees but not when it's 30 degrees.  Rules are the sum of decisions made by individuals that are then exhibited by crowds, not vice versa.  Rules are thus a result.  They are the average behavior that we and many animals are programmed with, learn, or make up as we go along."

This is a cogent quote from Bernd Heinrich's book Mind of the Raven (1999, Ecco books), which I was given as a birthday gift.  The idea was that I would like to read about the various capabilities of ravens, relative to our informal and even formal ideas about what 'mind' or 'consciousness' mean and how we might know, and whether these interesting birds might have it, whatever it is.

However, the quote I've given is more than just the author's views on what ravens' internal experiences might be.  It applies to much that we have to deal with in science--at least, in biological and behavioral sciences themselves.  I've used it because I think the observation also applies to something I've been writing about in recent posts--related to what may seem to be a very different topic, whether life is parametric or not.

The physical world seems to be parametric, that is, driven ultimately by some universally true processes, like gravity, that are in turn reflections of underlying, universal, fixed parameters, or numerical values.  Of course, 'numerical values' refers to human-derived mathematics and science, and might, from some wholly different point of view, be differently perceived or characterized.

But to us, phenomena like the speed of light, c, and various quantum phenomena etc., have fixed, universal values.  The value is the same everywhere, even if its manifestation may be modified by local circumstances.  For example, c is specified as in a vacuum.  Whether or not there exists any true total vacuum, the idea--and the belief in its universality--are clear and important bedrock aspects of physics, chemistry, and cosmology.  In some other substance, rather than a vacuum, the speed of light is altered in an orderly way.

But what about life?
We can ask whether, while life is a physical and molecular phenomenon, it is part and parcel of the same parametric cosmos, or if it has exceptions at the level at which we want answers to our basic questions.  That would be analogous to physics adhering to a dictum, in the raven quote.  But maybe life is not analogous to a vacuum.  This, at least, is what I mean by asking whether life is a parametric phenomenon, and expression doubts that it could be so.

An a priori reason, in my mind, is that life is a molecular process of regular molecular activity (genes, proteins, and so on), but it evolves because the specifics are different--they vary.  Without that, there would be no evolution, and organismal complexity, and the underlying genetic and proteinic complexity by which life, and its interacting ecosystems have come about, would not be here.  In that sense, I think it is appropriate to suggest that life is not a parametric phenomenon.

This, to me, is not the same as saying that life is a kind of self-organized complexity. It certainly is that, but the phrase misses what I think is the underlying fact, which is that life is not parametric.  Complexities like the mandelbrot set (figure below) are parametric: they repeat the same phenomenon in an evermore complex but always rigorously.  This is a form of 'complexity' but it is very rigorously regular.  Life is, if anything, rigorously irregular, among individuals, populations, species, and the structures within each of those.

Mandelbrot set.  From Wikipedia entry
Many people have written about life's complexity with analogies to things like the Mandelbrot set and many others of the sort.  But while that sounds as if it acknowledges the complexity of life, it really is an implicit hunger for just the opposite: for regularity, tractability, and 'parametricity'.   I think that is at best an ad hoc approximation but theoretically fundamentally wrong.

The consequences are obvious: we can describe existing data by various statistical and even mathematical data-fitting procedures.  But we cannot make predictions or projections with known 'precision' and indeed that is why I think that rhetoric like 'precision genomic medicine' is strictly an advertising slogan, scientifically misleading (and culpably so), and misunderstood by most people even those who use it, and perhaps even by the NIH that proffer it as a funding or marketing ploy for its budgets.  It is a false promise, as stated (saying instead that we want funds for research to make medicine more precise by including genomic information would be honest and appropriate).

Heinrich's description of ravens' behavior seemed an apt way to make my point, as I see things at any rate, clear by an easily digested analogy.  Some ravens did what they were seen to do, but that was the net result of what some observed ravens did on some occasions, not what 'ravens do' in the parametric sense.  The ravens are not all following a rule and even the 'consistency' of their responses is not like that (different ravens do different things, as Heinrich's book makes clear).

We want rules that explain 'truth' in genetics and evolution.  We ought to be able to see that that may be a misleading way to view the nature of the living world.  And, seeing that, to change what we promise to the public and, as important as what we promise to them, to change how we think.

Or, as quoth the raven: nevermore!