Re: Wilkins on combinatorial novelty

From: John S. Wilkins (
Date: Fri 08 Apr 2005 - 03:38:44 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: Wilkins on combinatorial novelty"

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    Scott Chase wrote:

    >While attempting to read the book _Darwinism and
    >Evolutionary Economics_ (2001. Edward Elgar Publishing
    >Limited. Northampton, Massachusetts) I started reading
    >the contribution by a guy named John Wilkins. I was
    >slumbering after being lulled into a stupor by
    >continuing reference to abstract economic terms in
    >previous authors' contributions, with some momnents of
    >brief excitement when Lamarckism and Steele's
    >immunological theories came up. The author previous to
    >Wilkins cites Milton Friedman and I perked up and
    >said, hey that's a name I finally recognize. Anyway,
    >Wilkins's essay is a breath of fresh air since there
    >don't seem to be any airy economic terms and he
    >usually knows what he's talking about (sigh of
    >relief). This might be tangential to John's essay, but
    >I couldn't help noticing his discussion of novelty
    >generation and delineation between combinatorial and
    >deep novelty citing someone named Margaret Boden. For
    >combinatorial novelty John says: "Only the
    >combinations are different- the 'building blocks' are
    >potentially available at all times." He uses the
    >analogy of always being dealt to from the same deck of
    >cards. For deep novelty John says: "At its base, all
    >evolution ultimately depends upon deep novelty, but
    >mostly evolution proceeds through recombination of
    >existing alternatives in different contexts." and
    >"[d]eep novelty is rare." Based on the analogy to the
    >cards he uses for deep novelty, I'm assuming this is
    >kinda like genetic mutation. He can clarify I hope.
    >Anyway, this makes me think of Jung's essay on
    >cryptomnesia and what he says about material or
    >elements remaining the same and only the combinations
    >being responsible for generation of novelty. In
    >"Cryptomnesia" (CW1, Psychiatric Studies, para 178)
    >Jung said: "I said earlier that only the combinations
    >are new, not the material, which hardly alters at all,
    >or only very slowly and almost imperceptibly." This
    >slow and imperceptible alteration sounds like the deep
    >novelty John talks about. It's amazing how Carl
    >Gustav's comments dovetail with John's. I'm sure he's
    >more than thrilled that I'm using my memory to
    >recombine him with Jung :-) But in some ways the guy
    >was before his time, though we all know he had his
    >quirks (Jung not John).
    >Nothing new here. Just rehashing old stuff. Carry
    Good God, somebody actually **read** that essay...

    Yes, I was immensely impressed by Boden's book on combiantorial novelty, coming as it did so soon after my reading Darwin quote Henri Milne-Edwards evolution is profligate in variety but poor in innovation, 6th chapter:

        <bq>Finally then, although in many cases it is most difficult even
        to conjecture by what transitions organs have arrived at their
        present state; yet, considering how small the proportion of living
        and known forms is to the extinct and unknown, I have been
        astonished how rarely an organ can be named, towards which no
        transitional grade is known to lead. It certainly is true, that new
        organs appearing as if created for some special purpose, rarely or
        never appear in any being;--as indeed is shown by that old, but
        somewhat exaggerated, canon in natural history of "Natura non facit
        saltum." We meet with this admission in the writings of almost every
        experienced naturalist; or as Milne Edwards has well expressed it,
        "Nature is prodigal in variety, but niggard in innovation."<eq> [p156]

    He quotes him again almost identically in the 15th chapter

        <bq>As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight,
        successive, favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden
        modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps. Hence, the
        canon of "Natura non facit saltum," which every fresh addition to
        our knowledge tends to confirm, is on this theory intelligible. We
        can see why throughout nature the same general end is gained by an
        almost infinite diversity of means, for every peculiarity when once
        acquired is long inherited, and structures already modified in many
        different ways have to be adapted for the same general purpose. *We
        can, in short, see why nature is prodigal in variety, though niggard
        in innovation.<eq>

    Chapter 15, p414f, both 6th edition.

    The standard account of novelty in culture is that given by Arthur Koestler in his /Act of Creation/. In this he supposes that genius has some special epistemic power, some "noetic ray" as Putnam once referred to it, that allows it to solve problems just by looking at them and considering them. Hence as a need arises in cultural evolution, the solution will be found. But this is, when translated into biological analogues, a Lamarckian account, which we know Koestler was fond of from
    /Midwife Toad/. In fact there is no special difference in human cognition to biological evolution, apart from differences of transmission, and the capacity of the brain to store variation (much less than genetic variation).

    It seemed to me then, as it does now, that human creativity is a population level thing - a certain few will be lucky and clever enough to trick on solutions, and of those a few will be persistently copied. And moreover, there should be no difference in rate of discovery from the Pleistocene to today. As Wallace rightly noted, humans are equally intelligent irrespective of their culture. So assume that most "novelty" is recombination, and you get a very neat account of cultural complexity due to simple retention of successful ideas (in whatever way). The rapidity of modern cultural evolution has more to do with the rates of transmission and distance of transmission, and the size of the effective population, than it does with any qualitative differences. Writing, telegraphy, radio and computers make transmission much easier and faster, but the same number per head of population are creative in the deep sense.

    This is indeed analogous to mutation - rates of mutation are relatively constant under the same conditions. But a larger population with a near-panmictic gene flow will spread to equilibrium or fixation actual novelties more rapidly than a small one, because there are more mutants available. On the other hand, a smaller population will, by sheer drift, be able to put together more diverse **combinations** of otherwise rare but extant alleles.

    I am always worried when I get compared to European romantic philosophers, though, so go easy on the Jung thing... right now I'm being compared by a friend to Goethe, which is a danger sign.

    Koestler, Arthur. 1964. /The act of creation/. London: Hutchinson.

    John S. Wilkins
    Postdoctoral Research Fellow
    Biohumanities Project
    School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
    The University of Queensland
    Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia
    Tel +61 7 3365 6348
    Mobile 0418 543 856
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