Interdisciplinarity, metabiology and creativity

A paper by Virginia Chaitin was recently brought to my attention. She is currently a Post-Doc at the Univeridade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, with research interests that include, among others, the history and philosophy of science, epistemology, and interdisciplinarity. The paper I just read, Metabiology, Interdisciplinarity and the Human Self-Image, focuses on the kind of interdisciplinarity that characterizes the development of metabiology in particular, and the impact that this new conceptual hybrid has on the broader questions of what is life, or what makes us human.

I’ve written a few times on Gregory Chaitin’s metabiology, with an eye toward its implications for mathematics as well as for evolution. His new take on evolution supports the arguments that I make here, on Mathematics Rising, about the nature of mathematics, and mathematics’ potential. The views I regularly express are grounded in my optimism that mathematics can play a significant role in breaking some of our habits of thought, on a large scale – an interdisciplinary scale. Virginia’s paper is this kind of argument, but she is making it more precisely:

…an epistemically fertile interdisciplinary area of study is one in which the original frameworks, research methods and epistemic goals of individual disciplines are combined and recreated yielding novel and unexpected prospects for knowledge and understanding. This is where interdisciplinary research really proves its worth.

What she proposes is not the kind of interdisciplinary work that we’re accustomed to, where the results of different research efforts are shared or where studies are designed with more than one kind of question in mind. The kind of interdisciplinary work that Chaitin is describing, involves adopting a new conceptual framework, borrowing the very way that understanding is defined within a particular discipline, as well as the way it is explored and the way it is expressed. The results, as she says, are the “migrations of entire conceptual neighborhoods that create a new vocabulary.”

Certainly the proliferation of scientific ideas about our world, our lives, our history and the history of our universe has happened, in no small way, by figuring out the right question to ask or, more to the point, by determining the kind of question to which an answer can be found. Once asked, the answers begin to build the scaffolding to which our understanding is attached.  This conceptual structure inevitably, impacts future questions as well as our beliefs about what the answers imply. The concepts and methods of physics and astronomy, for example, have molded, in many ways, how we see the material of our world. Biology and evolution have had a strong influence on how we view life. Virginia’s paper is making a point about the fertility of interdisciplinarity in research as well as the effect it can have on these more general perspectives.

The precision of the paper rests in its analysis of the effects of metabiology. This new field of study, Chaitin argues,

…is a paradigm-shifting interdisciplinary research area that successfully combines methods, techniques and ideas from the following fields: algorithmic information theory, computability theory, metamathematics and evolutionary biology.

Integrating the elements of these disciplines in metabiology rests on a fundamental analogy between DNA and software, where DNA is the universal programming language.

We emphasize that metabiological evolution is not about adaptation or passing one’s genes to the next generation but about coming up with new genes that contain new algorithmic information content.

Creativity, rather than adaptation and survival, is proposed as a criterion for evolution. Metabiology, then, is not concerned with explaining the response of biological systems to selective pressure. Instead, by virtue of its conceptual structure, it proposes to explain biological creativity. The mathematics involved is new, and relies on the Turing oracle to prevent this algorithmic evolutionary process from getting stuck. It is a non-reductionist mathematics that can express an unending, unbounded evolutionary process. I wrote about another recent exploration of the Turing oracle late last year.

In metabiology, DNA becomes software, genes become subroutines, energy becomes information. But these are not instructive analogies, they are working analogies that produce a new perspective. They produce, as Chaitin says, “a metabiological conception of life as an intrinsically creative process.” This challenges the Darwinian view that survival governs evolution.

In the metabiological evolutionary process there is no clear analogy for reproduction; instead the life-form represented by the mutating algorithmic organism is constantly searching for and incorporating new information.

The value of this alternative is likely debated. I would argue that the mere presence of an alternative is valuable. But Chaitin sites an instance where algorithmic mutations contributed an insight to the new field of theoretical biology. And this is the hope for this kind of change of perspective – that it bring new science.

While it may be obvious, it’s important to note, that it is mathematics that has illuminated this possibility, and the equivalence suggested between biological creativity and mathematical creativity can say quite a lot more about mathematics.  As Chaitin argues, taken altogether, these ideas allow for a metabiological kind of life for the human body.

This gives rise to a brand-new and more generous conceptual framework for the human being, which now evolves around the idea of a life-form motivated by a non-mechanical, lawless, subjective creativity instead of a life-form driven by a predetermined “winner or loser” survival dichotomy.

Again, the thoughtful (creativity as we usually understand it) and the physical (biology as we usually understand it) are united in a novel way.

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