Quickie Post — Say Hello to Conway’s Law and Your Micro-Biome


Braden’s first self-caught salmon, Chinook, WA, 2015, with a little help from Les Okonek

One of the most interesting examples of how social/relational structure is empathetic (or non-empathetic) destiny is the Linnaean taxonomy, which rates and ranks biological organisms in a hierarchy, starting at the phylum level and ends up down at the individual species.  Linnaean taxonomy was invented by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist.  If there ever was a relevant example of Conway’s Law in action.  A legalistic classification mapping to a legalistic social structure.  Who woulda thunk?

Linnaeus preceded Darwin temporally by about 100 years.  Linnaeus was mostly active mid 18th century, publishing the Philosophia Botanica in 1751, that significantly raised the bar for taxonomy of species.  He followed that in 1753 with the Species Plantarum, that attempted to name every plant known at the time.  The hierarchical system established with it is still in place.

Darwin, with the idea of temporal descendants, was to come 100 years later.  Coming out of a similar social structure, one can see a natural evolution in thought occurring with the introduction of his theory of natural selection.  Natural selection says the primary genetic transfer mechanism is through inheritance, with modifications in the genome coming through small mutations, selected out by the environment, over time.  If you look at either Linnaean taxonomy, or Darwin’s heritability, not surprisingly, you see trees — fractalized trees, with behaviors replicating up and down different time scales, mapping to changing spatial scales on the animals itself.  As scientific hierarchies grew, so did their observations, going smaller and smaller in differentiation.

If you need a social explanation, that’s why we needed another 140 or so years to get to something far closer to the truth — that arranging taxa and evolution in terms of trees is a mirroring of our scientific organizational social structures.  It’s definitely not the truth, or even close to the end game.  In this piece from the New York Times,written by Michael Pollan, titled Some of My Best Friends are Germswe get at an image of ourselves that is much closer to the truth.  We’re a micro-biome — bags of bacteria, and what we are human-wise is around 10% of the total, at least gene-wise.

I’m not smart enough to do this, but it would be great if a complexity theorist type decided to look at redundancy and error-coding in the genetic code.  My guess is that incorporating bacteria into our very existence is likely a chemical hack that lets us have far more information encoded in genes that we could if it were all up to our own mitochondria.  Our own system complexity was pushing our own error correcting modes.  The way our bodies found around the complexity limits was to generate chemical empathy with a host of other organisms.  We’d trust them enough to swap a little DNA now and then, but mostly we let them do their thing.

There’s a couple of takeaways from all of this.  One is that once you’re locked into a given knowledge structure system or coding algorithm, you’re going to run into information complexity and error rate limits.  Diversity is going to help with this, if robustness is a goal.  Much less easy to corrupt a weakly coupled system of symbiotic anythings.

The second is that the next time you go to the museum, it’s OK to look at all those tree-like knowledge structures just a little askance.  They came out of the way scientists organized their social communities, which were just a scaled up version of the way scientists organize their brains, for the most part.  It’s not that those knowledge structures can’t be illuminating, or shed insight.  They most certainly can.  But they skip over the synergies and potentials for interaction, because, well, the scientists also do that kind of relational skipping themselves. They have to be almost rubbing shoulders, or bacteria, before the fact that everything is connected hits them between the eyes.


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