Contrasting a Model of Hierarchical Complexity with Evolution vs. Sophistication and Empathy

Braden glowing rock

Egypt I, Grand Staircase/Escalante NM, Utah, May 2018 — Braden taking a look

I was recently prompted to read by my friend, Hanzi Freinacht, about the theory called a Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC), developed by Michael Commons , in the ’80s, and expounded on and patented for use in Artificial Intelligence (AI).  It’s billed as an information-theoretic (meaning things end up in bits and bytes) methodology for measuring complexity of thoughts and actions.  As such, it ends up being divorced from culture, social structure, and human behavior, which makes it appealing as an uber-algorithmic be-all, end-all way of describing how humans act.  Efforts have been made (relatively successfully, I might add!) to map these to various developmental stage theorists, such as Jean Piaget.  That’s all well and good.

The way that all scoring schemes have to work, though, is through what I call an integral, or perhaps integrative approach, and I don’t mean in either the typical socio-psychological senses.  I mean it in the math sense, and what THAT means is that, if you remember your first-year calculus, the definition of a definite integral is that you take some function (a drawn-out wiggly line) and over some range, collapse it down to a number.  For those that are now indulging in an age-induced headache, that’s the whole “area under a curve” thing.

definite integral

You might remember counting the little squares or something.  The bottom line is that you take a complex sequence of information, and come up with a measure/scalar value for A.  From:

Needless to say, Commons’ scheme is FAR more complex than that, with lots of bits in different locations that represent different types of things — namely that complexity builds on complexity, and in order to hop up different levels — very meta-meta-linear!, you first have to demonstrate mastery of a lower level.  For example, you have to know how to add and subtract real numbers before you can figure out how to add and subtract real variables.  For those that this stuff is some kind of mental Adderall, I highly recommend surfing through the Wikipedia table on MHC (the link is the reference given on Wikipedia.  Not surprisingly, it’s algorithmic, and as such, poses as objective.  And it pops right out of the scientists’ social structure.  Agency appears explicitly not at all.

As such, people are using this for calibrating AI (that’s what the patent’s all about) and that’s all fine as well.  But when you collapse the generative dynamics out of the picture, you lose intent, empathetic development, and most importantly, individual agency.

I’ve done a lot of pondering on the complexity of knowledge myself.  For example, you may have highly empathetically evolved, reflective societies or cultures, like some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, that in the end do a pretty miserable job of providing for the lower-level v-Meme needs of their core constituencies.  Zen monks may do an excellent job of understanding deeper mysteries, of the universe, but they might not do so hot on growing tomatoes.  For me, a better view of complexity gets laid out on a 2-D plot, shown below;

Evolution vs Sophistication

Evolution vs. Sophistication

Where something like MHC would come in is distilling a location in this 2-D space, (for you math people, might be more like a vector) into a single (scalar) value  (kind of like a meta-vector magnitude. )  All my math friends can fuss at me in the comments.

Of course, MHC collapsing that down to a value — that’s its purpose, after all.  So a society could value everyone’s opinion very highly, yet be far less complex than a low-empathy one that used sophisticated authorities and algorithms.  Chinese society is a great example of this — they got stuck with narcissistic authoritarianism about 2500 years ago — and made a very sophisticated society indeed.  But because of their lack of empathetic evolution (look up a deconstruction of the 36 Stratagems here — it’s also on Wikipedia) increasing sophistication led to diminishing returns, and they were easily captured by higher v-Meme, yet psychopathic foreign powers. Those powers took advantage of chemical substances that addressed the pathologies of the depression/low performance that the Authoritarian v-Meme counts on to establish control.  I’m referring to smoking opium, of course. At the same time, that fundamental culture, when mixed in with a little bit of Performance/Goal-Oriented v-Meme evolution stuff (Deng Xiaoping’s ‘black cat, white cat, doesn’t matter as long as it catches mice’) will, in the span of only about 40 years, made 76% of Chinese members of the middle class.

And, of course, we have our own issues in contemporary society with neurobiological hacks (sugar anyone?) that may yet bring us down.  Do the big comparison — in the US, now, only 50% fall under that measure of being in the middle class. More empathy and evolved individuality? Maybe.  More prosperity?  We’re on the backside.

Regarding evolution/sophistication — what would that mean as far as MHC?  MHC might record increasing complexity with an increase in bits, but what do bits in various places actually mean?  It’s a good question, and I’d argue that you could look at a very complex society with a lot of sophistication, and a lot more bits, yet still not understand why it might not be doing well, because the dynamic of creation of those bits would be poorly understood.

The nice thing about empathy and Conway’s Law is we have some deeper insight into the larger ‘Why’ of information creation, and can more positively construct social systems that give us the goods.

When it comes to AI, there’s also nothing wrong with coming up with an MHC score for predicting the potential development time for a particular AI algorithm.  But MHC still leverages the reinforcement/supervised/unsupervised learning paradigm that dominates thinking in AI.  Contrast that to the insight that knowledge structures give.  Algorithms of increasing complexity?  We’ve got that (well, sorta.)  Making the jump to developing strategies that capture individual experiences and the outcomes of independent agency, as well as complex heuristics?  Eh, not so much.  When I can call Apple Help and get the natural language processor to understand how I say the serial number off my Airport router, then I’ll start becoming more interested.

BTW, a tip of the hat to my friend, Hanzi Freinacht, high up in the Swiss Alps, writing books like The Listening Society, that got me started thinking about this.  Hanzi, there must be something in that goat’s milk you drink that makes you so smart in such an isolated environment.  😉

PS:  Thought some folks would find it funny that I’ve been calling a ‘definite integral’ a ‘direct integral‘ for some time now.  Please don’t send me back to Calc I!  Or make me plow through that Wikipedia post!



Quickie Post — The Silk Road

Cordoba ArchInside the Mezquita, the Mosque-converted-to-Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain, 2008

Every now and then, I see a video that is both beautiful, and reminds me that the brain/mind is capable of such a broad expanse of interpretation, that my mind reels.  The video below is one of those pieces of media.  See:

One of the points I’ve made on this blog is that the mind is capable of many interpretations, and that is this video’s strong point.  The idea of one reality, though one may exist and may be validated, is still illusory to most of our fellow travelers on this Blue Planet.  You, as a Western resident of a likely democratic, rational (or at least modestly so) republic, can project your beliefs and desires on the many beautiful people featured in this video.

But you would be mistaken, at least 50% of the time, on what they’re actually thinking.  There will be commonalities — but there will also be magical differences that are creations that only they have access to.  One of the interesting things, pertinent only in this small context, about the countries along this route is that they are the only countries in the world that actually do not read this blog.  None.  I’m up to around 30K hits, from literally everywhere on this planet, except the countries along this route.

But you can still enjoy, with fascination, the wonderful diversity of thought in this crazy world.  Namaste…  it’s still one of my life goals to do this trip.

Postscript:  For those that enjoy that kind of thing, my Taiwanese wife insists that I was once a trader on the Silk Road, and she was a small bird flying along beside me.  My current dog, Mac, was my camel.  And my deceased dachshund — well, she was my prostitute.  Who knows?  The various loyalties fall in line more than would make anyone comfortable.  🙂

And maybe, more than anything else, I find it useful to consider the fact that everything I write may be wrong.



There are No Such Things as ‘Generations’ — or are there?

In the rigging

Up on the mainsail yard, unfurling the mainsail without a harness, standing in my bare feet on the wires.  Because you can’t fall off if ya don’t let go…  Whitsunday Islands, 2006

I have to confess to some level of frustration about the whole ‘generations’ thing.  We live in a stew of these terms — Boomers, Greatest, Millennials, and so on.  They’re so NOT true as an individual discriminator, nor particularly valid.  But at the same time, they do prepare you for understanding larger changes in how larger societies evolve, and can give perspective on expectations in language and behavior.  A recent Slate article by David Costanza that came across my desk sums up the exasperated part of my perspective:

Generations and generational differences are intriguing and inherently appealing concepts. As such, the media will keep on reporting on them, academics will publish, pundits will talk, and consultants will sell to whoever is buying. But the science says that, despite their popularity, generations simply aren’t a thing. And until we recognize this, we will continue to waste time and resources while failing to understand how people really are, and are not, different.

I highly recommend you read the piece if it’s an area of interest.  I work with young people all the time, and the performance I see from them is so striking, especially from the normative expectation.  I’ve been doing it now for 30 years (this is my 30th year at WSU) and if I notice any difference in how I run my Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), it’s all in how I approach their personal development.  That’s the one thing I actually have some ability to affect.  And I do it through modification of the social structure that they’re used to in the classroom.  I’ll help you decode the ‘why’ of this below.

Naturally, the tools they have at their disposal have changed, and I’ve integrated those capabilities into the IDC.  But the students are still at the same place developmentally as all students I’ve had, with a different set of cultural sidebars than 30 years ago, and with every individual student laboring against their own traumas and internal fights.  They are certainly no more or less lazy.  They ARE egocentric, because that’s where their development has placed them internally, but no more or less than any group of students I’ve taught down through the years.  I find that I am less able to instantaneously emotionally connect with them, of course — they’re 21-24, and I’m now 55.  But I can pretty much guess what they’re going to do almost all of the time.  That’s what happens when you focus on evolving conscious empathy, and you happen to be me!

But for the record, let’s back up and understand young people in the late teens and early 20s.  In our Grand Theory of Everything, we sorted out that people’s behavior and thought profile consisted of the following equation:

Structure + Culture + Personal Development + Trauma Acceleration/Deceleration = Behavior

That’s a simplification of the larger equation (which, while I put in linear form, for the regular humans, of course contains nonlinear interactions for my mathematician friends out there) below.

Culture + Social Structure/Externally Promoted Empathetic Development + Individual Experience (Trauma Included) + Independently Generated Empathetic Development (level of mindfulness) + Epigenetic Influences + Genetic Disposition = Individual Behavior

Let’s scratch the Trauma stuff for the moment, and stick to the simpler version for understanding young people — especially those in the category of newly employable.  Here’s the larger developmental roadmap ( the Personal Development piece) that humans follow in our society.


My age categories that map to the progressive, nested v-Memes are as follows:

Survival — 0-4 years

Tribal/Magical — 3-8 years

Authority-Based — 5-16 years

Legalistic/Absolutistic — 9-20 years

—————————-  Trust Boundary (above relationships are most externally defined, below, independently generated) ———————————————–

Performance/Goal-Based — 20-35 (with a major solidification of maturity around 26, the age where declining neuroplasticity sets in.)

Communitarian — 35-50 years

—————————-  Second Tier — Self Awareness and personal monitoring and feedback matter ——————————————-

Global Systemic — 50-death

Global Holistic — 55-death

Just to reiterate — v-Memes are nested.  You don’t lose the lower development as you move up.  You just gain the capabilities of the higher v-Memes.  Also, once we move past Authority-Based, we start losing adults in development, though they can “jump up” when self-awareness hits in later life, though they will not be nearly as sophisticated in execution of lower, First Tier v-Memes.

A quick look at the numbers above shows that most new employees really don’t have a lot of independent, relational development, and hence display poor rational empathetic skills.  This is truly a function of age, and it means that means they tend to be egocentric, can’t really make their mind up based on their own experiences, and will likely follow the crowd.  As weird as this may seem, what this means is that the second term — Culture — including mostly the one they were raised in will dictate how they act.  As I’ve said many times, Culture exists as a sidebar, with elements from all the different v-Memes, but encoded in time-averaged beliefs that people operate by.  30 years ago, interracial dating was only starting to not be taboo.  Now, few bat an eye in the younger generation.  It is an accepted behavior.  Discrimination against LGBQT was normalized only 30 years ago.  Now, it is not permissible.

If one considers WHAT v-Meme a certain cultural behavior originates from, one can guess by examining history, and with some accuracy and certainty, be correct dependent on the society you’re looking at.  For example, lifting discrimination against LGBQT in Western society was definitely aligned with the evolution of the Communitarian v-Meme — treating all people in an egalitarian fashion.  (I do want to note that many Tribal societies were way ahead of Western culture in treatment of certain protected groups, so you’ve got to be careful ascribing one v-Meme to one set of surface-level behaviors.)  But once a certain set of behaviors became encoded in larger cultural beliefs, young people could be reasonably expected to also share those, even if their origination came from a higher level of independent development than, at first glance, where they are at.

Finally, the Social Structure component — our Social Physics part of the equation — will play heavily on how young people act.  And as the systems that we place young people in have become increasingly Authoritarian, we shouldn’t expect anything less than delays in independent relational behavior.  Any trip to a modern high school for anyone in their 40s or 50s is guaranteed to shock.  Students are buzzed in and out of locked doors for simply attending classes.  The days of aimless wandering the halls with the hall pass because you were a good, trusted student are mostly gone.  It is having an effect.

So what does that mean as far as understanding the profile of a typical 22 year old?  Compared to my ‘generation’, they are far more passive and obedient than we ever were — a function of the social structure.  They are far more open-minded toward different groups than I was — a direct effect of cultural sidebars.  And finally, they still have the same innate capacity to be developed and gain a broader set of empathetic, goal-based behaviors.  Though they may thrash more at the beginning (I see this all the time) with the expectation that the Authority will tell them what to do — they like that, and it IS a low-responsibility behavior — if placed in an environment where the social structure forces relational development, they will evolve and catch up with Performance/Goal-Based behavior.  Because they have neuroplasticity on their side.

And that’s how societies as a whole move forward.  It’s not guaranteed, but the quote by Theodore Parker, an 19th century Transcendentalist (Martin Luther King borrowed it from him!)

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

And of course, what is interesting is that what Parker was noting was that in his time, developmental empathy was still filling out the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme.  So “justice” was all he really had.  The subsequent paragraph gives more clues:

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

The arc of the organized world inherently will bend upward, to greater connectivity and empathy.  And if there are differences we observe in our young people, if we are self-aware ourselves, and not shocked by the same egocentricity we possessed when we were that age, we will see that, with the right circumstances, these young people will also push our society forward.  We only have to let it happen.

So — are there measurable generations?  The ten-year thing just drives me nuts, so No.  Society exists on a continuum of belief adoption, where culture and social constraints seen as permanent give way to new modes of thinking.  And Yes — young people’s belief structures are definitely different from mine when I was their age.  Like all things, it’s complicated.  But understandable.  And because we are all in a global society now, we simply can’t run the control experiment.  We have to proceed with the social dynamics we can create.  What I’ve written above is my shot at it.  And it’s all about empathy.

It’s hard to unpack everything I’ve written about on the blog for those that are unfamiliar.  But you can start HERE and HERE.

The 36 Stratagems — or How Low Empathy is no Real Strategy in Today’s World

Conor Zion

Conor, Spring 2018, Zion National Park

Having a bit of fun a couple of weeks ago, I came upon a classical Chinese strategy quote (can’t remember where) that I shared with my wife, who is a Taiwanese native.  It comes from a body of quotes, called the 36 Stratagemsa classic old Chinese compilation of clever pictorial word-plays that would fit well inside any MBA handbook out there.  Things like Kill with a Borrowed Knife (借刀殺人/借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)

  • Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a third party to do the deed.

are typical.  You can do your own Googling and find the various MBA types who have written about the genius of the various stratagems and how they’ll make you a “better” business person.  I don’t need to facilitate.  They’re basically all about falsely displaying empathy, and then screwing over a potential opponent.

What people will likely overlook, though, is the fact that these extremely refined strategies are all deeply seated in the Authoritarian v-Meme, and display psychopathic Chinese Authoritarian behavior at its finest.  They’re all designed around the theme that trust can’t be real, you can’t even really have friends, and that inevitably you’ll end up in conflict with your adversaries, which means you’re back to: ‘I win, you lose; You win, I lose; We both fall away exhausted — potential resolution solution set.  That’s the way Authoritarians resolve things.  There can be no true coming-together, because rational synergies are never in play.  And developed empathy? Bitch — please!

No one can question that the Chinese national political In-group/Out-group dynamics are the most refined in the world.  This has historically been made easier by population homogeneity, geographic isolation (they don’t call it ‘The Middle Kingdom’ for nothing) and the challenges of maintaining order for long time with tens of millions of citizens (the middle Tang Dynasty had over 50M people, and who even knows if you can believe census efforts from 1000 years ago?)  Once the Tang Dynasty was over, with its Confucian governmental influences, China went into its ‘stuck’ period, where one can argue they’ve only recently emerged with the ascendance of Deng Xiao Peng.  My Chinese history friends — feel free to correct me.  I’m no expert on all the back-and-forth of the following dynasties.

The 36 Stratagems are well worth a read.  My wife and I had a good laugh over them comparing them to university politics in general, but more to the point of how unsophisticated ersatz Modern Authoritarians are. Anyone from the Ming Dynasty would have beat them in a red second.

But they also show how when you enshrine in your culture the idea of loyalty only to designated In-Groups, regardless how clever you are in tricking your supposed opponents, you really screw yourself with regards to innovation.  Though I do believe this is changing, China still justifiably suffers from an ‘IP copy’ culture reputation.  Because when you can’t trust and integrate diversity, as well as give your people the space to generate their own relationships, your creativity may become very sophisticated indeed — one trip to China and the standard circuit around the shrines and temples will convince you of that.  But new ideas?   That’s just not the way the social physics shake out.  And everyone, sooner or later, gets pretty bummed out.  And THAT leaves you open to things like a small group of outsiders taking over your country, which is pretty easy when you have an opium epidemic.  Hmmm…

You might think about these types of mergings of culture and social structure facilitate  how any given organization or culture adopts to rapid change.  Not so much.  And yeah — you can create environments that make your bosses think empathy is a bad thing, and that the bosses need to weep in the C-Suite, feeling victimized that they have to make ‘tough decisions’ that screw over their lessers.  But over long time, it’s still a losing game.  Hundreds of millions of people have already participated in that experiment.  Feel free to draw whatever conclusions you want with the Russia-Facebook connection.

How Social Structure Arises from Empathy

Rogers and Timpana's

Old friend Rogers and the crew on the top of Snowbird, UT, March, 2018 — Mt. Timpanogos in the background

One of the things that is self-evident to the squirrels in my head, but seems at times elusive to others, is how the mean level of empathetic development of a group of people will create the social structure of a given community.  Naturally there are cultural influences that are all up and down the Spiral v-Meme ladder that influence the actual behavior of the people in a given social structure — remember that our Theory of Everything includes cultural sidebars (as well as a host of other factors, including personal development) as well as social structure as primary drivers in human interaction.  But empathy remains at the root of the social structure evolution.

How does this exactly work?  Let’s go back to our Empathy Pyramid and do some word tagging that may give some insight into how all this works.  Here’s the final Empathy Pyramid we left off when we introduced the notion of Conscious Empathy.

Empathy Slide

Now let’s add some understanding to how each level of empathy works, and make a new graph.  On the right side, I’ve added a new column of behavior drivers that come out of each new level of the Empathy Pyramid.  Let’s remember that with all things like this, we get a nested stack, meaning the levels below are included in each of the upper levels, so Emotional Empathy includes Mirroring Behaviors, and so on.

Empathy-Social Behavior Pyramid English

Empathy-Social Behavior Coupling Graph

Unpacking this, we can now see how empathy creates given social structures.  It should be said that there are always fuzzy boundaries between the given levels — purity is not a function of the human (or rather, sentient) condition.  Automatic behavior doesn’t do much for persistent social structure, so it’s no surprise it’s at the bottom with mirroring empathy.  If you see one of your buddies running from a lion, you’re likely to take off and start running as well.  But once the lion gets tired, there’s not much lingering social structure from the effect.  Lots of individual emotions, but not much persistence.

Up a level, Evaluative behavior is a cornerstone of emotional empathy, as well as primary force driving people into the next two v-Memes — Tribal, and Authoritarian.  First off, you have to evaluate who’s in your group/tribe, and who’s not.  Next up, if circumstances are right, you’re likely to figure out who’s the boss.  Is it the person who is most generous, or the person who can likely beat the next lion with a stick?  Status matters uber alles, with ranking and submission naturally emergent.  Everyone knows, in an Authority-based structure, if the boss is having a bad day.  And that starts creating the tree-like social structure stack we associate with Authority-based social structures.

Rational empathy comes up next, introducing the concept of personality-decoupled classification (‘engineers think this way’/ ‘you know about those lawyers’) and that ability — the ability to predict what someone might say leads to the stacks of hierarchies in the Legalistic mode.  But it doesn’t stop there.  If you want to reach goals (Performance v-Meme) you’re going to start collecting data on potential individual high performers you want on your team, and connect with them, once again creating the variation in the organization chart that happens when it becomes important for people to accomplish work.  And before you know it, the practice from that has caused you to bleed over into looking at people based on their individual characteristics — that good, old-fashioned Communitarian v-Meme.

As you age, and develop a more profound relationship with yourself, you know when you’re being virtuous, or being selfish.  Conscious empathy becomes a tool for larger ends, and then allows you to go along with, or assemble the circumstance/social structure you need, mapping elegantly to the Global Systemic v-Meme, the first of Wilber’s Second Tier.  And then, of course, once we’re on that level, we realize we’re just a little fish swimming in a very big pool, surrounded by all sorts of building block social structures that interplay with each other in all sorts of different ways.  A human’s got to know their limitations — we can never jump out of the water high enough to really know exactly what’s going on.  But we can feel the waves in the pool.

Hope this helps!  Here’s Don Beck’s awesome little social structure sidebar so you can now understand and enjoy the interplay of the evolving empathy-driven story inside each of us, as well as our social organizations!

spiraldynamics social structures

Quickie Post — the Trans-Cultural Diabolical Power of Sugar

Tool Chest 4

A pair of drawers with hand-cut dovetails from a recent tool cabinet I finished.  December 2017

My wife sent me the video below this morning — a concatenation of ads in Japanese for Van Houten Cocoa, a typically sugary chocolate drink.  It’s aimed at Japanese women, and it’s fascinating.  Highly recommended to watch:


The basic theme of the ad is a woman, attempting to fill some level of traditional gender roles, becomes frustrated with the lack of connection with her son, husband, and daughter, then explodes in a heavy-metal rage that is only soothed by drinking a sugary beverage.  There’s no symbolism that needs to be decoded to understand the point — in the absence of connection/serotonin (one of our empathy/We/happiness-eudaemonia hormones), the best thing to do is harvest the benefit of a solid shot of dopamine (our primary self-centered pleasure hormone.)  Which, of course, reinforces the rage reaction by creating more biological drivers toward impulsive behavior.

Terrifying.  The processed food companies know EXACTLY what they’re selling.

Finding a Cure for Cancer — or Why Physicists May Have the Upper Hand


Outside Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon — March 2010

Well, I’ve had a modestly stressful couple of days writing about the Parkland School Shootings.  Of course, the primary driver for the shootings is empathy, or rather, a lack of it.  But explaining that to people is challenging, especially how scaffolding matters, and solutions will have a number of timescales in order to fix the problem.  I have lots of friends from all over the political spectrum, and those with good information all have a piece of the solution.  But getting divergent viewpoints to coalesce around a comprehensive solution inevitably involves v-Meme conflicts, and therein lies the rub.  So it goes.

So… instead of writing about that, I’m going to write about how to cure cancer!  I wrote last week about another piece by Jason Fung, a nephrologist who also writes about diabetes, intermittent fasting, and ketogenic diets.  This week, Fung discusses in this piece about why cancer research is stuck, and how physicists might help.    What’s awesome about Fung’s writing is that he is one of the only people I know (besides myself) who fingers that the problem is really an information structure problem that’s preventing us from curing cancer.  For me, that’s super-cool.  Here’s a great pull quote from the article:

Oncologists tend to view cancers as some kind of genetic mistake. Some mutations making cells go crazy and become cancer. But to Drs. Davies and Lineweaver, another cosmologist and astro-biologist, the behavior of cancer cells is anything but berserk. Not at all. It is a highly organized, systemic method of survival. It’s no accident that cancer survives everything the body throws at it. It’s not a random collection of genetic mutations. Developing those specific attributes is as likely as throwing a pile of bricks into the air and having them land exactly as a house. Considering the body’s massive deployment of weaponery to kill cancer cells, it is impossible that cancer survives only as a freak accident. A freak accident that happens to every cell in the body, in every organism known to exist? If something seems ‘stupid’ but works (survives), then by its very definition, it’s not stupid. Yet cancer researchers and doctors had all treated cancer as some kind of random collection of stupid genetic mistakes. No, there was stupidity going on, and it wasn’t the cancer’s.”

Dr. Davies is a physicist at the University of Arizona, who, with no previous experience, was commissioned by the National Cancer Institute to start asking some basic questions about how cancer forms, and understanding it from ‘first principles’ — looking at the laws of physics/energy balance/etc., instead of looking at it in terms of a data cloud and then attempting to understand that cloud.

I’ve already made the point that we should expect no more from medical researchers (or nutrition researchers, or almost any other health/biology researcher) than to map their fragmented social structure onto the authority-based knowledge that they’re creating.  Fragmented Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies will do that, and they will inevitably produce pointillist interpretations of the endless amounts of data they measure.  But it gets even worse.  Inevitably, totally data-driven researchers will also trot out their one tool for attempting to pull interpolative or extrapolative meaning from data — the linear regression curve.  What that means for those who don’t work in the sciences is simple.  They will collect a bunch of data, with any inference of connection or meaning between that data considered ‘confirmation bias’ (even though one really can’t escape implicit bias when one decides how and what to measure!) and then create a plot, and draw a line with a slope across it.

How this reinforces the brain wiring then becomes obvious.  (Well, obvious to me!  🙂  )  They come up with a linear plot that creates one solution, that then maps to the meta-linear thinking that exists in Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme hierarchies.  No multiple solution thinking.  No competing/shared hypotheses.  That straight line is ‘my way or the highway’, and as we’ve seen with all other social systems, we bring in the information/stimulus/food source that reinforces the social system.  And since it’s pretty much status-driven, instead of goal-driven (who’s the most famous cancer doctor!) understanding goes wanting.  Biological systems are highly nonlinear in behavior, and often have multiple stable states — multiple truths that might be observed from data.  And meta-linear hierarchies just aren’t stacked to understand them or produce knowledge about them.  And, as Fung notes, it takes nigh-on forever to get anywhere.  He voices his frustration in this pull quote:

Medicine, on the other hand, rejects new theories like a prom queen rejects pimple faced suitors. If ‘The Man’ says that calories cause obesity, then all other theories are shouted down. If ‘The Man’ says that cancer is caused by genetic mutations, then all other theories may apply elsewhere. They call this process ‘peer-review’, and glorify it as a religion. Galileo, for example, was not a fan of peer review by the church. In physics, your theory is only good if it explains the known observations. In medicine, your theory is only good if everybody else likes it, too. This explains the rapid pace of progress in the physical sciences and the glacial pace of medical research.”

Embedded in this pull quote is a conundrum.  Fung, while trashing the biologists and medical researchers, is, like the NCI, singing the praises of the physicists.  What DO the physicists have that the biologists (and psychologists, and sociologists, and many others) don’t have?  All scientists are more-or-less organized in hierarchies, and as such, should be constrained in advancing their fields one endlessly debated data point (or transformative rule) at a time.  The reasoning is as follows — Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, as status-driven social structures, will only value the known and the reliable.  They remain bastions of cognition — knowing, and will very likely penalize meta-cognition, which is really that complex space of knowing what you don’t know, as well as having some fuzzy definition of what real unknown unknowns are out there.  Such Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme structures, to put it concisely, as they grow ever more sophisticated, are going to do great with knowledge.  But when it comes to wisdom, well, they’re going to suck.

What do physicists have that the others don’t?  They have a well-defined metacognitive system that jumps past the limits of their social structure.  We call it math, and the world is filled with recognition for its more formal name — theoretical physics.  What theoretical physics enables us to do is extrapolate outside the data, and doesn’t hinder our ability to intelligently guess.  Math gives us the ability to infer dynamics, and more than just straight lines on a scatter plot.

And there’s more.  You can’t practice physics without an appreciation for all things nonlinear.  Gravity, for example, only behaves linearly close to the ground.  All the other things that actually make our world run involve extensive nonlinear behavior, which inevitably leads to possible multiple solutions.  (For those math-impaired, who can barely remember Algebra II, remember that a quadratic equation has 2 roots — that’s multiple solution thinking!)  And things like gravity inevitably involve complex gravitational wells and potentials, that lead to all sorts of interesting things, including how you can hurl a satellite around a planet and get it to speed up if you do it just right.

This kind of thinking wasn’t always accepted in the physics community.  It’s really in only the last 150 years that this got going.  I watched  this episode of the National Geographic series on a cross-country plane flight, and it showed the inevitable v-Meme conflict between a young Albert Einstein, who embraced this kind of thinking in developing his Theory of Relativity, and other older, darker scientists who were largely empiricists getting ready to plot points.  Since most of the episode was about Einstein’s relationship with his first wife, and this is what I remember, I think it also confirms I am a space alien.

I’m not quite sure that this makes physicists overall more empathetic.  Algorithmic thinking, even if it leads to larger Guiding Principles insights, is still rooted in the discipline, which inevitably leads back to the hierarchy, and that both creates and reinforces social behavior and low-level empathetic evolution.  The famous physicist, Albert Einstein himself, was likely a crazy narcissist, and decidedly impaired when it came to empathetic interaction.  I’ve got a whole theory about once your IQ passes a certain point, and you have the ability to create entire worlds inside your health, it’s a sticky wicket– because you can justify basically anything inside your noggin.  Validity/reality — or social control from your orbitofrontal cortex be damned.

And you’ve got to wonder about people like father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.  It would be interesting to find some statistics on a behavior like sexual harassment (decidedly anti-empathetic!) and see if it were lower in the physics community.  But nonetheless, one can understand the adoption and integration of nonlinear mathematics into physics as an important cultural sidebar that encourages metacognitive reflection and speculation.

It’s a takeaway that the social sciences might heed — and actually start allowing some larger discussion of topics like I explore on this blog!  It may be that it is social structure uber alles dictates true deep empathetic development.  But developing more overarching guiding principles thinking is really what we as a species are desperately in need of.  Even if it is speculative on where we should head next.  Which is, of course, the dominant reason I write this blog.