To J.R. Re: A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies

Robert Owen (
Fri, 19 Nov 1999 16:33:41 -0500


Very helpful reply:

Robert Owen wrote,
>I suspect I would very much like to comment on the developed thread, but
>first I ought to ask what it is about in the opinion of the various

"Hi Bob,

"As I see it, the thread moved from a discussion of the need for rigorous science in the study of societal evolution to one of debate concerning the role of ethics in human affairs....."

".....As for ethics, I think science _can_ clarify this miasma if researchers can overcome the politically correct aversion to the study of biology as it relates to human behavior and systems of belief."

Yes. I had this in mind when I sent a trial balloon META's way concerning the work of the Santa Fe Institute in "Theoretical Biology" on Sun 14 Nov 99:

From: Robert Owen:

I thought I might provoke a little controversy by mentioning the Field of "Theoretical Biology" and stimulate some painful feelings only to be relieved by posting an opinion of Stuart Kauffman who studies the origin of life and the origins of molecular organization. Twenty-five years ago, he developed the Kauffman models, which are random networks exhibiting a kind of self-organization that he terms "order for free." Kauffman is not easy. His models are rigorous, mathematical, and, to many of his colleagues, somewhat difficult to accept. A key to his worldview is the notion that convergent rather than divergent flow plays the deciding role in the evolution of life. With his colleague Christopher G. Langton, he believes that the complex systems best able to adapt are those poised on the border between chaos and disorder.

His most recent books are "At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity", 1995, Oxford University Press and "The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution", l993, Oxford University Press.

So here is an exercise in "theoretical biology" from the Santa Fe Institute by MacArthur fellow Kauffman:

"If biologists have ignored self-organization, it is not because self-ordering is not pervasive and profound. It is because we biologists have yet to understand how to think about systems governed simultaneously by two sources of order, Yet who seeing the snowflake, who seeing simple lipid molecules cast adrift in water forming themselves into cell-like hollow lipid vesicles, who seeing the potential for the crystallization of life in swarms of reacting molecules, who seeing the stunning order for free in networks linking tens upon tens of thousands of variables, can fail to entertain a central thought: if ever we are to attain a final theory in biology, we will surely, surely have to understand the commingling of self-organization and selection. We will have to see that we are the natural expressions of a deeper order. Ultimately, we will discover in our creation myth that we are expected after all."

"At Home in the Universe", Oxford University Press, 1995, p 112.

I hope at least one or two readers are sufficiently outraged, or at least exasperated, that they will post their devastating critique. For example, do you detect an odor of "teleology"? Or do you espy "The Anthropic Principle" sneaking through the back door? Some kind of neo-Begsonian or Lamarckian decadence? Worse yet, is this some weird kind of "closet creationism"?


Received were some highly insightful replies -- some vaguely supportive of Stuart's work. Then, after further reflection, I received this from Athena:

"I reread the passage from Kauffman's book that Bob sent us, and found some things to alarm me. For one, he employs the classic strategy of conflating things that we know and don't know."

Well, say the issue is: can highly qualified biologists study the biological determinants of anthropoid social behavior and on the of level conceptual mentation in our species expand our understanding of the biogenetic roots of our value- and belief-systems without the "conflation" to which Athena refers? That is, without dragging-in the non-empirical disciplines of "Comparative Cultural Anthropology", "Sociology", and purely theoretical models derived from "Depth Psychology"and your infamous "Cultural Studies"? My "rhetorical" position is one of abject skepticism, but I am ready to learn!

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA