THE PATHWAY: ADJUSTMENT AND ADAPTATION: How did we get here from there?
Mistakes are the portals of discovery. James Joyce.
Peter C. Doherty an Australian veterinary surgeon and researcher in the field of infection and immunity and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine said in a recent article about emerging virus diseases:
“A virus is essentially an information system (encoded in DNA or RNA) surrounded by a protective coat and shaped by evolution to ensure its own replication and survival”.
DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid and RNA is ribonucleic acid. These two compounds are the materials in which is coded the essential genetic information of all living things.
I had a similar undergraduate veterinary training to Peter Doherty but spent my professional career principally in preventive medicine of commercial poultry. I gained much practical and theoretical knowledge about evolution in chicken breeding programs and in virus vaccine development. Since retirement I have sought to extend my understanding of evolution and have found many scholars who support the concept that the underlying process of evolution is “universal”. This is accepted in relation to reproduction of living organisms but it is less obvious in relation to non-living systems or to the emergent functions of living organisms.
Information systems can survive in ways other than that of viruses as described by Peter Doherty. Any organism, whether bacterium or human, is also essentially an information system shaped by evolution to ensure its own replication and survival These other methods also act to ensure the survival of the relevant information. The coating of the critical genetic information of any organism certainly has this effect of preserving DNA for its own survival. Replication is not essential to the process and is but part of the underlying survival mechanism.
Richard Dawkins described the organism as the vehicle for the genes. When seen as a “vehicle” it becomes simply a protective coat for the genetic information.
I would add to Doherty’s statement that an unusual entity called a prion a is also essentially an information system (encoded in its proteinaceous structure) shaped by evolution to ensure its own survival. It has no coating.

Likewise, entities like antibodies, nerve impulses, ideas, memes and the information involved in computer technology undergo a similar process in ensuring their survival. These are all examples of closed cyclic systems which maintain their integrity by iteration of their operational information.

In seems that any cyclic system involves the process of iteration of the underlying coded information that controls its survival. Replication (or multiplication) is an emergent phenomenon that adds an extra dimension to the capabilities of an open loop entity (or cyclic system).

I suggest that any information system, whether capable of replication or not, is shaped by an evolutionary process to ensure its own adaptation to a changing environment and thus survival. Otherwise it would be extinct. The essential outcome of the process of evolution therefore is ensuring survival and does not necessarily involve replication.
The quotation from James Joyce at the head of this essay “Mistakes are the portals of discovery” is an insight into the universality of the role of variation in processes.
Replace the key word “mistakes” therein by “variations” and the saying applies widely. I suppose he was thinking of the way we should not give up for fear of making mistakes because we can often benefit from or learn from our mistakes. Whatever he meant, the saying gives us a toehold into the insight that sticking to the beaten track or adhering to behaviour that has previously paid off is not necessarily the best way to go even for impersonal endeavours of the evolutionary process.
All entities are subject to variation. A variant having positive effects will survive only while the entity survives. For an open loop entity this is for an ephemeral period. For a closed loop entity that cannot produce copies of itself, survival is for a persistent period. For a closed loop entity that can produce copies of itself, survival is from generation to generation.
Progress depends upon change. In the absence of human meddling either unintended or intended, some of that change may be random. Change has no intrinsic value but a change may have an effect that is either harmful, neutral or beneficial to the adaptation and survival of the system in which it occurs.
A number of authors have worked on development of a “meta-law” that furthers the ideas of others who have written on universal Darwinism and the origin of life. I suggest that the claims in this essay are consistent with their views.
Subject to the effects of the Conservation laws, Newton’s and Einstein’s laws and the Second law of thermodynamics, and consistent with the Constructor Theory of Deutch and Marletto the following statements apply:
1. An object may interact with other objects to form an entity that progresses towards a state of either high entropy (disorder) or else captures energy and retains its low entropy (orderly) state.
2. This order achieved in an entity is the effect of, or response to, information encoded in its structure. Some have seen the orderly response to information transfer as constituting the acquisition of “knowledge”.
3. An entity that retains its orderly state may be structured in either an open loop arrangement (a non-cyclic system – think of an exploding star) or a closed loop arrangement (a cyclic system – think of a galaxy).
4. An open loop arrangement is less stable and will dissipate sooner. A closed loop arrangement employs feedback mechanisms, is more stable and will persist longer.
5. Both open and closed loop entities may undergo variations in their structure.
6. A variant incorporated in either an open or closed loop entity amends the coded information and will have effects that may be harmful, neutral (inactive or benign) or beneficial to its ability to adapt and to survive the effects of any variations in its environment.
7. A harmful effect leads to demise of the entity (think extinction or death or erosion). A neutral effect is inert (think “junk” DNA). A beneficial effect leads to the emergence of a new phenomenon (think living organisms).
8. An open loop entity does not repeat itself, is less persistent and will dissipate. Any incorporated variant alters the coded information and allows adjustment b to its behaviour. The alteration will be unstable or ephemeral c and be lost with the demise of the entity.
9. A closed loop entity repeats itself (iterates) and will be more stable and persistent d. Any incorporated variant will persist as an integral part of the entity.
10. If the affected entity is incapable of copying itself, a beneficial change will affect the system’s ability to survive in its environment.
11. It the entity is capable of repeating itself (by iteration or copying) a beneficial change can affect both its own ability to survive in its environment and will also be transmitted to its successor entities.
12. In the case of multiplying entities, beneficial change can affect both the ability of the entity and the ability of the populations they form to survive in their environment.
13. Suitably adapted entities survive as modified systems or emergent phenomena.
Each of us has our own choices to make in matters that range from food choices to career or relationship decisions. We are urged into a particular direction by our biology, our culture and our own reasoning. Choosing to make no decision is of course a decision itself so we are captured by our own circumstances. Making some decisions is easy because we are usually not aware of the options that are actually available but we should be aware of the possible unintended consequences of such actions. The choices we must make are based in our biology (and its forebears, physics and chemistry and astronomy and geology), our culture (including religion, tradition and education) and our own limited area of free choice.
It may not be clear just how inanimate systems took the step or steps to the emergence of living organisms or how animal forms of awareness emerged into what we humans experience as qualia or as consciousness but the role of the evolutionary mechanism in preserving beneficial changes provides a clear explanatory pathway.
A critical missing evolutionary event that is of importance is that of the emergence of the ability of an open loop entity to make copies of itself. Autocatalysis has been suggested as an essential precursor to life but a pathway for the emergence of autocatalysis from a precursor is still not evident. Crystals may be the outcome of an evolutionary attempt to make copies but there seems to be no pathway from crystals to autocatalysis.
The existence of a mechanism that allows the preservation of variations which turn out to be beneficial to the adaptation and survival of systems is evident. The possible fates of variants in such systems are determined by their ability to aid adaptation and survival of the mechanism in a changing environment.
a A prion is one of several proteinaceous infectious particles that cause a group of degenerative diseases of the nervous system including scrapie in sheep and “mad cow disease”. They only seem to be able to replicate in association with a living organism. Prions have a structure different from that of normal protein, lack detectable nucleic acid, do not elicit an immune response and have no coating. It is unknown whether a prion is an atavistic reversion from a virus or an intermediate step between chemistry and life.

b I define the response to the incorporation of a variant into the structure of an open loop entity as adjustment, while the response to the incorporation of a variant into the structure a closed loop entity adaptation. Both affect the fitness of the entity to survive but have distinctly different prospects of persistence. Adjustment is used here in a sense similar to “acclimatization” or “becoming accustomed to” and is used to refer to the type of response or alteration that is ephemeral, while adaptation is used to refer to sustained or persistent alteration. In organisms the distinction is clear. Adjustment occurs in the “phenotype” and aids survival of the organism. Adaptation occurs in the “genotype” and aids survival of the coded information.

c Ephemeral (unstable) entities include: Sub-atomic particles. Stars. Volcanoes. Waterfalls. Clouds. Storms. Organisms. Organs. Tissues. Nerve impulses. Ideas. Qualia. Words. Artifacts (Art. Words. Fiction. Computers etc.)

d Persistent (stable) entities include: The Universe. Galaxies. Solar systems. Planets. Atoms. Molecules. Crystals. Genes. Populations. Memes.





Iteration – Variation – Persistence.

Paul Gilchrist 7-04-2016


Assemblies of matter can become ordered into systems whose behaviour may be non-cyclic or cyclic. Systems are subject to error that may become incorporated and persist as adaptations. In non-cyclic systems persistence is limited by the ephemeral nature of such systems. In cyclic systems the adaptive modification may be reiterated in each cycle of the system and thus be prolonged in existence. Ancestral cyclic systems have been subject to selection pressures leading to the emergence of complex systems including living organisms and their sub-systems including nervous, metabolic and locomotor systems. Ideas emerging in human central nervous systems can be expressed as memes within a culture and be subject to the same formula of iteration, variation and persistence that permits “descent with modification”.

It is my contention that the purported universality of Darwinian evolution is due to its being one form of cyclic system, in all of which operate according to the formula iteration – variation – persistence.


In our material universe, everything emerges from prior things. Everything is derived from interactions of matter and forces that have led to the formation of objects and their behaviour. Interactions between objects has led to the emergence of orderly systems including both cyclic and non-cyclic systems. The order in any system is established according to the information coded in its structure. Variation may occur in any system with consequential effects that may be negative, neutral or positive. Positive effects may persist and be adaptive.

Cyclic systems occur in sub-atomic, atomic, physical, chemical, autocatalytic and living processes as well as in processes invented by humanity. The operation of this process in pre-biotic conditions shows its origins. Of particular interest in living cyclic systems is the way nervous systems organise information in a cyclic fashion so as to form ideas which can be stored in memory or manipulated in cognitive processes and can be expressed as memes for further iteration, variation and persistence in our culture.


In the beginning it appears that there was a phase of potential energy existing in a state of inertia which tipped at the Big Bang into a new dynamic phase where matter emerged and was subject to inertia and momentum and “events” occurred.

The explosion at the Big Bang hurled matter off, in what could have been straight lines headed towards infinite dispersal. However the inertia and momentum inherent in matter were affected by gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces. Gravity and angular momentum gave us galaxies, solar systems and planetary and other cosmic bodies which operate according to Newton’s laws of motion.

Matter coalesced, collided and persisted as assemblies that populate the universe. The interaction between the matter and these forces produced events that had a by-product we call time. The interactions led to assemblies with much in common but also with many variations. Some assemblies behave as systems.


A system:

  • is any assembly that has been ordered – naturally or artificially.
  • has structure and function.
  • behaves according to the coded information inherent in its matter.
  • operates within an environment that includes other systems, other material objects and forces of attraction and repulsion.

Order and disorder are central to the 2nd law of thermodynamics which provides that order inexorably changes towards disorder unless energy is captured and used in delaying that journey for a time. The move towards disorder applies fully to a closed system  (typically the Universe) while the temporary delay can apply in open systems such as those we experience here on Earth.

Inertia tends to give a degree of stability to matter and any of its assemblies, including systems. Momentum tends towards instability.

The balance between inertia and momentum can lead to behaviour called by Pross 6, dynamic kinetic stability (DKS). He discusses the general trend from less complex and kinetically less stable to more complex and kinetically more stable replicators. He extends the idea to populations when he describes ‘dynamic kinetic stability’ as applied to a stable population of replicating entities. The term ‘dynamic’ reflects the continual turnover of the population members, the term ‘kinetic’ reflects the fact that the stability of the replicating system is based on kinetic parameters rather than on thermodynamic parameters. It is the values of these parameters, together with the availability of resources, which determines the stability of the particular replicating system. Accordingly he characterises stable replicating systems (i.e., those that persist over time), whether chemical or biological, as dynamic kinetic states of matter. He says that the “utility and significance of this term can be more clearly gauged by comparison with the term frequently used to describe inanimate systems, the more traditional thermodynamic states of matter that characterize much of chemistry”.

It appears to me that this process is also characteristic of cyclic systems and is responsible for their persistence.

Pross’ contribution is particularly significant in that he is considering populations of systems albeit he is restricting it to “replicating entities”. My view is that all ordered systems or entities undergo a process of change that is subject to variations (errors) that may facilitate the survival of the system in a changing environment. I characterise this by the formulation iteration – variation – persistence.

There seem to me to be two ways systems can operate, cyclic and non-cyclic. Non-cyclic systems may have various pathways including linear, curvilinear, whorls, sigmoid, helical or fractal etc., but they all have an end point. Cyclic systems do not have an end point but operate as a complete cycle with the starting point, wherever that may be depicted to be, recurring in a cyclic fashion.

Cyclic systems have an existence or “life-cycle” while non-cyclic systems are ephemeral, having a term of existence or “life” ending at some stage, without restarting. Cyclic systems repeat their behaviour and thus achieve a sort of persistence or survival. This persistence is the key behaviour that enables survival of the structure and its function (or behaviour) and thus the preservation of key information embodied in its material structure. Both cyclic and non-cyclic systems may undergo enduring adaptive change but adaptations in cyclic systems can persist while those in non-cyclic systems are a more like acclimatisation or adjustment and are ephemeral and come to an end.

It is important to know which type of system we are dealing with because human intervention in a non-cyclic system has less enduring consequences than intervention in a cyclic system..


When a system is established, naturally or artificially, its stability is essential to its persistence or survival. Non-cyclic systems end, but cyclic systems repeat or reiterate themselves. A simple cyclic system does not multiply itself, it merely reiterates itself. A more complex a mechanism must emerge before a system makes multiple copies of itself. It seems to me that the emergence of the ability of a system to multiply b itself is at least as significant as the subsequent emergence of life.

A cyclic system undergoes repetition and each cycle involves an iteration of the information that constitutes the algorithm or formula that rules its process.

Matter can be ordered into various assemblies which embody information in their structure. The behaviour of any assembly is determined by the coded information embodied in that structure.

As indicated above, when assemblies of matter become self-organised we call them systems. A system may be cyclic or non-cyclic in nature. Cyclic systems share some common characteristics which I identify as the algorithm – iteration, variation, persistence.

Any cyclic system:

  • Repeats itself (iterates).
  • May be subject to error (variation).
  • May persist (adapt).The functional integrity of a system depends upon its structural integrity. Any change in its structure or behaviour may be corrected (either self-corrected or corrected by human artifice) or, if not corrected, it may be incorporated within the system. Any incorporated change in structure or behaviour of a cyclic system may be negative, neutral or positive in its impact. A positive effect may interact with the environment and lead to the emergence of an adaptive change that persists in further iterations.

Negative change leads to loss of order with consequential decay, decomposition, death or extinction. Neutral changes may be retained without affecting the behaviour of the system and may lead to the accumulation of “junk” or redundancy. Positive changes may result in the emergence of a new structure/function with the ability to survive in its environment.

A cyclic system may be influenced naturally or artificially by:

  1. Alterations in the frequency of iterations.
  2. Alterations in the frequency or type of variation.
  3. Alterations in the environment.

The process of iteration – variation – persistence is exemplified in Darwinian natural selection, but is not confined to that example. It applies universally to any change in a cyclic system. In Darwinian selection the substrate is the genome. Information in the genome is subject to iteration – variation – persistence. This is not because there is replication or reproduction involved but because iteration is involved and replication or reproduction are extensions of that process.

This pattern of iteration – variation – persistence seems to underlie change in all cyclic systems and to have led to the emergence of all the persistent adaptive systems we observe in this material universe.

Darwin 2 referred to “descent with modification”, which others (Dawkins 3, Dennett 4) have since spelt out as involving processes of replication that are subject to mutation which can sometimes lead to adaptive modification which may survive in the environment. Others (Campbell 1, Kelley 5) have explored how the mechanism applies more widely, even universally.

It is my contention that the universality of Darwinian evolution c is due to its being one form of cyclic system and thus it operates according to the formula iteration – variation – persistence.

This process has been studied in living systems and found to consist of two parts, the genetic code (embodied in the DNA) and the vehicle. The genetic code is capable of adaptation that may be inherited. The vehicle, the organism, carries the code through a period of time (development) from one replication of the genes to the next. Copying of the code occurs through mitosis in the somatic, non-cyclic, stage which may also undergo error/mutation but death of the organism eliminates the error with the death of the vehicle and the changes are mortal.

Cyclic systems operate in all areas including sub-atomic, atomic, physical, chemical, autocatalytic and living processes. Some (Randall 7 and Turok 9) propose a cyclic universe d.

It may be more than a metaphor to envisage an idea as an active cyclic system idling in the memory waiting to be aroused into action. If there is a massive storage of cyclic systems of nerve activity idling away in the memory, it is possible to see how an emerging “new” idea could stand out from the existing stored pattern of cycles and be recognised as something surprising and new.

Nervous systems organise information in a cyclic fashion so as to form ideas e which can be stored in memory or manipulated in cognitive processes and can be expressed and become memes available for further iteration, variation and persistence in our culture.


Because systems are susceptible to both unintended and intended human intervention it is important for us to be aware of the underlying mechanism. This is especially important in the case of cyclic systems in which the effects of human meddling are more lasting. The most significant invented cyclic system is the market. Some (Ridley 8) find support for pet theories in the story of evolution suggesting that outcomes are “in some sense vaguely progressive”, and that we should leave the process alone to achieve these beneficial ends. Contrary to this belief, it remains true that the outcomes of the evolutionary process cannot be predicted and any apparent benefits are just that – apparent. Laissez faire is not an appropriate way to get the best from the process if we wish to apply human value judgements to our world’s processes, whether climate change, the market or the pursuit of happiness.

Importantly the operation of cyclic systems in living processes, including the development and dissemination of ideas in individual minds and throughout the culture, are significant.

There are whole fields of study directed at complex systems and their interactions in the apparent chaos of our universe but an underlying process of the emergence of order from cyclic and non-cyclic systems of information appears to be present.


a Specialisation. While many of the emergent phenomena are complex and complexity can be seen as a significant component of evolutionary developments, it is important to recognise that complexity is not essential to the process. Specialisation may also be an effective way for a system to persist. Viruses, parasites and eyeless cave fish may appear to be retrograde organisms but are specialised survivors in particular environments.

b Multiplying involves the production of additional copies of the original and is a behaviour that emerged later in complex systems in the evolutionary process that includes the occurrence of life and consciousness. Identifying the precursors to life has been the subject of much study but perhaps it is the emergence of multiplication that is the critical preceding element. Iteration, copying (multiplication), replication (reproduction) are perhaps the critical steps in the chain of emerging evolutionary complexity.

c  Evolution is a much misused word. It originally meant something like “unfolding” or “incremental change” but has, in some usage, come to mean the same as Darwinian evolution. I am stepping away from the confusions surrounding that word by identifying cyclic system operation as incorporating the essential elements often meant by the use of the term “Darwinian evolution” and I am extending it to a wider scope by describing the emergence of adaptive change in cyclic systems.

d A cyclic universe may be more than a metaphor. It may be a harbinger of cyclic activity in our universe. Some consider that the universe may be the current iteration of a cyclic system that is fundamentally eternal. It is interesting that some suggest that the “strings” of the string theory of the origin of everything are manifest in two forms – closed strings and open ended strings. Some suggest that a cyclic universe must “evolve” with an associated increase in complexity. This idea seems to move the moment when everything came from nothing, to an earlier point but that theory still leaves the origins of everything no less clear.

e Ideas are formed from the nerve impulses starting with stimulation of sensory nerve endings producing electrochemical changes which are then modified by other impulses through various synaptic connections. I call these discrete impulses “nemes” (nervous system equivalent of genes or memes). The outcome of such interactions leads to the formation of coherent items we call ideas (or concepts, thought etc.). In the central nervous system of animals, and especially in humans, these may be stored in the memory and manipulated in the cognitive processes to lead to the emergence of new ideas which I call premes (precursors of memes). These might delight the thinker and might be communicated to our society as memes (cultural equivalent of genes). It may be more than a metaphor to envisage nemes and memes as cyclic systems subject to the same formula of iteration, variation and persistence that permits “descent with modification”.


  1. Campbell, John (2014). Universal Darwinism: the path of knowledge. Amazon.
  2. Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
  3. Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford.
  4. Dennett, D. (2010). The New Replicators. Encyclopedia of Evolution. (e-reference edition) Ed. Mark Pagel. Oxford University Press
  5. Kelley, DB. (2013). The Origin of Everything. Woodhollow.
  6. Pross, A. (2011) Toward a general theory of evolution: Extending Darwinian theory to inanimate matter. Journal of Systems Chemistry, 2:1  doi:10.1186/1759-2208-2-1
  7. Randall, L. in Brockman, J (2014) The Universe. Harper Collins.
  8. Ridley, M. (2015) Evolution of Everything . Harper Collins.
  9. Turok, N. in Brockman, J (2014) The Universe. Harper Collins.



POST 28 – 6-02-2015

For on-line version go to

My own computer sent the last POST to JUNK so please stop this from happening to you by making sure that the address for this site is entered in your Address Book.




A friend travelling in Vietnam sent this postcard suggesting it is a lesson in improving transportation productivity.



Meyrick Gilchrist recently had a letter to the Editor published in the Sydney Morning Herald in which she referred to an article by Ross Gittins, the paper’s economics reporter. Her letter read:

Ross Gittins asks “why do so many economists stay silent while business interests distort the principles of economics to disguise their self-seeking?” (“Soul-searching question for economists”, February 2). Surely, as we head towards a second Coalition budget, we should all be asking such questions. If we continue to accept the economic status quo in which, according to Professor Ross Garnaut, “economic reform has degenerated into rival interest groups striving for nothing more than sectional advantage”, we will perpetuate the budgetary deadlock holding back our country. While it is hard to find economists speaking a new language, there are many forums in which new, creative approaches to economic reform are being researched and analysed.  The advantages of “ecosystem accounting”, for example, are being explored in the USA and France, where researchers are addressing the need for new measures that more fully capture progress, rather that continuing to rely on GDP alone. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development “Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies” is looking at new sets of economic, social and environmental indicators: measures that would include equitable income distribution, a clean environment, sustainability and quality of life. It is therefore heartening to read the NSW government has signed up to The Climate Group and that Victoria and Tasmania are also signatories (“NSW joins global climate group”, February 2). Let us counter the “eco-economy” silence of economists by applauding this initiative and lobbying governments at all levels to follow the lead. Meyrick Gilchrist Abbotsford

I have applied some hyperlinks in this copy of her letter and some excerpts follow:

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development “Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies – an extract:

Understanding the issue

Societal progress is about improvements in the well-being of people and households. It requires looking not only at the functioning of the economic system but also at the diverse experiences and living conditions of people.


To your blogger, that means that the issue is about the “civilising process” that all humanity should be progressing.

The Climate Group:

We bring together leaders, share evidence of success and pilot solutions for a low carbon future.

The Climate Group is an international coalition of some of the world’s most powerful leaders. It is globally recognized for its exceptional impact on the climate debate, and respected as one of the world’s most influential non-profits. Its membership is made up of over 100 major brands, sub-national governments and international institutions.


If you feel that science is deficient in your portfolio of your life’s study then there are a few items you should focus on in order to catch up. Not everyone who studied humanities – English, History, Art, Philosophy etc. – is cut off from a scientific viewpoint in this highly connected world, but, even if you do not consider yourself scientifically literate you have access to the internet and can soon get catch-up information. There are also branches of science that leave their proponents isolated from one another. Engineers and biologists sometimes seem to inhabit different mind sets.

I know lots of people who feel that science or a particular branch of science has passed them by and thus feel inhibited in discussing those areas of science. In the fields in which I am interested and discussed in the paper by Doug Cocks copied in my last POST there are a few important items for those feeling alienated from science to direct their scholarly energies towards. If you see a need for each of us to recognise that we are involved in the civilising process then you need to come to grips with some basic science.

You need to know about entropy, systems, evolution, ecology and how humans can influence each of these. In order to influence events you need to have a world view to give purpose to your decisions and actions.

  • About entropy you need to know what it is and how it can be reversed.
  • About systems you need to know what closed, open, cycling, adaptive and dissipative systems are.
  • About evolution you need to know about how systems change and how they are subject to replication, variation and survival in a challenging environment.
  • About ecology you need to know about interactions among organisms and their environment.
  • About human affairs you need to know what happens in events if humans do not intervene or if they do intervene, either unintentionally or intentionally.
  • You need to develop a world view so you can influence the civilising process by conscious intervention in human affairs directed towards maximising human fruitfulness.

Google and Wikipedia are starting points but I will be attempting to address these elements in future posts to this blog. Doug Cocks’ article shows one way to form a world view.

  1. TAX US NOW.

Saving the budget by cutting Government services or selling our assets has failed so tax increases must come.

As Tony Abbot struggles to save his fundamental orifice – at last someone spells out the need to raise taxes. See this Conversation article

Doug Cocks Article


POST 27 – 2-02-2015

This seems to have failed so I am sending it again.

I have received permission from Doug Cocks to republish his article from the Independent Scholars Association of Australia (ISAA) REVIEW Volume  13 Number  2  2014.

I am impressed with his approach and will add some of my comments once I get myself organised. He arrives at many of the same sorts of world-view as I have reached by my own studies. The underlying process of adaptive selection described by Darwin surely applies to all adaptive systems including human ecosystems.

It is quite an involved article so I suggest you print it out to read.

He is described in the Review as “a Special Research Fellow in Human Ecology with the Division of Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO, Canberra. Since 1990 he has concentrated on writing and has published four books on aspects of human Ecology.”


By Doug Cocks

ISAA REVIEW Volume  13 Number  2  2014


A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Paul Valéry

Succinctly defined, a world-view is a coherent system of fundamental beliefs that describe some reality of interest. In terms of its function, the job it does for its owner, a world-view presents as a thinking tool, a cognitive technology, which provides a first-stop mental model when seeking understanding (What’s happening?) or when making decisions (What-to-do?). At its best, a world-view can be a powerful sieving device that suggests, in a general way, not only what is happening but what is not happening; not only what you might do but what you should not do in puzzling situations. A world-view does not have to be coherent, meaning internally consistent. Indeed, subscribing to contradictory ideas  (cognitive dissonance) might even be helpful on occasions, for example by suggesting alternative ways of viewing intractable questions. Notwithstanding, it is difficult to maintain an incoherent world-view once one is aware of doing so. Against that, humans have a great capacity for self-deception in such matters.

Was Manning Clark’s understanding of the Australian story as one of competition between Enlightenment, Protestant and Catholic values a world-view? Yes, and a fine one according to his biographer, Mark McKenna.[i] But it brings home the fact that world-views are rarely about the world. They are about the universe, or Australia or Yackandandah. And they carry the corollary that a world-view normally gains depth by sacrificing breadth, and conversely. That is disheartening for someone like myself who, deep down, is a reductionist, a totaliser. It would be so nice if the application of a few key ideas could routinely expand the breadth and the depth of one’s thinking (some such comfort must warm those who think that absolutely everything can be explained in terms of physics) but is unlikely to be widely useful. My own world-view is centrally concerned with understanding cultural evolution in terms of generic ecological and evolutionary processes and how these relate to human well-being.

Something else that is disheartening for humanists like myself who want the best for everyone is that most people have world-views that have stopped growing. People acquire and stay with a formula, a recipe, for understanding how their reality-of-interest works – unless the facts make nonsense of their perspective. How could a loving omnipotent God take my child?

One reason I continue to be satisfied with the science-based, naturalistic world-view, which I began to acquire as a teenager is that it is open to, indeed welcomes, revision. Its rootstock is the belief that, without invoking supernatural forces, continued application of the scientific method is building a growing body of plausible propositions, and raising ever-deeper questions, about the nature of reality. A scientific world-view is unfinished in the way a growing tree is unfinished, with bigger branches continuing to subtend smaller branches. Correspondingly, each new insight into the nature of reality evokes further questions and answers. Thus, a developing (scientific) world-view has an ever-branching hierarchical (strongly ordered) structure.[ii]

Having raised the supernatural, let me confront it. Notwithstanding three hundred years of enlightenment (think for yourself), a belief that immaterial anthropomorphic forces guide the unfolding of reality is central to the world-views propagated by most religions, including animism. Throughout the recent history of modern humans, terror and religion based on supernatural external authority have been the main technologies for guaranteeing behaviour supportive of the existing social order. People who have had something of a scientific education, including exposure to Ockham’s maxim that the simplest explanation should be accepted, see how, in principle, the world can be understood without recourse to frightening beliefs that have no objective, evidential basis. One reason, apart from opportunity, that religion outpolls science as a world-view is that while a good preacher can spell out a coherent world-view in half an hour, it takes time and effort to learn to see the world through scientific eyes.

Along with religion and science, politics and economics are the foci around which people in the western world most commonly develop world-views. A Catholic free marketeer who believes in democracy already has a three-pronged world-view, a choice of three starting points for answering the ‘What’s happening?’ and ‘What-to-do?’ questions. Their choice of starting point will depend on whether it is a religious, economic or political question. My task of the moment is not to delve into other people’s world-views, but to display some of the building blocks that make up my science-based world-view and say something of how these have helped me approach various what-to-do and what’s happening puzzles.[iii]

I am a human ecologist (no, not a human who studies ecology), meaning that my ‘reality of interest,’ my research interest, centres on how, and how successfully, adaptively, groups of humans manage their collective behaviour and their longer-term interactions with the non-human environment. Just as calling yourself a classical composer commits you to working within certain rules and makes your output understandable to others, calling yourself a human ecologist commits you to certain provisional beliefs or working hypotheses.

The lowest ‘branches’ on my rootstock belief in science per se, are the dual ideas that most of what happens in human ecosystems can be interpreted as evolutionary processes – those based on selective retention of variation – or/and as ecological processes – those characterised by interdependent behaviour amongst adaptive entities like plants, non-human animals and people. While these are two powerful perspectives for beginning to understand what is happening or could happen in human ecosystems, they are of little use, by themselves, for making what-to-do decisions. For that, they need to be linked to a normative or ‘prescriptive’ assumption about the purpose or goals or intentions of the decision makers, for example, the assumption by economists that people are basically materialistic. Without knowledge of such goals, decisions cannot be ranked from most to least preferred (note the unstated assumption that decision-makers will have goals). Neither can one begin to speculate as to why human societies evolved as they have, influenced by both agency (purposeful rational behaviour) and the environment’s variability.

In recent years, when the choice has been mine, my preferred assumption about goals has been that decision-makers seek some version of high quality of life for those for whom they see themselves as responsible. Some see themselves as responsible only for themselves while others feel a responsibility towards all people, now and into the indefinite future. My preference reflects the humanistic personal ethic I have long held and continue to hold, humanism being a philosophy which, above all, aspires to human progress. Now we can give my world-view a name: science plus humanism equals scientific humanism.

To be a useful tool for understanding and then suggesting cultural adjustments in human societies, a world-view needs to be much more layered than a belief in the explanatory power of evolutionary and ecological thinking, combined with an acceptance of high quality of life as a pervasive human goal. That primary insight has to be elaborated with further insights (provisional beliefs) into how evolutionary processes or ecological processes tends to operate in particular situations. And, to complete the toolkit, ideas that identify the components of a quality of life in various situations, and how to assess these, are needed.

To be specific, I continue to be comfortable enough with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of human needs as a basis for analysing quality of life. He sees people as striving to satisfy received physiological and psychological needs for life, safety and security, for belongingness and affection, for esteem, for respect and self-respect and for self-actualisation (personal development, realisation of latent potentialities).[iv] As more basic needs (for example food) are met, attention switches, in a hierarchical fashion, to satisfying higher needs (for example for creative activity). A need, in general, is ‘that which persons must achieve if they are to avoid sustained and serious harm.’  The notion of a needs hierarchy leads directly to the idea that a person enjoying high quality of life is someone who is largely able to satisfy his or her higher needs.


When it comes to applying evolutionary and ecological thinking to human sociocultural systems, one is looking to find plausible analogues in human social organisation for powerful concepts and principles that have been largely developed for understanding purely biological systems. Here, while my thinking is glaringly unfinished, let me mention two ideas which I frequently find to be productive starting points when trying to understand what is happening in Australian or global society.

1. The centrality of technological change in cultural evolution

One is the similarity between the role played by a species’ gene pool in biological evolution and the role played in sociocultural evolution by a society’s suite of ‘technology recipes’. Technology recipes are like genes and vice versa. Both are information carriers. Implementing technology recipes is the way in which societies maintain themselves. In simple terms a technology is a process for completing some task in a way that brings it to pre-definable outcome. A technology recipe is the instructions for doing so. While mostly applied routinely and repeatedly, they can appear or change spontaneously (like mutations), after which they become available for adaptive use, that is, as a basis for doing things differently. But, unlike gene mutations, applying a technology is also a goal-seeking activity, undertaken to better satisfy human needs. This bypassing of the hit-and-miss randomness of gene mutation and other evolutionary processes is the reason that sociocultural evolution is normally recognised to be a much faster process than purely biological evolution.

As with biological adaptations, new technologies tend to get developed and used and remembered on the basis of their immediate or short-term benefits. A few, such as the invention of agriculture, slavery and the steam engine, are transformational, changing the structure, infrastructure and (mental) superstructure of societies everywhere. In my world-view, technologies range from the material (turning stuff and energy into products and processes) to the social, meaning technologies, which organise and coordinate human behaviour to create ‘problem-solving’ institutions. I also have a place for ‘cognitive’ and ‘communicative’ technologies. Thus, democracy and nuclear power are equally technologies.

2. Virtual species

A second idea I have frequently found to be fertile is that each of the various common-interest groups into which any modern society’s members can be classified can be thought of as ‘virtual species’ which interact and are interdependent in ways comparable in many respects to the ways biological species interact in human-free ecosystems. That is, society’s various interest groups, its virtual species, are like biological species and vice versa. For example, pursuing this idea, one can see that specialist groups in the economy (for example producers, consumers) are unconsciously cooperating for their mutual benefit – an extension of Adam Smith’s recognition of a metaphorical ‘invisible hand’ guiding self-interested individual behaviours towards socially optimal outcomes.

Equally, virtual species can often be found competing for the same resources, as when, for example, European colonial powers occupied the New World, for example, competed for arable land, slaves, gold. The further ecological concept of parasitism provides a perspective on the exploitation of one virtual species by another, a good example being the idea that we live in an imperialistic world system where there is economic exploitation of ‘peripheral’ nations by the world’s ‘core’ nations. In brief, the virtual species making up human ecosystems interact in a variety of ways, many of them close analogues of processes in non-human ecosystems.

In my world-view, the link between the two perspectives, ecological and evolutionary, is that not only do virtual species interact with each other in line with established behaviours that we can think of as their technologies but they also periodically develop and evolve new technologies intended to improve their members’ survival and quality-of-life prospects. They are following the master principle of pristine systems: ‘evolve or die out.’ Thus, human ecosystems not only regularly reproduce themselves, but also evolve over time as their virtual-species members develop and apply new social and material technologies. For example, a human ecosystem with an intermingling of two virtual species, farmers and graziers, might move towards having more farmers if the farmers develop more reliable crop varieties.


Drawing on my knowledge of what has recurred in history and human affairs and on my understanding of evolutionary and ecological processes, my world-view has come to include a ‘default’ set of expectations which I routinely interrogate when asking ‘What’s happening?’ questions.

I. Self-interest

For example, I initially expect any virtual species to be behaving in a self-interested way. But not rigidly so; I equally recognise that social character is very malleable and that people, especially when young, can be taught to have concern for the wellbeing of others, including strangers. While there are many technologies for suppressing self-interest within groups (for example, shaming), most virtual species find it very difficult to cooperate wittingly with other virtual species, whether searching for compromise or win-win benefits.

This pervasive inability to agree, what I call the ‘virtual-species problem’, is more conventionally known among political scientists as agonism, a term borrowed from biologists. For biologists, agonism is that combination of aggressive, defensive and avoiding behaviours that allow members of a species to regulate their spatial distribution; and, probably, access to food and mates. Amongst political scientists, agonists are sceptical of the capacity of politics to eliminate, overcome or circumvent deep divisions within societies, for example, of class, culture and gender. They find many models of political behaviour, including liberalism and communitarianism, to be far too optimistic about the possibility of finding an harmonious and peaceful pattern of political and social cooperation.[v] While most virtual species are likely to be at least sympathetic to the proposal that humans should collectively pursue high quality of life for all, any agreed program (for example, through the United Nations) for doing so seems unlikely. Indeed, parties will find it very hard to even agree on an operational definition of quality of life.

2. Grasshopperism

Another of my expectations is that individuals and groups, when making ‘what-to-do’ decisions, will frame and compare their behaviour options in, by my standards, an unduly narrow way, commonly by ranking a too-small number of options in terms of too-few performance measures over a too-short time horizon. Too many significant decisions appear to carry an avoidable risk of being confounded by the unforeseen but foreseeable.

Politicians, for example, are notorious for not thinking beyond the next election. Just as it takes many kilometres to change a supertanker’s course, it takes decades to transform a society’s values, attitudes, perceptions and institutions. Western societies’ current inability to factor these kinds of longer-term implications into their decision-making processes in a balanced way is widely recognised as a blind spot that has been given a name – short-termism or, for those who remember Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper, grasshopperism.

Notwithstanding, what I find myself criticising as poorly considered myopic decisions, collective or personal, can often be plausibly explained – not defended – after a little investigation.

Of first importance here is that because it is always difficult to predict the consequences of behaviours in complex socio-cultural systems, it might be judged, legitimately, that the perceived benefits of attempting comprehensive decision-making do not warrant the effort involved. Taking the same point even further, until we gain a better understanding of how complex systems – those containing multiple feedback loops – evolve over time, it might be judged too costly to use so-called rational methods for making decisions, even in a superficial way. I have some sympathy for people who rely only on intuition when making decisions. But there is a middle way between relying on unharnessed intuition and attempting to tease out the full consequences of a spread of possible actions. It is to build imaginative wide-ranging scenarios (stories) of the plausible possible consequences of one’s alternative actions and, only then, allow intuition to choose between these. Sometimes it is illuminating to construct scenarios of both the ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ consequences that can be imagined.

There are other reasons, more prosaic, for the prevalence of myopic decision-making. Most people are poorly served by their education and find it difficult to think about their options in an analytical way or, indeed, even understand that they have ‘options.’ While ‘clear thinking’ to detect specious arguments is widely taught, the ideas of ‘options’ and ‘scenarios’ have only emerged into ‘good currency’ in recent decades – not long enough yet to have reached our schools perhaps. Equally, people find it difficult to think expansively, beyond the everyday, when asking what could happen. Also, as societies grow, complexify and specialise, ‘negotiation overload’ sets in. As the number of ‘urgent’ decisions to be made blows out, the time available to make each decision shrinks, taking its quality with it. This time-pressure effect is particularly noticeable in executive government where the goal of evidence-based policy-making is becoming harder to achieve.


My world-view, as it relates to the behaviour of human ecosystems, has evolved in fits and starts over the past forty years. But I don’t think it has passed through any paradigm shifts in that time in the sense of my discarding an important idea and replacing it with an antithetical idea. Nor do I anticipate such a shift soon. If I sensed a coming breakthrough in science’s ability to unravel the unpredictable behaviour of complex systems, that is where I would be looking to radically update my present understanding of ‘what’s happening’ and what to do about it. But I don’t.

Rather, my world-view grows by selectively assimilating new ideas (meaning new relationships between entities) that support, extend or re-frame my existing ideas about how human ecosystems work. I also look for ideas which I sense, nothing more, might lead me to a new way of thinking about the processes which occur in human ecosystems. For example, recent research on the adaptive value of so-called ‘junk’ DNA in biological evolution makes me wonder if ‘memes,’ a culture’s ‘imitable behaviours,’ play a comparable role in cultural evolution. While some of the new ideas I have assimilated have been my own, I largely draw such from my reading in, particularly, two areas. One is the biological, human and social sciences; and the other is ‘comparative history,’ meaning histories which follow a theme doggedly through time/space, for example histories of energy capture, cruelty, violence, truth…

While my list, restricted to four, would probably change on reflection, here is a group of ideas that, within the time-span of this essay, have dramatically expanded my thinking.

  1. Dissipative systems and maximum entropy

A powerful and relatively recent idea for understanding change is that all reality is made up of nested layers of dissipative or energy-degrading systemssmaller, faster-running systems nestling inside larger, slower-running systems.[vi] The fundamental property of dissipative systems is that they continuously take in energy, physical materials and information (energy in the form of meaningful patterns) from their environment and continuously excrete (dissipate) materials, information and degraded energy – energy of a lowered quality in terms of its capacity to do work – back into the environment. For example, the multi-species assemblages which ecologists refer to as communities or ecosystems can, in some sense, be considered as energy-processing systems which are transforming high-quality solar energy into chemical energy and then distributing this to all of the community members to be dispelled, eventually, as heat, a low-quality (useless) form of energy. The link here to evolution is that evolution can be understood as a process that creates, maintains and destroys dissipative systems.

The ‘principle of maximum entropy production’ is an ‘unproven’ corollary of the second law of thermodynamics.[vii] It asserts that, whenever such a change becomes feasible, any dissipative system spontaneously self-organises into a new state where higher quality energy is degraded into lower quality energy more rapidly than in its previous state. Under self-organisation it keeps moving, step-by-step, through a sequence of feasible but unstable states towards a stable state where energy is being degraded (that is, entropy is being produced) at a maximum rate. So, while energy can be neither created nor destroyed (first law of thermodynamics), the evolution of the universe conforms to the constraint, and strict selection principle, that higher quality energy is always being degraded to lower quality energy as rapidly as is physically possible. For example, it can be shown that the world’s system of winds and ocean currents transfers heat from the tropics to the poles as speedily as is physically possible.

Usually of course, this principle won’t be particularly helpful for constraining (narrowing down) what might happen next in any local situation. Notwithstanding, it is intellectually very satisfying to always have a first order answer to any ‘What’s happening?’ question. Dissipative systems and maximum entropy are the metaphysical foundations of my world-view.

  1. Universal selection

Since Darwin’s time, the basic idea behind evolution through natural selection, namely, the selective (non-random) retention of variation, has been co-opted to explain evolutionary change in all manner of systems. Under the banner of Universal Darwinism or, to be less biological, Universal selection,[viii] temporal changes in various physical, chemical, psychological, cultural (including economic and technological) and other types of systems have been ‘explained’ using one or another version of this powerful idea. For example, solving problems by trial-and-error involves generating a sequence of potential solutions until one which works is found and adopted, that is, selected and retained. My particular interest lies in applying universal-selection thinking to cultural evolution, for example, seeing cultural evolution in terms of the selective (trial and success) retention of newly formulated technologies.

3. Finite life of dissipative systems

This, first, is the idea that all of the universe’s dissipative systems have come into existence by diverting portion of the material-energy flows in some parent system into an offspring system which, while processing material less rapidly in toto than its parent system, processes more energy per unit mass than its parent. That is, it is, according to Eric Chaisson’s ideas, more ‘complex’ than its parent.[ix] If material-energy flows being drawn from the parent system surge or decline markedly for any length of time, the offspring system will, metaphorically speaking, ‘die,’ starved or overwhelmed as the case may be. For example, when the sun dies, our biosphere will die. ‘Dying’ means that the offspring system’s structure – its network of transport channels and ‘transformation nodes’ – is substantially destroyed.

But even in the absence of gross changes in the flows of materials and energy in the parent system, offspring systems typically pass through a birth-to-death life cycle characterised by three stages – immaturity, maturity and senescence. Nothing lasts forever! An immature system is a system which keeps growing by developing structures which capture increasing quantities of the parent system’s material-energy flows, for example, a plant grows more light-capturing leaves. The specific (or relative) growth rate of an immature system increases over time. A mature system is one whose specific growth rate has started to fall because it is approaching a constraint, a limit to the material-energy inputs it can capture for its further growth. For example, a plant canopy that is capturing all incident sunlight. A maturing system needs to add ever-more structure to capture each additional unit of energy. Think for example of the rising unit cost of exploiting depleting oil fields.

At some point every mature system becomes senescent, meaning the system has more-or-less stopped growing and is using most of its energy flow to maintain (neither grow nor adapt) its existing energy-capturing and energy-processing structures. In such a state, the offspring system is processing less energy per unit mass than its parent system and becomes vulnerable to small random fluctuations in material-energy flows (called homeostatic weakening or loss of ‘bouncebackability’) either within the parent system or within the transport channels of the offspring system. In a senescent system, small fluctuations will eventually precipitate a loss of structure and a decline in the system’s capacity to capture energy flows from the environment and dissipate energy back into the environment. Once initiated, loss of structure spreads, domino-style, as the closure of one-transport channel leads to the closure of all channels connected to it. Not always of course. A resilient system may be able to switch to alternative channels. Consider how the loss of one line in a power grid has sometimes closed down the whole grid.

Memento mori. Locating a system (you, me, the universe) within its putative life cycle focuses one’s view of it remarkably, as Samuel Johnson might have said.

4. Consciousness as a recently evolved cognitive technology

Consciousness remains a puzzle for psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers alike. My current working hypothesis, drawing on the ideas of Julian Jaynes[x] and Zoltan Torey,[xi] is that it is a cognitive technology (thinking skill) for helping post-infantile humans decide what to do in situations where neither habit, custom, nor instinct provide a behavioural template, and something more than blind trial-and-error is required. As recently as the first century BCE, it evolved from and replaced what Jaynes calls the ‘bicameral mind’, an earlier cognitive technology in which a single behavioural response is formulated at a sub-conscious level and acted out in obedience to an insistent hallucinated command, often in the voice of a leader, king, god or other authority figure.

Consciousness, by contrast, is more like a dialectical dialogue with oneself. It allows the pre-conscious to throw up ‘solutions’ to a what-to-do problem, one after the other, describing each in words, albeit silently, until a solution is reached which is both plausible (that is, appears to be implementable) and emotionally acceptable.

‘Yes, but do you have any other suggestions’?

‘Ah, thank you, that’s “good enough.”’

Both the bicameral mind and consciousness are language-demanding technologies meaning neither could have evolved before language evolved (and, in passing, that babies cannot use this technology). Consciousness uses sub-vocal language to efficiently convey a tentative solution to a what-to-do problem across the corpus callosum, from left to right hemisphere, to a site where it can be evaluated for its acceptability. The bicameral mind uses language to convey an hallucinated command over the same pathway. The changeover in technologies may have been facilitated by the increasing failures of authoritarian commands in tumultuous times and by the flowering in Greece of a vocabulary for describing one’s thoughts and feelings in terms which recognised such to be self-generated, for example, I feel sick. Consciousness is a social technology to the extent that without the language we learn from others, it would not exist.

Consciousness, a process, is different from ‘being conscious’ which is an experience. Being conscious is an experience of seeing, metaphorically, that one’s problem-detecting processes are currently receiving information about something, from either internal (pre-conscious) or external (sensory) sources. Because it is difficult (but not impossible) to be conscious of something one cannot describe, the range of ‘somethings’ one can be conscious of expands with one’s vocabulary. Speech can be an indicator of the experience of being conscious; if you can hear yourself describe or refer to something, a thought or sense impression, it can be assumed that you are or were conscious of that something.

What-to-do problems can range from ‘fight or flight’ to where to put a comma; from how to classify an object (What bird is that?) to ascribing causes (Nature or nurture?) to checking patterns (Has something changed here? Do I have a problem?).

Consciousness deals with problems constructed by oneself as well as problems presented by the environment, for example, How do I devise a piece of music within the following compositional rules? The very use of language generates its own suite of what-to-do problems, for example, what is the definition of gollywog?

These then are some of the enormous ideas that have come my way. Several are strange and I ask the reader to not reject them too quickly. While I hope there are more grand ideas to come, I expect, at very least, to be regularly amazed and pleased at humanity’s growing understanding of nature and society. More prosaically, I will be looking for ‘factual’ generalisations and concepts that I can add to my world-view’s stock of working hypotheses or, less elegantly, ‘rules of thumb’.


Hermes told Socrates that asking questions was the way to wisdom. Let me close by listing some of the bigger and smaller questions that I need to continue researching if I am to become a wiser human ecologist. Some of these reflect no more than a wish to redress my ignorance of a particular body of literature but others stem from more informed doubts about the robustness/adequacy of various of my current hypotheses; or, conversely, an intuition that some existing idea can be improved.


Language and writing are humanity’s greatest inventions, supreme tools for communicating and creating information, both inside heads and between people. Without them, complex societies and the social, material and cognitive technologies that sustain such societies would not be possible. People have always lied, but is language becoming a maladaptation now that it is so widely used for propaganda, disinformation, emotional manipulation and framing? Just what is a maladaptation? How does one diagnose maladaptation? When can a maladaptation prove fatal? When trust is lost and all information is suspect? Should we be surprised at this debasement? Can language be rescued without emasculating it? Is the counter-enlightenment finally winning? How does language constrain and enhance entropy production? What more can be done with this tool? Does it have unrecognised potentialities? Is language, as distinct from vocabulary, still evolving? Is all language metaphorical and, ultimately, private? What is the relation between a society’s or an individual’s world-view and their vocabulary?


How powerful is the idea that cultural evolution can be largely understood in terms of the evolution and ecology of technologies and ideas? I am very attached to this reductionist proposition, but am I asking too much of it? Have I just rediscovered cultural materialism and technological determinism? How do technologies evolve and spread? Do stable, persistent technologies provide a nurturing environment, one where fragile technologies can emerge and adapt to those that are enduring? How do technologies co-evolve? Does a new recipe have to be used repeatedly before it can be called a technology; for example, is a revolution a social technology? Can methods of foreseeing the full consequences of new technologies be improved? How does one develop maximally useful technologies? What triggers the search for new technology? What limits what is technologically possible? What role do emotions and consciousness play in technological change? What is the relationship between technologies and ideas? Can technological change explain giant social transformations?


When do ideas change the world, for example the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism? In what ways do ordinary individuals contribute (a) to reproducing (maintaining) society and (b) to changing society? Under what conditions can would-be reformers achieve significant reform? Under what conditions can power-seekers achieve power? Is agency something more than conscious rational behaviour subject to the constraints of being a member of society? How did it evolve? What motivates or causes goal-seeking behaviour? Is it reasonable to assume that agents are constrained to be rational? Can individuals make decisions that violate the principle of maximum entropy production? What are the biophysical and social limits on agent behaviour? The challenge if we are to move forward is to extract working hypotheses from the literature and see where they take us.


Is there a place for rational thought in a world where nothing can be proved or disproved? How useful is the concept of ‘bounded’ rationality? Are plausible evidence-based stories a good-enough cognitive technology for provisionally understanding nature and society? What are the alternatives? What does ‘plausible’ mean? Does quantitative modelling have a role in understanding the world? What is an ‘explanation’? Is a moral code a cognitive technology? How does a person’s world-view determine their choice of cognitive technologies? How can cognitive technologies be best classified?


All individuals belong to a variety of virtual species or interest groups and frequently move between these; how should the dynamics of these oscillations be conceptualised? Can virtual species be usefully thought of as occupying ecological niches – nodes in a network of nodes, each of which can be described in terms of their imports, exports and transformations of materials, energy and information?  How will this description change between steady-state and evolving societies? How do virtual species choose their collective actions? When is it useful to think of the populations of city regions (that is, cities plus their hinterlands) as virtual species? How do people become members of a virtual species?  How does the membership of a virtual species grow? How does a network of niches grow or contract? How does one virtual species manage to exploit another? What are the limits to such exploitation?

The questions are legion and time is short. I accept that my world-view will remain unfinished. As Homer said, ‘The journey is the thing’.

[i] M McKenna, An Eye for Eternity: the Life of Manning Clark, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2011.

[ii] Ordered is always a difficult word. I am using it here in the sense of strongly path dependent. New knowledge grows out of old knowledge in a branching fashion. I agree that the components of a flat structure in two dimensions can be strongly ordered, for example an unfinished game of chess.

[iii] To say that one’s world-view is religious is not very informative but to say that one’s world-view is the golden rule is too narrow to qualify. Few people express their worldview as a credo – more likely to be emergent, turning to take something from the group’s perception of reality when their own core beliefs have nothing to offer.

[iv] A Maslow,Toward a Psychology of Being, Van Nostrand, New York, 1968.

[v] (Accessed 27 Nov 2008)

[vi] S N Salthe, Evolving Hierarchical Systems: Their Structure and Representation, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985.

[vii] It means that the principle has been proposed and strongly supported and that there has been little active opposition, just doubt. Consider the following:

The proposed principle of Maximum Entropy Production (MEP) states that the steady state of open thermodynamic systems with sufficient degrees of freedom are maintained in a state at which the production of entropy is maximized given the constraints of the system. Similar/related principles have a long history, for example, the maximum power principle (for example, applied to biological systems by Lotka in 1922). Recently, it has gained increased attention, and theoretical progress has been made as reflected by a series of papers by Dewar on an information theoretical derivation of this principle. This raises questions about how this principle should be interpreted and applied.

[viii] D L Hull, Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988; R R Nelson and S G Winter, An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1982.

[ix] E Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature, Harvard UP, Cambridge, Mass, 2001.

[x] J Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1976

[xi] Z Torey, The Crucible of Consciousness: A Personal Exploration of the Conscious Mind, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1999.




POST 26 – 29-12-2014

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Gilos Xmas 2014

Gilchrists Xmas 2014



My Mum’s favourite saying was:

 “Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in your own.” Adam Lindsay Gordon

I recently heard on television this quote from Churchill.

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.


I have my own poem to distil this advice.


FACE THE MUSIC – Paul Gilchrist – 27-12-2014


With eighty-five coming on,

I want to leave a message.

To my family, I say –

Face the music


If old mistakes bog you down

Seeing no joy ahead

In the daily grind of living

Gone stale or sour


It can be hard to see where the causes lie?

Is it easier to see what others do wrong?

Do choices seem limited?

Do alternatives seem scarce?


Actions, and inactions, have consequences

Courage speaks up, and listens

Be game to see all the options

Face the music



POST 25 – 29-12-2014

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Your blogger in 1951.


  1. DIET


  1. DIET

We must eat to live and the whole issue of the sociology of food is fascinating. If we could distribute the food produced in advanced countries throughout the globe we would solve a few human developmental problems. In our first world there is a surplus and our society has failed to adjust to the surplus. The pornography of food on TV foodie programs is a horror. Our lives are portrayed as being built around taste sensations while we are hunting for a “diet” that will keep the fat off our frames.

A recent article looks at the low fat diet trend and has some fundamental statements about the “diet” situation, including:

The low-fat diet in the study was not that low in fat, and the low-carb group ate significantly fewer caloriesIf anything, the study only confirms that fewer calories result in more weight loss”. (My emphasis)

There is no way your body can manufacture stored body fat unless you put surplus energy (calories) in your mouth.

  • Any carbohydrate surplus to your energy needs will convert to stored fat.
  • Any fat surplus to your energy needs will convert to stored fat.
  • Any protein surplus to your maintenance needs will convert to energy and to stored fat.

So, for a normal healthy person to cut down on stored fat you must cut down on the total energy (calories) without starving yourself of protein.

Maybe there are two problems with excess eating.

  • We do not know what food is a source of energy (calories).
  • We have bad eating habits and find change daunting so rationalise the whole problem.

You must educate yourself about food-energy sources rather than following diet fads. Diet fads are misleading and expensive.

Any way you find that lowers your energy intake is to be encouraged, but for a diet that actually works try the following and stick to it. BREAD, POTATOES, RICE, BANANAS, PASTA and ALCOHOL are the main sources of energy in Western diets, so cut them out. Also biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate, cereals and bought drinks are high energy so cut them out.

Here is my diet recommendation:

My diet for weight loss. Set a target weight and when reached change back to a less stringent diet.



BREAD POTATOES RICE                                                                                             BANANAS PASTA ALCOHOL










Paul Gilchrist 29-12-2014


Patience is not only waiting

Hovering is not dithering

Preparing is positive

Wait for things to happen


Opportunity is to be grasped

Perhaps quickly,

As it flies by

Or lose it.


Hasten not the maturing process

No matter how prolonged it may be

Readiness is essential

Unreadiness injures


Tend and grow a tree

Tend and grow an animal

To learn the necessity of process

So tending and growing a child is no surprise


Love is caring for

Waiting for the other

The joining

The arrival is the reward



POST 24 – 8-12-2014


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Contents –

  4. JUST SO



Paul Gilchrist 6-12-2014

Excited by an account

of explorers going where

no foot had tread before

to discover the surprise of the new.


I recall the postholes

dug on our farm

to carry the wires to keep

stock in and out.


My crowbar and spade

exposed soil and clay

unopened since  the young earth

not seen by human eyes


The earth  was dug

and piled aside

to wait for a post

stood in its place.


Back-filled earth

firmly tamped down

wires threaded

tightened and tied.


Our paddock served

to separate stock

enclose our territory and

mark our stewardship.




Paul Gilchrist

Whether as ripples in a pond, or

red colour in a scene of grey, it

breaks into my mind, in a

sudden moment, of

unexpected joy,



Whether making an entrance, or

casting a stone into the pool, the

suddenness is its start and the

ripples give it status, that

assumes the mantle, and

keeps it there.


Every splash has a start, an

effect, and a

fading to oblivion, from whence

it came, awaiting a

new impetus, to further change the

substrate, for another brief fling.


So make a splash.

Watch what happens.

It is one way to learn.

Watching and copying.

Wondering and dreaming.

Fantasy and invention.


Make a splash.

Show you are here

You exist.

Have an effect.

However tiny.

You know it.



Paul Gilchrist


Grey dawn light shows

A distant hill

In fierce abrupt outlines

Mist drape dropping


Kangaroo patriarch

For the moment busy feeding

While the kids play fighting nearby

Briefly the flash of a fox


Dimmed to grey

In the still poor light

Across the rounded thigh of

The next hill and away


Did the ‘roo see it?

Gone – on with his life

So not gone

Just away



  1. JUST SO

Paul Gilchrist 21-10-2012



Don’t know how

Don’t know why

Clear as that

Just do



Just happens too

Feeds stuff in

Means something

Just does


A picture

Settles in

Memory holds it all

Comes back when I call

Just neat


Other thoughts join in

There is a message there

Has a meaning

With other thoughts

Just fits


The meaning

Helps explain

What I need




Paul Gilchrist


One morning (Lewis Carrol might be offended)


‘Twas misty, not brillig

There were no slithy toves, just cormorants No wabe in which to gyre and gimble

Just the wake of the 6.40 AM ferry

To break upon the shore


The Godwits strutting and fretting

Their couple of hours upon the mud flat

To get a feed by drilling their stretch beaks

Into every tiny wormhole – in hope

Before the tide swells back


Across the water beyond the boats at moorings

Lies the bay of detention of the Political Prisoners

Britain saw fit to collect from Quebec and cast off here

French Canadians gave the place its name

Now just the Municipality of Canada Bay


Where no absolute waterfront impinges on public shore

Along the bayside track walkers greet the dawn

And some greet one another peremptorily

Others avert eyes or hide behind sunnies

To keep apart and do their exercises alone


Some smile and greet in Italian accents

Others just smile and pass on with breakfast ahead

Couples in silence, pairs chatting, singles maybe sadly

Blonde with centre part and a sunny smile

Cheery chap with beanie cap calls the weather


Heron presents its whiteface to the fishlings it seeks

Raven patrols the shoreline for any opportunity

Ibis parachute in to check the provisions

One family of sparrows hang in a bush above a mini-cliff

Occasionally, silvereyes and bulbul join them


Stop to see the stately pelican swoop into the bay

Searches for something delectable along the shore

Before landing with outstretched feet on water top

To patrol the shallows and grab slow fish

Then take off for some other spot who knows where