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Friday, March 04, 2005

Blind Squirrels and Acorns (Make it New!)

Someone once said — I have no idea who — "Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then."

The Tao of Programming says the same thing in a slightly different way:
There once was a master programmer who wrote unstructured programs. A novice programmer, seeking to imitate him, also began to write unstructured programs. When the novice asked the master to evaluate his progress, the master criticized him for writing unstructured programs, saying, ``What is appropriate for the master is not appropriate for the novice. You must understand the Tao before transcending structure.''
Everything I know about the Tao, or about programming, could be written in large letters on the inside cover of a packet of rolling papers, but the above passage makes sense to me with the name of any art, discipline, or profession substituted for "programmer."

What am I on about? Well, I've been reading Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable. In it Dawkins makes the point that evolution is consistently and wrongly thought of as a theory of chance and that arguments against evolution often focus on the amazing and complex machine of the eye, claiming that something like it arising by chance is so improbable that its existence would be virutally impossible without conscious design. The problem is that chance forms a very small part of the theory of evolution. Chance, randomness, mostly exists in the occasional mutation of genes, of recombinant DNA. The effects of those mutated genes, and whether or not they and the [mostly] small changes they wreak in an organism are passed on to its descendants, are not wholly subject to chance.

(The eye, by the way, has evolved about forty times independently in the history of life on our world. It is a nearly perfect machine, but not miraculous in any sense. In fact, given the constant and complete bombardment of the Earth by photons and the existence of pigment (light sensistive cells) in terrestial organisms, I'd say it would be more miraculous if such a thing as the eye had never evolved. So painters, if ever there was a predestined art, yours is it!)

If a change allows an organism to exploit its environment more efficiently (using less energy and time to find food, run faster to escape from predators, etc) than other members of its species, the organism is more likely to survive, find a mate and breed and therefore more likely to pass on its genes in the form of descendants than others are; which means the change is present in a higher proportion of the next generation's population, and higher again in following generations. This is not chance. This is natural selection, which is the main thrust and driving engine of evolution. It is powered by heritability and accumulation.

Artificial selection works in much the same way; the only difference is that a [mostly] conscious decision is made about what changes are preferable.

All human endeavour proceeds by artificial selection. This includes, for instance, every discipline of the arts. In each of those disciplines we have generation upon generation of accumulated knowledge and techniques. We never have to start from scratch in any area. To try to do so, to insist upon doing so, is to subject ourselves to randomness. That approach is tantamount to Fred Hoyle's view on the immaculate conception of an enzyme: expecting a hurricane to blow through a junkyard and put together a 747 from the parts. What we have in our traditions and predecessors is an immense richness from which to choose, all sorts of ideas and techniques, etc, to recombine. It is there that freshness and originality are found. That is how we can "make it new." We don't have to be blind squirrels.


Anonymous said...

Oh, John, I can hear the avant-garde prepping their vats of boiling oil as I type! In all seriousness, there seems to be a lot of misconceived analogizing of literary development and biological evolution, along the lines of "rhyme/linear narrative/what-have-you is neandarthal; we have evolved beyond such primitive techniques." Lots of poets writing "unstructured programmes" without first learning the value of "order."

If I recall correctly, there was considerable disagreement between Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, no? I've read alot of SJG, whose books I love, but no Dawkins. Is he as good a sylist as Gould? And what are his thoughts on baseball?

MackJohnny said...

I don't really have time right this moment to respond fully. I will say that I don't think I'm making an analogy.

More on this after I come home from work tonight.

GM said...

Before you two get into it, may I recommend a book that is off-topic, but may interest you?

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife. Just strikes me you'd like it. It's informed quite a bit of my thinking, in a tangential way.


Anonymous said...

John, before you respond, just want to clarify that I don't think you were making the analogy--quite the opposite, as I see it--just that I hear quite a bit of such 'thought' bandied about.


MackJohnny said...

GM, thanks for the recommendation. It does interest me. Very much. I've read a couple of good books on zero already --- The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, by Robert Kaplan; and The Book of Nothing, by John D. Barrow. There's also an Andrew Vachss novel called Down In The Zero, one of his ongoing series about the anti-hero Burke. If read well-spaced from each other, the Burke novels can make for occasional evenings of good, grim reading.

(Another thing, I always have to think twice before I say the word tangential aloud. If I don't, I'll pronounce it as tan genital. True.)

Z, glad you didn't think I was making an analogy. Though I was in a sense, I suppose, albeit indirectly, by the implicit assumption/assertion that poetic or artistic techniques are somewhat equivalent to DNA in their capacity to be recombined and the great possible range of viable recombinations. Two examples of this from 20th-century music that come to my mind immediately are Hank Williams Sr, and Tom Waits. Another is Ray Charles.

About Dawkins: I'm enjoying Climbing Mount Improbable a lot. The prose is very clear, if slightly dry at times (and he both alludes to Housman and quotes Yeats). I believe I prefer it to Gould's, whom I too have read a fair amount of. I haven't read anything else by Dawkins, though I've had my eyes open for a copy of The Blind Watchmaker for a while. Can't find one. I don't know what he thinks about baseball, but he does comment briefly about his "disagreement" with Gould, which concerned Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibrium" (periodic rapid change in species as a whole) in evolution. He seems to think that Gould might have had trouble seeing around his (Gould's) ego at times. I quote:

"...This 'punctuation as rapid gradulism' is very different from macro-mutation, which is instantaneous change in a single generation. The confusion arises partly because one of the two advocates of the theory, Stephen Gould (the other is Niles Eldridge), also independently happens to have a soft spot for certain kinds of macro-mutations, and he occasionally underplays the distinction between rapid gradulism and true macro-mutation --- not, I hasten to add, miraculous Boeing 747 macro-mutation. Eldridge and Gould are rightly annoyed [Gould was still alive when Dawkins wrote this] at the misuse of their ideas by creationists who, in my terminology, think that punctuated equilibrium is about huge, 747-type macro-mutations which, they are right to believe would require miracles ... Dr Gould would lessen the risk of such misunderstanding if he more clearly emphasized the radical distinction between rapid gradulism and saltation (i.e. macro-mutation). Depending upon your definition, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is either modest and possibly true or it is revolutionary and probably false. If you blur the distinction between rapid gradulism and saltation you may make the punctuation theory seem more radical. But at the same time you offer an open invitation to misunderstanding, an invitation that creationists are not slow to take up."

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, wery eenteresting. I've been reading a lot more anthropology than "natural science" of late, but that snippet made me want to get back into evolution (revolutionary or no). You say you want an evolution, we-ell we all wanna change the world...

To clarify further, yes you were making an analogy, just not the dumbed-down, now-is-acme-past-is-primitive sort I was talking about. Your analogy, moreover, I agree with fundamentally. A great example from relatively recent poetry is Peter Van Toorn. There are many others, too of course, but fewer on this continent, where we've traditionally been more preoccupied with revolution and differentiation (speciation?) than with sustainable, mature growth and development of an evolutionary variety. I think things are getting better, tho. Maybe.


MackJohnny said...

I'd specify two related analogies I see or would comfortably claim to make: 1. language/DNA 2. techniques and forms (or modes)/genes. A third would be record-keeping, writing etc, as heritability and cumulative gain in resources. But I think I would call those subordinate or even incidental to what I see as my overall point here.

Towards that point I'll say that human activities, specifically in, but not limited to, the arts disciplines, are dynamic processes of selection which tend generally towards increased efficiency for the job at hand. In the arts, that efficency is of expression --- not necessarily shorter, or smaller, but containing more bang for the brushstroke, or wham for the word etc. In other words, evolution, whether driven by natural or artifical selection (probably most accurately a combination of the two), is a fact which permeates our lives.

I'm not saying that evolution has a goal of increased efficency --- or any goal, for that matter. I am saying that evolution's effect is generally to increase efficiency for the job at hand and that we are subject to it in all we do, including the arts.

And now I finally get to the point to find that I am repeating myself (how's that for increased efficiency?): with all this in mind, our best bet for improving at what we do is to work with what we have in and around us while keeping an eye out both for new ways of putting things together and for the very rare occurrence of something truly new.

GM said...

Good gravy. You two can go on, eh?

Thanks for the recs on the zero books. I don't know those and will definitely pick them up.

But I have two more alerts for you -- I've recently seen two very good books in the remainder bin around these parts. If it's part of a national dumping off, you should take the chance to pick both up in hardcover for very little scratch.

Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso and I Have Seen the World Begin by Carsten Jensen. The Calasso book is of interest to all three of us poetically, I would suspect, but the Jensen is simply one of the best reads I've ever had in my life. He's a Danish (?) travel writer who just has a beautiful mind. I read with him in Ottawa in 2000 and have been thinkning about this book ever since.

I think someone should develop a website called "Remainder Alert" or something like that -- a place to post find-it-quick messages for dying books. Like the weird Albert Goldbarth essays I just picked up in HC for four bucks.

Anonymous said...

Woe to him who wilfully imitates while ignorant of the constant.
-Lao Tsu (as quoted by Peter Van Toorn)

And thus we come back to the Tao.


PS: apologies for the PVT re-iterations. I'm in the thick of a very long essay on him (6500 words and counting) and have a hard time not relating everything I hear and see to Mountain Tea.