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Wimsatt William | Fellow Visitor
2003-06-01 - 2003-07-31 | Research area: Philosophy of Biology
Generative Entrenchment to Scaffolded Conditional Autonomy: Units of Evolution and Overlapping Boundaries in Culture and Biology

We seek to articulate the role of organizational constraint processes on all scales of the "Darwinian Sciences,"in biological dynamics articulating ontogenetic and evolutionary processes, especially as they intersect human societal and cultural dynamics in spatially and culturally structured populations. We look particularly to the intersecting roles of two kinds of organizational constraints, autonomy (Bickhard, Christensen, Collier, Hooker) and generative structures (Griesemer, Wimsatt). Their intersections plausibly enform most major descent and diversification processes on the planet. Particular attention will be given to their implications for the nature and roles of modularity and individuation, function, and of evolutionary and non-evolutionary dynamical processes, in biological and societal dynamics.

(1) Culture elaborates through successive layerings and rearticulations of material, mental, social, institutional, and organizational dynamical structures which makes it richly historical and interwoven in ways which tend to defeat simple hierarchial accounts of its organization. We need to be able to characterize these forms and to explain how they could all emerge from simpler adaptive human social organization essentially within the last 15,000 years. Development of locally autonomous reproduction processes and the construction and inheritance of complex structures in, and scaffolding their development through, generative entrenchment processes seem to be crucial elements of this elaboration. We wish to better understand how.

(2) Work on the importance of these dynamical structures has been independently pursued by Hooker and Christiansen (for Autonomy), by Griesemer (for Reproduction) and by Wimsatt and Schank (for Generative Entrenchment). Attention to the importance of "scaffolding"has been increasingly documented by Bickhard, Donald, Hutchins, Clark, and various others, and traces back to the work of Merton, though it has not been analyzed from the proposed perspective.

(3) I seek to study the following kinds of interaction in this process:

(a) How generative entrenchment fixes some processes to provide generative pivots to elaborate others. 
(b) How and when specialized mechanisms can arise to allow deep changes in apparently entrenched structures.
(c) How scaffolding can externalize organization (decreasing individual entrenchment loads, while increasing public communicability) to allow directed and more complex skill acquisition and coordination to articulate socially differentiated skills, knowledge and artifactual material structures, and
(d) the entrenchment structures of the things acquired.
(e) How scaffolding can generate modularity and resultant cross-traffic of the modules, apparent self-organization, and create and sustain increased specialization and organizational complexity.
(f) How hereditary channels can proliferate, operating with different time-scales, bandwidths, and error distributions, with characteristic conditional modulatory interactions. And finally,
(g) How all of these processes make us multiply and differentially permeable receivers and retransmitters of contextually modular cultural elements.

My research so far has focussed on (a), (b), (d), and, in case studies, on (e) and (f). They all require close analysis of similarities and differences with the biological cases. The proposed collaborations at KLI (and the accounts of the evolution of form through generative self-organized constraints by Müller and Newman, and the broader socio-cultural elaborative work on these processes by Callebaut) should particularly strengthen my understanding in (c), (e), (f), and (g), though most of these topics as coupled. Determining the units of cultural evolution requires closer articulation of my work with Griesemer’s on Reproducers, and his (derived) notion of a Replicator, and our interests have recently converged in a concern with scaffolding processes. But these in turn require articulation with the work of Bickhard, Christianson and Hooker on scaffolding and autonomy.
This is doubly true for culture, where elaboration of rich and cross-cutting scaffolding structures engenders (cultural) hereditary channels which can apparently create quasi-modules out of either apparently unrelated collections of cultural and natural objects, or differentiate them out of integrated larger artifactual structures (modularizing and standardizing production). We have freed modes of modular multiplication to allow combinatorial production of composite structures in ways [and on time scales] apparently unknown in biology.
Understanding these units, ways in which they do, and fail to, have autonomy, meet the conditions to qualify as one of the stronger grades of Griesemer’s multipliers, are constrained and modified by their internal and scaffolding entrenchments, and make complex objects and processes with cross-cutting boundaries responding to interacting hereditary channels on different time scales, is to go a long way to understanding the complexity, the changing generative structure, and the dynamics of culture.

(4) Critical assessment of published work and examples, leading to better articulation of our work, theoretical proposals, systematically explored for theoretical and experimental consequences, and exploration of new directions for modeling.

(5) Discussion and writing, focussing on a period or daily seminars for 2 weeks at KLI between the major proponents of the ideas considered (Christiansen, KLI; Hooker, Unewcastle; Wimsatt, Uchicago; Griesemer, UCDavis), and others present at KLI, preceded by written exchange of material and views.