Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 8


In the previous entry in this series on survival, success, and significance, we discussed the difference between survival in the animal world and the human world.

We viewed these differences from the perspective of how tightly coupled the behavior of an animal and a species must be, to the natural world, in order to survive. 

Through this lens, we were able to compare and contrast between the two groups. 

Animals must have behaviors that are tightly coupled to the natural world, in order to survive. This was also the case for humans in the early days of our 300, 000 years, on this blue planet. 

That said, we saw that humans, which were initially just another species of animal, came to gradually decouple their behavior and their survival, from the natural world.

The advent of agriculture was a focal point for discussing this decoupling, of human behavior and survival, from the natural world.

Farming was perhaps the first major transition the created a clean break between the animal world and the human world, in terms of survival. This can be seen if one takes a perspective based on behavior and survival dynamics, rather than merely looking at other developments such as intelligence, language, or toolmaking etc. There is no doubt that these other developments were clearly important in their own right, and that they are an indispensable part of our human experience. That said, we don’t start to see the full force they can amount to, until these individual advancements, start combining in the enterprise of agriculture. 

It is with the advent of farming that humans began to exercise top down control, rather than being forced to react to events in nature, as they happen from the bottom up. 

So, now we must examine what it means to decouple from a lower level, and to ascend to a higher level of abstraction. Further, we can ask how this power of abstraction, is at the heart of the human experience, and the source of our confusion about survival and success, in the modern world.


Abstraction built the bridge from the animal world to the human world. 

Without abstraction there is no art, no language, no planning about the future, no reflecting upon the past. Without abstraction, we might not even have the deep and persistent illusion, of being a “self”, in a world of “others”.

It would not be hyperbole to suggest that without abstraction, there would be no modern human experience, and quite possibly no “humans” to speak of, at least not the way we think of ourselves now. 

So, what is abstraction, and why is it so important to the human experience? Further, why is abstraction at the heart of one of our most frequent human failings? That being our tendency to conflate what is necessary for survival, with what are merely superfluous tokens, of external success.

There are many ways to think about abstraction, and we will look at a few of them throughout this entry. 

Abstraction and Computation

One of the best ways to look at abstraction, is through the lens of computation. So, here is a true statement about computation, that might feel very strange the first time you consider it. 

Humans may have invented electronic computers, but nature has been doing computation, at minimum since the origin of life, and perhaps for all eternity. 

I felt that it was critical to point this out so that we can avoid a misconception that we often make, when we assume that humans had to invent everything we view as having technological applications. Although humans may be doing something unique with abstraction and computation, in comparison to what other animals can do purposely, this does not mean that nature itself, was waiting for humans to invent computation and abstraction. Abstraction, just like computation, is not something that started with humans. Abstraction and computation are just some of the ways, that nature self-organizes, processes information, and evolves. To say this another way, computation and abstraction, are as much a part of the natural world, as are storms, ground, mountain, and sky. The difference is that rather than being aspects of nature we can observe with our eyes, abstraction, and computation are aspects of how nature generates and organizes, what we ultimately observe. 

Computation and Abstraction in Nature

All that a computer can do, is to represent logical operations, in a way that transforms an input state to an output state. This has absolutely nothing to do with electricity. Computation would exist and does exist outside of human made transistors and circuit boards. It just happens to be the case, that it is particularly useful to instantiate computation in electronic devices. We use electricity to compute, due to the quantity of operations that need to be performed efficiently, and precisely. In principle, we could make computers out of water and pipes, marbles and platforms, or brains and bodies. In practice, however, this is not yet possible. Up to this point, humans have not been able to manufacture or control other kinds of systems, with the efficiency and precision required, to compute at the scales we desire. This is the main reason why many people have the mistaken belief, that computation is somehow a property of electricity or electronic devices. Further, this plays into the sense that computation is something that happens outside of nature, rather than as a natural consequence of i nature itself. 

As a quick example of computation in nature, DNA needs to be split and transcribed, into mRNA, so that mRNA can be translated by the ribosome, into the amino acid chains we know as proteins. Proteins form the basic building blocks for our bodies. This process is itself a computation, that is happening in cells throughout our bodies, as we speak. It is quite striking, to look at the role played by a ribosome, and then to compare this to the model of a Turing Machine. The ribosome, in a cell, takes an input codon (code for an amino acid), and then outputs the specific amino acid. You can see how this is very similar to a Turing Machine, which is an abstract model for performing rule-based operations. 

The ribosome, in the case of biology, can be thought of as playing the role of the “read-write head” in a Turing Machine. Yet, we know that Turing himself did not know how the process of DNA transcription and translation occurred in biology, when he created his abstract model of computation. The Turing Machine model originated in 1936. Watson and Crick did not even discover DNA until 1953 (though it is important to note that the x-Ray Crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, had hinted at DNA’s existence, prior to the official discovery of James Watson and Francis Crick). The point, is that Turing was able to look at the way human beings do mathematics, and to abstract that process. Turing’s model of computation was so widely applicable, that it could even begin to connect way back down, to represent core aspects of the process of DNA transcription and translation. That fact that any connection could be made at all, between Turing’s abstract model of computation, and the inner workings of our genetic machinery, just goes to show what a genius he really was. 

Before moving on to the next section, there is an essential point worth mentioning, about abstraction and computation. Notice that you can ladder up into the same abstraction, from lower level starting points, that might seem unrelated at that level. Here we can use the examples of looking at humans doing calculations, and cells doing DNA transcription and translation. They don’t seem to have much if anything in common when you look at their lower level details. Yet, if you ascend to a higher level abstraction, and only think about how simple rules can be used to perform operations, then suddenly you can see the commonalities. Similarly, once at a more abstract level, you can ladder back down to any number of disparate lower level areas, that might otherwise not seem related from that lower level itself, and see how they are all related.

Turing Patterns In Biology

While on the subject of Alan Turing, we should note that he was not only prescient in creating an abstract model of computation that captures many of the intricacies of DNA transcription and translation. Turing was also right on the money in his notable attempt to understand computation and abstraction in the natural world. In particular, he wanted to explain how the natural world, creates its stunning mosaic of colors and shapes that we see in life across the globe.

Turing had conceived of a way that animals in nature could produce intricate patterns of various markings and stripes, by following simple rules, not unlike a computer. 

In his 1952 paper titled “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”, Turing laid out a mechanism for how these fantastic and often elaborate patterns, could be created spontaneously, without any top down “controller”.

The general idea of the simplified model, is that two different chemicals in a region, can spontaneously generate waves, due to random chaos, in what is known as “reaction-diffusion”. The randomness and chaos is essentially just a property of the system being a thermal bath. The specifics of the pattern formation are governed by how each chemical reacts to the presence of the other chemical. 

Chemical A might reinforce the production of chemical A, and chemical B. While, chemical B on the other hand, may inhibit the production of chemical A. From this we can start to see that there will be an interplay between chemical A spreading both chemicals in the area, and chemical B, creating regions where chemical A is absent. This is an ultra-simplified model, but it is actually sufficient to start getting the flavor, of how intricate pattern formation can occur in biological systems, just based on the simple rules for lower level interactions. 

We can observe similar kinds of dynamics playing a role in limb formation, during the development of embryos.

John von Neumann’s Universal Constructor

There is another person who needs to be mentioned, while we are on this topic of seeing computation and abstraction both from the human perspective, and from the perspective of the natural world. It may actually be even more stunning to consider the genius of John von Neumann, who may have even gone further than Alan Turing, in terms of understanding abstraction and its implications. 

John von Neumann was not content to create an abstract model of calculation, but he strived to literally create the magic of biology itself, which is to compute its own physical instantiation, and to self assemble. Von Neumann called this a “Universal Constructor”, and it is absolutely striking again, how similar this abstract notion of self-assembly, is to the actual ribosome we find so central to DNA transcription and translation, in biology. As far as we know, von Neumann came up with the idea for a universal constructor sometime in the 40s. Like in the case of Turing, this was years before DNA was discovered, much less understood. It was even too early to make use of digital computers (after all, we needed Turing and Von Neumann to usher in the age of electronic computation, in the first place). 

The very fact that a human being is self assembled from genetic code, is itself an almost magical feat of abstraction and computation. This is not the time or the place to deep dive into ontogeny, i.e., the development of embryos. That said, it is at least worth pointing out, that we can only reproduce complex organisms like ourselves, because of abstraction and computation, in the natural world. 

For humans and creatures with similar genetic processes, what gets transferred between the generations, is not “the thing itself”, but rather the abstract representation of the body to be built, in the form of genetic code. This code would mean nothing if it were not in the right context, to be computed and self assembled, by the process of transcription and translation. 

This contrasts with the manner that early single celled life forms, replicated. In the beginning, life forms literally split in two, such that the “new” generation, was literally just a part of the previous generation. This is a case where there is no abstraction. The replication occurs on the same level of reality, as the existing parent. This means that complex forms cannot be evolved or transferred between generations, the same way they can when replication occurs at a more abstract level. This is again another example of how abstraction and computation make a huge difference in the natural world. 

Closing Thoughts

Over the course of this article, we have discussed abstraction and computation, in many ways. The point is to make sure we have some common understanding of what these ideas are about. A focal point of this article, was to emphasize that abstraction and computation, are not exclusive to electronic devices, created by human beings. Instead, they are just a part of how nature itself operates. 

Looking forward, in the next entry in this series, we will focus on how humans have turned abstraction and computation into superpowers, that separated our species from the animal world, and created new possibilities for dealing with survival.