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Reading :: The Tree of Knowledge

Posted by: on Nov 20, 2014 | No Comments
Tree of Knowledge
By Humbert R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela

Jeff Susna recommended this book to me on Twitter, and later pointed me to this talk, in which he applies the book's concepts to cybernetics. That talk is more valuable than this review will be, I suspect, so definitely take a look.

Are you back? Okay. As the subtitle suggests, this book is about "the biological roots of human understanding." The authors, who are both biologists, seek to provide a discussion of thought and perception that is rooted in biology. But the book is no dry biology textbook—it's full of accessible illustrations, sidebars, and metaphors that help us to grasp tricky concepts.

The central concept is that of autopoietic organization: for instance, in cell dynamics, a "cell metabolism produces components which make up the network of transformations that produced them" (p.44). This network of transformations is limited by a boundary—a membrane. So the two aspects of this unitary phenomenon are Dynamics (metabolism) and Boundary (membrane), each of which produces conditions for the other (p.46). "The most striking feature of an autopoietic system is that it pulls itself up by its own bootstraps and becomes distinct from its environment through its own dynamics, in such a way that both things are inseparable" (pp.46-47). And they add: "Living beings are characterized by their autopoietic organization. They differ from each other in their structure, but they are alike in their organization" (p.47).

What's the difference between organization and structure? In a sidebar, the authors explain that "Organization denotes those relations that must exist among the components of a system in order for it to be a member of a specific class. Structure denotes the components and relations that actually constitute a particular unity and make its organization real" (p.47).

Speaking of structure—in the sense the authors are using the term—the book's structure takes us from the cell level to the level of human knowledge. Since I'm not planning to recapitulate the entire book, I'll skip the next chapter (on history, reproduction, and heredity) and get to the chapter on multicellulars, which describes the phenomenon of structural coupling (p.75). In this phenomenon, two or more autopoietic unities are placed in interaction, becoming the source of each others' interactions: "This means that two (or more) autopoietic unities can undergo coupled ontogenies when their actions take on a recurrent or more stable nature," including "reciprocal perturbations." And "The result will be a history of mutual congruent structural changes as long as the autopoietic unity and its containing environment do not disintegrate: there will be a structural coupling" (p.75). (Side note: I can see the clear influence of autopoiesis on John Boyd's OODA loop.)

Speaking of disturbances, the authors go on to argue that "the changes that result from the interaction between the living being and its environment are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed system" (p.96). By analogy, they point out that "breakdowns in man-made machines reveal more about their effective operation than our descriptions of them when they operate normally" (cf. Latour on black-boxing here).

Let's skip a lot of good stuff in the interest of the review. By Ch.8, the authors have worked their way up the ladder to social phenomena—although they're still dealing with insects and birds. "We call social phenomena those phenomena associated with the participation of organisms in constituting third-order entities" (i.e., structural coupling across organisms rather than across cells), and "As observers we designate as communicative those behaviors which occur in social coupling, and as communication that behavioral coordination which we observe as a result of it" (p.195). Given what they know about structural coupling, they conclude (as most of us in rhetoric have) that "there is no 'transmitted information' in communication" (p.196)—that is, the abstraction of information is not a thing to be transported. "The phenomenon of communication depends on not what is transmitted, but on what happens to the person who receives it" (p.196). (Again, cf. Latour on the difference between the diffusion model and the translation model.)

The authors also discuss another thing in this chapter: "By cultural behavior we mean the transgenerational stability of behavioral patterns ontogenetically acquired in the communicative dynamics of a social environment" (p.201).

Eventually, we get to the chapter on linguistic domains and human consciousness. Here, although the insights are based on those of the previous chapters, we don't get many surprises from a contemporary rhetorical standpoint. "Language is an ongoing process that only exists as languaging, not as isolated items of behavior" (p.201)—yes. "What we say—unless we are lying—reflects what we live, not what happens from the perspective of an independent observer" (p.231)—sure. "[W]e maintain an ongoing descriptive recursion which we call the 'I.' It enables us to conserve our linguistic operational coherence and our adaption in the domain of language" (p.231)—okay. (Side note: My interest piqued, I googled "Deleuze Maturana" and sure enough, Deleuze & Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus is in dialogue with these ideas.)

Finally, we get to the last chapter, "The Tree of Knowledge." See Jeff Sussna's video (link above) for the implications. The chapter is on the ethics that the authors say emerge from this world view. A few sentences: "we have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth" (p.248); "We affirm that at the core of all the troubles we face today is our very ignorance of knowing" (p.248). And "The knowledge of knowledge compels. It compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty" (p.245).

And here, to be blunt, I have trouble following the argument. Yes, one could take the previous chapter's lessons as leading to mutual understanding, to rejecting dogmatism in favor of recognizing and honoring each other's viewpoints, and as (I guess) seeing love as the animating feature that brings the world forth. But one could also absorb this insight into the knowledge of knowledge, then use it to compete more effectively, to better understand one's enemy in order to cut him off from his knowledge of his environment, to confuse and disorient him in order to cause his alliances and will to disintegrate. This use seems just as applicable, and certainly seems to have precedent in some of the examples used across chapters (cells, organisms). As I noted earlier, this use was the one that John Boyd applied, and through his work, it has become a highly effective component of military strategy as well as business strategy.

In any case, the book was highly interesting and useful. As you can tell, between the time I read it and now, I've read other books, and these other ideas are overlaid over my second reading. My sense is that it'll become even more interesting on subsequent readings. Definitely pick it up.