A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute. Originally published July 20, 2021.
In 1860, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The Conduct of Life, part one, on Fate, “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times. Our geometry cannot span the huge orbits of the prevailing ideas. . .” Which sums up my feelings over the last year and a half. It all started in March 2020 with some hope in “geometry” (immunology, epidemiology) and soon hit the insurmountable wall of prevailing ideas and superstitions. And now as vaccines slowly and unevenly restore normalcy, the whole question of the conduct of life looms large. In the same essay Emerson writes (with characteristic prescience): “Will you say the disasters which threaten mankind are exceptional, and one need not lay his account for cataclysms everyday? Aye, but what happens once, may happen again. . .”
I would like to ask how a community such as SFI should “lay its account for cataclysm” and whether the “new normal” — which implies physical disconnection and virtual connection, communal pause and domestic concentration, and attenuated interaction with effortless access — plays into a strategy for complex preparedness.
In order to answer this question there might be some clues in the scientific literature on the evolution of recombination.
Between 1930 and 1932, Ronald A. Fisher and Herman Muller proposed that sexual recombination evolved to accelerate the speed of adaptation by reducing competition among beneficial mutations in separate lineages. Recombination brings beneficial mutations together into one super-genome. Like the ultimate merger of complementary technologies. Importantly, this mechanism is only of value when environments are changing and existing adaptive complexes are not sufficient. Recombination in a fixed environment is a waste of time and energy.
In 1949, Fisher introduced his Theory of Junctions to explore more carefully the conditions under which recombination could evolve. The problem is that in inbred populations (i.e. homozygous at most loci) recombination offers no advantage, as this merely shuffles identical regions of parental genomes. It would be like exchanging books when we have identical libraries. Junctions should only appear in those stretches of the genome where novel recombination can arise. For example, if I collect science fiction and you collect murder mysteries we might surprise each other by swapping books from these genres. And once a solution has been found, the junction can drift out of existence.
Places like SFI are in part recombinational mechanisms operating in the space of ideas. But this is insufficient to ensure novelty. The real challenge — as Fisher pointed out — is the placement of the junctions. It is not only a question of exchanging ideas (most ideas are common knowledge — epistemically homozygous), but exchanging ideas that are novel to both parties. Fisher observed that the evolution of the placement of junctions is a slower process than the recombination events themselves. It takes many generations of trial and error to get the position of the junctions just right. Discovering junctions is the true process of exploration, whereas recombination is largely a smart mechanism of exploitation. This is like the difference between the interdisciplinary and the transdisciplinary. In the former we know what ideas to exchange, whereas in the latter we need to find them. The remote exchange of ideas (from home, online), allows for the recombination of ideas.
The challenge is identifying those ideas we need to recombine to discover something novel. As Fisher discovered, this meta-process of discovering the unique books to share in each of our libraries, is incredibly time-consuming and requires a high level of population-level trial and error. This is the kind of experimentation that in-person collaboration supports. It goes beyond sharing ideas towards discovering which ideas are worth sharing. When economists, computer scientists, and archaeologists at SFI started researching agent-based models for Southwestern demographic shifts, they did not know in advance what ideas they each needed. They had to discover — after numerous fruitless exchanges — where to place their epistemological junctions. Once they had done so, the whole Artificial Anasazi project took off.
In order to decide how best to conduct our research life into the future, it is worth bearing in mind the lessons of evolution — when uncertainty is at a maximum we need time together to discover ideas worth sharing.
Thenceforth we might each live on our own island and transmit these ideas by pigeon post, secure in the value of their originality.
— David Krakauer
President, Santa Fe Institute