Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Bonnitta Roy - Evo-Devo and the Post-Postmodern Synthesis: What Does Integral Have to Offer?

The good folks over at Beams and Struts (one of the best of the new breed of integral blogs) posted this excellent and thought-provoking article by Bonnitta Roy a few weeks ago - I think I quick-linked it to Friendfeed/Twitter/Facebook, but I wanted to also post it here (in fact, I may have already done so - if I did, please excuse the repetition).

Evo-Devo and the Post-Postmodern Synthesis: What Does Integral Have to Offer?

Written by Bonnitta Roy



I am currently working on an article about epistemic challenges to evolutionary theory, and it seemed timely to receive an invitation from Chris Dierkes to contribute to the ongoing discussion here at beamsandstruts on evolution. More specifically for this audience, I am addressing the question of what does integral have to offer to evolutionary theory as it moves into its post- postmodern phase. The various new approaches to evolutionary thinking I am researching, are post-postmodern in the sense that the theorists are themselves aware that a theory of evolution is both created within and constrained by the epistemic, conceptual framework any particular theory is working from. These new approaches to evolutionary theory are part of a larger new inquiry into science studies in the wake of the postmodern assessment of scientific reason. There is, for example, a number of Philosophers of Science who are trying to define a “naturalistic turn” that would serve as a post postmodern re­-construction of science. This, too, requires inquiry into various conceptual assumptions and frameworks that have become embedded in the scientific world-view, as well as some delicious thinking about entirely new conceptual tools with which to approach science. Evolutionary theory is reaping exciting benefits from this “naturalistic turn” in particular, through an emerging field of theory and research that is attempting a grand synthesis of evolution and development, called Evo-Devo.

It is easy to recognize Evo-Devo’s naturalistic turn in Lewontin’s words quoted in Integrating Evolution and Development.[1]

All sciences, especially biology, have depended on dominant metaphors to inform their theoretical structures and to suggest directions in which the science can expand and connect with other domains of inquiry. Science cannot be conducted without metaphors. Yet, at the same time, these metaphors hold science in an eternal grip and prevent us from taking directions and solving problems that lie outside their scope. p. 37

The epistemic challenge for a naturalized science of Evo-Devo is, as Callebaut notes in the same book

Theoretical perspectives coordinate models and phenomena; such coordination is necessary because phenomena are complex, or scientific interests in them are heterogeneous, and the number of possible ways of representing them in models is too large. Adequate theorizing may require a variety of perspectives and models—a point worth keeping in mind in discussing what the “right” account of evo-devo is. p.38

One primary candidates for an adequate account is Susan Oyama’s developmental systems theory. Oyama is both a psychologist and philosopher of science, and her work The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution, is regarded as the foundational text in the field. Evan Thompson’s enactive approach attempts to carry DST (developmental systems theory) forward by interweaving through it a theory of the phenomenology of autopoeitic systems.

Not surprisingly, given its postmodern sensibilities, the naturalistic turn in science has also embarked on a re-conceptualization of socio-cultural evolution. There is an interesting twist here in which the notion of socio-cultural evolution is being extended “back” into biological evolutionary theory by asking new questions about the “fundamental unit of evolution,” The answer it seems, may turn out to look more like socio-cultural adaptation and its relatedness to the environment, than any current theory based on a combination of genetic and epigenetic forces and natural selection processes in the environment.

Again, in Lewontin’s words,

Any theory of the evolution of human life which begins with what are said to be individual biological constraints on individuals, and tries to create a picture of society as the sum of those constraints, misses what is really essential about the social environment, which is that in moving from the individual to the social level we actually change the properties of objects at the lower level. This whole problem of levels of explanation, of levels of evolution, of levels of action, is one of the deepest ones with which we have to deal in our understanding not only of sociobiology, but of evolution in general.[2]

I hope this short introduction to my research gives you a taste of how exciting these times are for evolutionary and developmental theory as well as for philosophers who are looking at the activity from a meta-theoretical level.

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