Namilov and the organismic view of science

Vasilii Namilov is a Russian researcher and philosopher of science. In 1981, he presented, in Faces of Science, a cybernetic approach to the phenomenon of science. In the book, the society of science is regarded as a metaphoric or abstract system, residing within the biosphere. As such it has the properties of a macroorganism obeying the same rules as other species within biological evolution. The book focuses on its self- organizing and self-regulating properties, with their equivalents in the biosphere. These properties in turn develop and change as the macroorganism evolves.

Namilov thus finds that the most typical property of both science and the biosphere is their organismic systems which develop over time. As the contained information is renewed, it is also complexified. Just as new species arise through the biological evolution, new ideas and areas of knowledge come into being in science.

The self-organizing system of science has its origin in the emergence of a communication system based on theses, textbooks, journals and other publications. The smallest component of the macroorganism, that is, the equivalent of a cell, is the scientific paper. Its development is determined by discoveries, by definition not possible to predict and thereby the equivalent to mutations. Through mutation, taken as a random generator together with some selection rules, an adaptation system is created — principally the same in the systems of both science and biology. An adaptation system always has a memory where new and useful information is stored. Namilov talks about a genetic memory in biological systems as well as a scientific memory residing in journals, books and libraries (see also p. 276 regarding the different types of memories).

All information/communication systems have their own language. According to Namilov, while the genetic code is the language of biology, science has its own language for communication (not to be confused with conversational language). In this quite special language, the information content of code signs used is constantly increasing. One consequence of this evolution is that scientific papers and articles become more compact, and increasingly incomprehensible for ordinary readers. Also, the exponential production of scientific papers has led to a publication crisis. Another consequence is the differentiation of science into disparate fields, each with its specific language. While such languages facilitate internal communication, external communication is aggravated. Here, Namilov points out another analogy to biology: information structures of different species are incompatible.

Language itself is regarded as a natural organism in the eyes of Namilov. He refers to the words of the German linguist A. Schleicher (1888): ‘The life of language does not essentially differ from the life of any other organism — plants or animals.’ Namilov sees a struggle between the world of biology with its genetic language and the world of man with its semiotic language. The ecological crisis and the extinction of many species of plants and animals is the result of the struggle for survival of the texts written in these languages.

Changing external conditions in the biosphere, together with new experiments in science, exert pressure upon the internal information flow of the biosphere as well as of science. The consequence can be one of the following alternatives.

  • A state of growing external information and of the generation of much new internal information exists. In the biosphere, new species emerge and in science, new theories arise explaining new, experimentally observed facts.
  • While the flow of external information remains unchanged, internal information grows. In the biosphere, original and often bizarre forms emerge and science degenerates into dogmatic and artificial constructs.
  • The external information increases swiftly and the internal slowly. This will cause the dying out of species and a stalemate in science (as recently in elementary particle physics).

Together with the tendency to develop new forms and new ideas, there always exists a stability maintaining mechanism in both of these macroorganisms. In biological systems, too pronounced variation soon results in maladjustment and the threat of extinction. In science, a new and revolutionary idea has to overcome the paradigmatic barriers before being accepted. In reality this implies a time constraint — no idea becomes common before the environment is prepared for it.

A basic strategy for all biological systems is that they transform their environment in a way that is favourable for themselves. An example is when plants take part in the decomposition of rocks in order to gain access to minerals. The same goes for science: in generating a favourable situation for itself, engineering developments create more instruments and apparatus, releasing in turn manpower for work in scientific areas. More scientists can join the pressure group and more efficient lobbying can secure more funds.

Another aspect with regard to the creation of maximum favourable conditions is its exclusion of other alternatives. Just as alternative life forms are hardly possible in the biosphere, Western-style science has monopolized the only accepted way to knowledge accumulation in the modern world.

Concerning the forming of species, both in the biosphere and within the scientific community, Namilov indicates obvious parallels. The important factors in both areas are conditions leading to isolation. In science, the elaboration of new ideas and pertinent information exchange take place within certain scientific schools, creating the necessary isolation. The phenomenon of symbiosis can also be recognized as mutual help with no internal exchange of information between different areas (for example cross-scientific research).

All information systems must get rid of excessive and outdated information. In the biosphere, the organism, with its successively obsolete inherited and accumulated information, dies. Even whole species become extinct and are replaced by new ones when their information content no longer fits the surrounding world. In science, the old paper and the old book disappear giving space for new ones, something which can be traced in the citation bank. Disciplines may have different half-lives but normally this time span varies between five to ten years (who cites Kepler and Newton today?).

Finally, to complete his view of science as a self-organizing macro- organism, Namilov identifies the teleological traits of science. The search for the ultimate truth regarding man and the universe manifests itself in the development of evermore complex hypotheses and theories.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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