A few notes on
Evelyn Fox Keller on
Organisms, Machines, and Thunderstorms:
A History of Self-Organization

Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham.

A survey by Evelyn Fox Keller
After I had written most of a draft paper on the role of construction kits in evolution, especially evolution of information processing systems, I came across a very relevant two part survey paper by Evelyn Fox Keller (MIT) Published in
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences,
Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 2008), pp. 45-75 and Vol. 39, No. 1 (Winter 2009), pp. 1-31
Organisms, Machines, and Thunderstorms: A History of Self-Organization, Part One
Organisms, Machines, and Thunderstorms: A History of Self-Organization, Part Two:
     Complexity, Emergence, and Stable Attractors

Here are some extracts from Part 2:

"Yet it remains the case that no one has succeeded in doing for biology what Newton did for physics: construct a satisfying account either of the origin of life or of its organization, in terms that can be laid out in a few graspable equations."

"There may not be any consensus about the best terms in which to describe the organized complexity exemplified by living organisms, but the challenge has been clearly laid out. Also, it remains uncertain just what kind of explanation the most sophisticated models coming out of systems biology might yield--whether, for instance, such explanations will fall within the range of human reason, graspable by our cognitive capacities, or whether they will require reliance on computers that are so much better at handling complexity than we are. But that is another question altogether. Perhaps, in the end, if and when we succeed in explaining just what it is that is so distinctive about biological entities, Kant will have been proven right--right, that is, about the relation between such accounts and the capacities of human judgment."

She refers to work of Walter Fontana and Leo Buss, who conclude that "The traditional theory of 'dynamical systems' is not equipped for dealing with constructive processes." What they claim is required is an "...effort to expand the traditional theory to include objects, their internal properties, their construction, and their dynamics", i.e. a theory of "Constructive dynamical systems".

My paper on construction kits (reference below) goes beyond that to require both evolution and development to be capable of creating not only new objects, but also multiple (branching) layers of new construction kits that enrich the variety and complexity of objects that can be constructed and behaviours that can be produced, including interactions with structured objects of many types, in the environment.

To be continued ... possibly ...


Draft paper:
Construction kits required for biological evolution
(Including evolution of minds and mathematical abilities.)
The scientific/metaphysical explanatory role of construction kits
The paper on construction kits is available here:

Comments, criticisms, suggestions, all welcome.

Aaron Sloman
1 Mar 2015