School of Computer Science THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM CoSy project CogX project

Abstract for Talk at Cambridge University Computing and Technology Society

Meta-Morphogenesis: Evolution of mechanisms for producing minds
Evolution, development and learning, producing new mechanisms
of evolution, development and learning.

Tuesday 8th May 2012, 5.30 pm
Auditorium Lounge in Robinson College;

Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham.
(Honorary Professor of AI and Cognitive Science
Philosopher in a Computer Science department)

Installed: 24 Sep 2011
Last updated: 3 May 2012; 20 Jun 2012

This document is

A partial index of discussion notes is in

DRAFT ABSTRACT (Likely to change).

I'll present an idea, that could help to bring different kinds of research
together in fruitful cooperation. The idea is that many of the developments in
biological evolution that are so far not understood, and in some cases have
gone unnoticed, were concerned with changes in information processing. The
same is true of changes in individual development and learning: they often
produce new forms of information processing.

Examples include:

    learning new ways to learn
    development of new forms of development
    evolution of new types of evolution
    evolution of new types of learning
    evolution of new forms of development
    development of new forms of learning
    how new forms of learning support new forms of evolution
    .... and ways in which social cultural evolution add to the mix

Many of the changes escape notice because people assume that what organisms
can do is obvious and all that is needed is to explain how it is done. Then
explanations and models are produced that turn out seriously inadequate.

Alan Turing's work on morphogenesis (see below) explored how micro-interactions
in physicochemical structures might account for global transformations from a
fertilized egg to an animal or plant, within a single organism.

I'll outline a rudimentary theory of "meta-morphogenesis" that aims to show how,
over generations, interactions between changing environments, changing animal
morphology, and previously evolved information-processing capabilities might
combine to produce increasingly complex forms of "informed control", initially
just control of physical behaviour, then later also informed control of
information-processing. This potentially explains philosophically puzzling
features of animal (including human) minds, including the existence of "qualia".
It is also related to the transformation of empirical knowledge into a "generative"
or "deductive" form, a process labelled "Representational Redescription" by Annette
Karmiloff-Smith[*]. I suspect that such processes provide the foundation for human
mathematical competences.

This defines a research programme, that should help us understand how much more
remains to be done if we wish to explain how human and animal minds work, or produce
machines rivalling biological intelligence. (No robot comes close, at present.)

A key assumption is that in order to understand any kind of mind we need to
explore the space of possible minds, and the multifarious requirements
they need to satisfy. This is a very difficult task, since many of the
requirements are unobvious and depend on unobvious features of the
environment. Understanding the requirements requires a deep understanding of
relevant features of the environment. Many of those features change over
evolutionary time scales and in some cases more rapidly. External influences
on development of human minds in most countries are now very different from
what they were a few decades ago.

Much current research in AI/Robotics, psychology, neuroscience and biology
assumes that the main function of brains is to control movement. In contrast
I'll argue that there's a wide variety of types of control and some the forms
of control that evolved later have very little to do with control of movement,
though many of those are related to understanding what kinds of structures and
processes can and cannot exist in the world. But understanding the environment
need not be motivated by a need to produce or prevent motion. Later
developments, such as the development of mathematical and philosophical
investigations are even more remote from any requirement to produce motion,
even if some of them were originally provoked by problems of coping with a
complex environment.

For information about the society and arrangements for the talk, please contact: cucats-executive[AT]


A. M. Turing, The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, in
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.
Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 237, No. 641. (Aug. 14, 1952), pp. 37-72.
Stable URL:
In the final section, Turing wrote:
The 'wave' theory which has been developed here depends essentially on the
assumption that the reaction rates are linear functions of the concentrations,
an assumption which is justifiable in the case of a system just beginning to
leave a homogeneous condition. Such systems certainly have a special interest as
giving the first appearance of a pattern, but they are the exception rather than
the rule. Most of an organism, most of the time, is developing from one pattern
into another, rather than from homogeneity into a pattern. One would like to be
able to follow this more general process mathematically also. The difficulties
are, however, such that one cannot hope to have any very embracing theory of
such processes, beyond the statement of the equations. It might be possible,
however, to treat a few particular cases in detail with the aid of a digital
computer. This method has the advantage that it is not so necessary to make
simplifying assumptions as it is when doing a more theoretical type of
analysis. It might even be possible to take the mechanical aspects of the
problem into account as well as the chemical, when applying this type of method.
The essential disadvantage of the method is that one only gets results for
particular cases. But this disadvantage is probably of comparatively little
importance. Even with the ring problem, considered in this paper, for which a
reasonably complete mathematical analysis was possible, the computational
treatment of a particular case was most illuminating. The morphogen theory of
phyllotaxis, to be described, as already mentioned, in a later paper, will be
covered by this computational method. Non-linear equations will be used.

It must be admitted that the biological examples which it has been possible to
give in the present paper are very limited. This can be ascribed quite simply to
the fact that biological phenomena are usually very complicated. Taking this in
combination with the relatively elementary mathematics used in this paper one
could hardly expect to find that many observed biological phenomena would be
covered. It is thought, however, that the imaginary biological systems which
have been treated, and the principles which have been discussed, should be of
some help in interpreting real biological forms.
Perhaps one day, with far greater computing power than Turing had available, we shall be able
to demonstrate working examples of some of the ideas I shall present regarding evolution of minds.

But it may turn out that we need new kinds of computing machinery, including perhaps chemical computers.

The abstract for a related conference presentation is available here:

A messy, growing, collection of discussion notes on meta-morphogenesis is here:
Also accessible as:
Related to Karmiloff-Smith's ideas in this very personal review of "Beyond Modularity":

For more on qualia see this presentation.

PDF presentations exploring some of the ideas behind this talk can be found here:

Further theoretical background material on philosophical and computational issues, including discussion of
varieties of architectures for minds, and some empirical observations can be found in

The CogAff Project Web Site
Discussion notes.


Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham