Biology & Philosophy: How Our Culture Shapes Our Knowledge

Science differs from arts and literature, in that the knowledge gathered would exist whether humans studied it or not.  Paintings, music, and novels require artists.  DNA replication, the succession of ecosystem, and the evolution of a species are automatic processes, more than capable of carrying on without human interference.  All the same, few would argue against the usefulness of biology or chemistry as a field of study.  Learning how our world works helps us live better within it.  We can learn how to conserve limited resources, how to cure and treat disease, and how what we eat affects our bodies. But research alone does not dictate the path of scientific discovery.  The philosophy and culture of a people shape what we know of the world, and how we know it.

Evolution, a process as old as life itself, truly broke into the public awareness in 1859, with Charles Darwin’s book, On The Origin of Species.  The concept of a species changing over time had been introduced before this, but never with widespread acceptance.  Presenting such new ideas, especially ones that could pose a potential threat to the church, was a risk to Darwin’s reputation within both the public and the scientific communities.

Evolution eventually would have been discovered even without Darwin, and several other scientists at the time were approaching similar findings.  Yet, Darwin is the name we know.  On the Origin of Species served as an entry point to evolution.  The book was successful because, in addition to supporting his ideas with testable evidence, he also creates a cast of characters that structure his argument like a story.  Darwin’s writing does not always flow gracefully, but it is effective.  Rather than arranging ideas technically, he employs metaphors.  For example, the “tree of life” illustrates the concept of growth and change stemming from a common origin.  The book concludes with an image of the “tangled bank”, where a wide range of species interact.  These images stuck with Darwin’s audience.  The idea that species change over time could have created controversy (and certainly does within some groups even today).  But at the time, the idea gained credence as a branching of the tree of life.

Overall, Darwin faced far less opposition than biologists with similar ideas.  Darwin’s key advantage was understanding his audience.  Metaphor and abstraction served as a cautious method of presenting ideas that had the potential to challenge so much of the public understanding of the world.   Darwin’s presentation was distant enough to not appear radical, but illustrative enough to prove credible.  Thanks to the success of this writing, the name Darwin has become nearly synonymous with evolution, despite the many other scientists who contributed to this field.  Even modern-day creationists, who take the Bible so literally as to believe it incompatible with the well-supported theory of evolution, still reflect Darwin’s language and refer back to his own examples to in order to denounce it.

Despite the common misreading of Charles Darwin as antithetical to religion, Darwin’s writing style was likely shaped by his background in theology and philosophy.  Like biology, religion and philosophy attempt to explain the world around us. However, the humanities use narrative to approach what science approaches through data.  Darwin arrived at On the Origin of Species through both.  He discovered evolution through careful observation, and spent years crafting the metaphors that filled his literature.  The same patterns that structure countless origin myths permeate On the Origin of Species.  Birth, death, and time are characters in their own right.  Darwin writes again and again about “The Struggle for Existence”, the topic of all human narratives.  Darwin does not just present facts; he tells a story.  The interaction of philosophical narratives and a scientific framework makes Darwin’s theories feel relevant and familiar.  “The tree of life” is an especially common motif in Christianity as well as the mythology of many ancient cultures.  In evoking this image, Darwin found a culturally shared entry point from which to expand his theories.  Without metaphor and abstraction drawn from philosophy, these ideas would not feel accessible to Darwin’s public.

Thanks to On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s discoveries eventually became common knowledge.  The results extended far beyond the scientific community.  The concepts revealed through Darwin are among other discoveries, like the shape of the Earth and solar system, that repositioned human’s assumed role among nature.  What distinguishes any species from another if we all stemmed from common ancestors?  Becoming more aware of the diverse biological interactions on Earth adds to our philosophical line of questions.  For example, the idea that species could become extinct, and later information that humans could drive this process, forced humans to realize the potential permanence of human-driven changes.  Does knowing this hold us to a higher level of accountability? If we can drive a species to extinction, are we morally obligated to conserve the environment?  Changing social views have increased the desire to fund such efforts, and have increased the number of scientists researching animal and environmental conservation.  Conversely, alternative values deplete this effort and funding.  In a social climate where capitalism encourages us to prioritize financial gain, many businesses push back against the idea of decreasing our use of resources.  From a capitalist perspective, using natural resources is acceptable if it is the most economically-beneficial option.  The balance between a culture’s moral philosophy and political priorities will influence which research projects will receive funding.

Charles Darwin’s wide range of influence reflects the interaction between culture and research.  The artistic and cultural response to the theory of evolution continues to be tremendous.  Authors like Lewis Caroll, Alfred Tennyson, and Thomas Hardy drew on the themes presented in On the Origin of Species.  Their literature continued to question our values in the wake of an ever-changing Earth.  From 1859 until the present, Darwin’s concepts have been interpreted, reinterpreted, and very often misinterpreted.  The idea of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest were often misused to justify acts of eugenics and even genocide.  However, these interpretations do not reflect Darwin’s own intentions, and especially do not reflect evolutionary theory.  Nature itself does not have moral perceptions of right or wrong.  However, the scientists who approach the world undoubtedly do.  When the social mores of a community are imbued with discriminatory ideals, science will be filtered through this lens.  To study science without an awareness of one’s own culture and philosophy is only ignoring the relevance of science to human narrative.  It is important for science to happen responsibly and ethically.  Humanities training is one way to help this.  A knowledge of history prevents repetition of the same mistakes, while a knowledge of current culture will assure that any knowledge or experiments would benefit rather than do harm.

Philosophy and Biology are two fields preoccupied with the same topics: life and death, the future state of humanity, and our role within our surroundings.  Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was successful because it married the narrative of philosophy and the testable evidence of biology.  Written any other way, On the Origin of Species might not have been read and understood so widely, and might not have reached the hands of other influential scientists. At some point in time, we would have learned about evolution. But it would not have been from Charles Darwin in 1859. The dominating philosophy of a culture will control the science which we focus on.  Even an individual’s chosen field of study depends upon cultural values.  Without understanding our cultures, without using our languages, how would these ideas be shared? A work of art can be anything, while a testable scientific description is singular. But humanity is not singular. Humanity is made up of endless diverging narratives.  Darwin told a story that appealed to this.  What would our world look like if he hadn’t?

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Creative Computers: What the Overlap of Programming and Poetry Teaches us about Creativity

Writing programs in Python requires the sort of precision most of my writing doesn’t demand. A missing letter, an extra comma, or a poorly arranged phrase are more than just confusing; the smallest spelling mistake will stop the program completely. In Python, typing “print” will tell the program to print the characters that follow this command. Typing “Print” yields nothing. Computer Science is not so forgiving of my penchant for typos. Whenever I discover these small problems: the missing colon, the extra space, I want to shout, “it’s close enough!” But of course, the computer can’t “figure it out” the same way a human would. I don’t think I’m the only one who was initially repelled by this. The computer doesn’t act like a human. It doesn’t grasp nuances or appreciate aesthetics. Yet this is what others love about computers: the fact that they aren’t human. They don’t make human mistakes. They aren’t inconsistent or volatile. If the code is written correctly it will work. Every single time.

This precision may encourage the pretty prevalent fear that technology is taking over human roles. I’m sure some people welcome the idea of increased efficiency as much as others are afraid of being replaced. But this division doesn’t quite make sense. The capabilities and potential capabilities of computers reach far beyond anything we could do with a human brain alone, yet I still believe there are elements of emotions, creativity, and growth that technology cannot yet replicate. No one should think of humans and technology as opposing one another, because neither work alone. Those who believe we only learn best from paper books are rejecting the ability for technology to serve as an extension (and not a replacement) of human intelligence.  However, for technology to help us learn, we must approach it from this standpoint.  Using the label “Computer Science” allows us to forget how similar the process is to that of learning a new language, as well as how much more useful technology will be to humans if we approach computer science from a humanities background.

Each programming language, as unforgivingly precise as it may be, has a sort of musicality to it. The repetition of certain phrases is not unlike a refrain.  Much like how learners of foreign languages must adjust to unfamiliar syntaxes, coders develop fluency in these patterns.  Additionally, the required symmetry of code recalls certain poetic forms.  Rules like the logic of “if…then” statements or the required indents following colons demand a structure with its own internal logic.  The brain processes required to master this science are certainly similar to the process of learning a new language, or even understanding the format of a sonnet or villanelle in one’s own language.  Much as literature, the same program could be written in a variety of styles.  The diverse inner workings of similar programs can be visually stunning, sometimes even to those who don’t totally understand the language.

Once coders master the use of a programming language, they can add reflexivity to the experience by creating a program to play with the English language.  For example, haiku, a highly structured form of poetry involving three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each, are easy to generate through computer programs.  A few years ago, when a friend and fellow Hamilton student created such a program, I was amazed by the beauty in some of these computer generated poems. How could we find meaning in these authorless works? Our reactions to the haiku were devoid of influence from authorial intent, because there was no author, in the traditional sense. Our ability to read meaning into the poem despite this fascinated me.  Here was a tangible example of how interpretation allows us to generate ideas. Reading these poems didn’t leave me in fear of being replaced by technology. Instead, it felt like an ultimate creative act. The text on the screen bore no intentions.  It was presented to me without any design beyond the syllable count. Yet in reading, we created meaning.

My friend’s program did not account for grammar, only syllable count.  The program chose either words or bigrams (sets of two words commonly used together) from a dictionary to fulfill the haiku pattern.  They say that art cannot be produced in a vacuum, but in a way, these were.  The combination of words were devoid of the literary and cultural allusions which permeate our literary cannon.   Perhaps the phrases that impressed me most in these haiku were only possible thanks to freedom from literary constraints.  Yet, at moments, the generated haikus did evoke familiar tropes and images.  Simply having a background in literature caused me to read these would-be nonsensical poems within that framework, for better or for worse.  This reminded me how much our ideas and experiences influence our everyday actions.  If I could draw connections from a string of random words, then much more of my experience must be filtered through this lens.  For me, finding meaning in these poems displayed how much my studies in the humanities have influenced how I understand the world around me.  Creating programs that play with words for us gives us a new way to explore the questions which literary theorists have been asking for years.

Later, I learned that creative writing and computer science fit together more often than I would have expected. Just as code can generate poetry, poetry can also generate code. At the Code Poetry Slam at Stanford, participants use code to create poetry.  The writers interpret this in a variety of ways, but the most impressive are those which are double-coded, meaning that they make sense in multiple languages at once: English and programming language.  Beyond simply incorporating the unique phrasing of html, python, or C++, these poems are dynamic.  They are legible in English, yet also prompt the computer to do something when the program is run.  From both sides, computers let us observe creativity in a new way.  We can observe the way our brains process information as well as the way they can make things happen.

To program without creativity should seem as ridiculous as penning fiction without imagination.  Even programs not related to poetry require creative approaches.  The computer is our tool; we shouldn’t use it blindly. We should use this tool with as much care and imagination as we would our pencils and paintbrushes.

-Lily K Marks, NY6 ThinkTank Student Fellow

Further Reading:

More about the haiku generator: http://www.rachelf.com/post/50393137209/generating-haiku-poems-uncontrolled

Examples of Code Poetry: http://stanford.edu/~mkagen/codepoetryslam/