Marc Gafni on Evolutionary Unique Self & the Unique Self Symphony (Part 20)

Continued from part 19.

Love Your Neighbor

But Keller and Segel took a completely different approach. They were inspired by Turing’s work on morphogenesis which had sketched out a mathematical model where simple agents following simple rules could generate amazingly complex structures by addressing and following the instructions of their neighbor, or addressing a particular invitation of their neighbor. I want to emphasize the word neighbor—to which we will return shortly—because that is the word used in much of the scientific literature. Keller and Segel figured out, based on Turing’s model, there were no pacemaker cells organizing the action through their top-down commands. Rather the slime mold was self-organizing! The interior intelligence within the slime mold self-organized. That’s shocking. It turned out however that slime molds are far from the only examples of self-organization. We used to think the queen ant organized the colony. After scientists deployed more subtle research methods, we realized it’s absolutely not the queen ant as her sole function is to reproduce. Rather an anthill is radically self-organized.

Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves at this point that ants are not insignificant. Indeed ants and termites have given us a bit of a run for our money in terms of evolutionary success. Measured by sheer numbers, ants and other social insects, termites for example, dominate the planet in a way that makes human populations look like an evolutionary afterthought. Ants and termites make up 30% of the Amazonian rain forest biomass. With nearly 10,000 known species, ants rival modern humans in their global reach. The only large landmasses free of ant natives are Antarctica, Iceland, Greenland, and Polynesia. Take that human. Now it is of course true that ants have not written Beethoven Sonatas. But that was not their intention or the nature of their consciousness. Ant species have a massive environmental impact, moving immense amounts of soil, distributing nutrients in even the most hostile environments. Clearly, they lack our forebrains. But human intelligence is only one measure of evolutionary success.

As you recall, ants self-organize using what the scientific literature refers to as local information. Local information means that ants think locally, and they act locally. From their local action, a collective, global behavior is produced. Self-organization in action. It took later research to realize that ants are self-organizing in wildly fantastic ways that were unimaginable from a scientific perspective before Turing introduced his mathematical model. For example, the ants are able to create cemeteries at the precisely farthest geometric distance from where they store food. Every ant is doing a very specific function. They shift functions seemingly automatically. It is not clear where the order is coming from to shift functions. The ants may then respond to new conditions and shift functions again, and again, and again. They engage in an incredible, precise array, apparently without interior consciousness.

The latest scientific research of the last decade reveals a self-organizing process in which the ant is actually paying attention to its neighbors. Very simple acts by each ant are then multiplied. They create a ripple effect similar to the global economy that according to the iconic economist Adam Smith is run by an invisible hand. The invisible hand, of course, is but Smith’s term for what he could not yet name, the inherently intelligent property of self-organization.

Another example of self-organization from a different arena is the emergence of modern cities. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s famous cohort, already noticed this property of self-organization when he went to visit Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century. This theme of self-organizing cities was later picked up by Janet Jacobs in the early 60s. Both cities and ants self-organize says Jacobs–influenced by Turing’s work–through an inherent process of self-organization. Individual local decisions are made at street level which ultimately manifests in stunningly self-organized cities.[1]

Cities self-organize. Ants self-organize. The global economy self-organizes. The human body self-organizes. The human body itself is very much like bees in a hive or ants in an anthill from the perspective of self-organization. The ancestors of your cells were once individual entities. At some point they made an intelligent, erotic, evolutionary decision to cooperate. Now remember, modern epigenetics have taught us that your body is not just run by DNA. Cells draw selectively on DNA. The cells then learn from their neighbors how to act and interact. Ants use the chemical secretion of pheromones to inform each other of their activities. Pheromones are chemical substances produced and released into the environment by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, affecting the behavior or physiology of others of its species. Just as ants use secret pheromones to inform each other of their activities, cells communicate with their neighbors through salts, sugars, amino acids, even larger molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Messages are transmitted through cell junctions, neighbor to neighbor. Through the intelligent messages communicated at the street level of local organization, a single cell knows to organize into your arm and not your leg. It knows to become your breasts and not something else. It knows to become your nose and not something else. DNA provides an intelligent pattern. The intelligent cells do a selective reading of the DNA. This catalyzes a process of radical self-organization.

The key here is life isn’t just transcribing static passages from our genetic scripture. Cells figure out which passages to pay attention to by observing signals from neighbor cells around them. They then self-organize from a cell into an entire organism. Those local cell interactions self-organize and form neighborhoods of cell types just like neighborhoods of cities are formed. It’s not based on an external creator god manifesting via arbitrary divine fiat, rather the inherent self-organizing intelligence. Let’s now see how Unique Self motivates the self-organizing cosmos.

To be continued…

Taken from a first draft text from the forthcoming book The Path and Practice of Outrageous Love by Marc Gafni and Kristina Kincaid, this series elaborates on a critical advancement of the Unique Self Dharma that Dr. Marc has developed after Your Unique Self was published.


[1] Whenever we move from the physical sciences to the social sciences care must be taken in making analogies. Turing’s implied mathematical points is that all of these modalities self-organize through elemental simple principles that are not looking at the whole system but at the local immediate interaction. Exponentially multiplied local interactions, which take place in integrity exponentially multiply to great global integrity. Naturally however seemingly local violations of integrity at street level exponentially multiply at the global level. This was the cause of financial crisis induced by the mortgage collapse in the United States in the late nineties. A mixture of creativity run rampant in the creation of new financial instruments, greed, and a failure of local responsibility, exponentially multiplied into an international crisis.