Monday, November 10, 2008

some ponderings on nature and nurture

This post sketches out some fuzzy concepts about Nature and Nurture with respect to form. The directions are not coherent. Most are not even sensible.

Is form predetermined at conception/compile time (nature) or is it determined by the environment/runtime (nurture)? This is very similar to questions about free will. Here are some touchy-feely topics I've been pondering:


  • Growth (eg housing estates grow into each other to use all space, embryos develop into emus)Our system going at the world - the way our form responds to the outside world.
  • Decay (eg bits fall from houses, old women start shrinking) Similar to growth, the changes that the outside world has on our form,
  • Evolution (eg the nicest houses or the fastest cheatas survive)
  • Design (eg "let's shove a gargoyle on it", "buildings are often L-shaped"). Form that comes from an intellegence.

So we have the temporal/evalutation/run-time phenomina growth and decay. And the morphospace search algorithms of "design" and evolution.

Aren't growth and decay both the same "environmental" or "evaulative" factors? It's sensible to draw a line between them because growth patterns tend to be dictated by the conceptive mechanism (genes or blueprints).

Evolution has been a mechanism for growth between generations of grown animals, allowing life to become more complex over the aeons.

A design will often involve previous ideas, and the designer's knowledge of previous generations of buildings. Evolution is a simpler (purer?) process, where only the effectiveness of the phenotype (and not the perception of effectiveness) is taken into account. The two concepts are very connected - design itself can evolve - good designs persist (bricks) and bad designs (green bikes) disappear. Given that most designs are copied, an evolutionary system occurs. (better stop on this track before it becomes a lecture on creationism vs evolution.)

Design is able to leap over many iterations of evolution to create more extreme forms. Because design's evaluation function is cheaper (and it has a better memory) it can create bigger leaps in form. Would it be possible for nature to evolve spaceships? Would nature have evolved vaccination?

Is design is just another word searching the space of all forms (morphospace)? - So very similar to evolution, except the genotype-ideas are not evaluated as phenotypes, they are evaluated as designs the architect's mind. In natural morphology the growth of an organism reacts little to it's environment and when it does it reacts in a pre-determined (at conception) way. However as a city grows, it is different to animals because it is constantly re-designed. It is re-thought out (by different minds seeing different problems). These minds did not exist when the city was founded.

Does this mean that applying natural algorithms to man made systems is hopeless? Imagine my washing machine where one person designed what they saw as the optimal drum, another their opinion of the greatest engine, and another their best powder draw. Even worse each manager will control the cost/value of the product based on their on evaluation of what's correct. It would be a very hard system for natural methods to arrive at because even if each person applied an evolutionary approach to whittle down their ideas, different evaluation criterion are applied by each person. It is almost certainly suboptimal.

Or is it that there are different levels of control and environmental interaction in creating form? Are different method appropriate for different circumstances? Does this mean that for an omni-procedural toolkit it'd be necessary to have simulate the range of possible design and environment interactions? Or that this has degenerated into masturbation and now I have a rough consensus I should concentrate on running code?

Natural forms seem be defined in terms of evolution and growth, while man made structures are mainly defined by design and decay. Is this because man made forms are constructed faster - design takes very little time and isn't visible, the growth takes a little longer, but is still short in comparison to the object's lifespan, and so they spend most of their visible time decaying? Wheras evolution slowly designs through evaluation of sucessive generations and each individual spends much of their existence growing. When an organic form stops growing, it is only a matter of time before it starts to quickly decay.

So what about the other two quadrants - designed growth and decaying evolution?

We have to be careful by what we mean by growth:
  • the evolutionary scale of growth - man growing from apes
  • the act of physical growth - a plant growing from a seed
  • the act of constructive growth - was my washing machine's grown? We take a bit of metal and add in an engine, some ballast & wire in some circuits. So people are just a catalyst in the creation of washing machines? Similarly for a city's growth of road networks (same as 2?)

meta-level-up: While I was thinking through this chain of thoughts I found myself writing: "So, we can write a coherent paragraph, but not be able to recall it's argument a minute later. There is something messy about the state of my mind." and now (a couple of days later) my answer is "But in hindsight the concepts are not clear, so i wouldn't expect it to make sense. The ideas I had where valid, just not complete." perhaps anyone (anyone?) who reads this should just absorb each example rather than take it as a framework.

The videos on this page where made with Blender (I'm learning how it works) and rendered with Yafray. The nice softness (is reasonable time) came from using low lighting and a skydome global illumination model (since I'm modelling cubes, it's a good approximation).

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