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#86- From Cells to Cities A Conversation with Geoffrey West

 
Nhoj Morley
 
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Nhoj Morley
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14 July 2017 09:02
 

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Geoffrey West about how biological and social systems scale, the significance of fractals, the prospects of radically extending human life, the concept of “emergence” in complex systems, the importance of cities, the necessity for continuous innovation, and other topics.

From Cells to Cities A Conversation with Geoffrey West

This thread is for listeners’ comments.

 
Mr Wayne
 
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Mr Wayne
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15 July 2017 07:58
 

The part about the geographer who wanted measurements of lengths along country borders to study the connection to border wars was interesting.  Of course, it depends on the resolution of measurement if a line is crooked.

 
Derek Hauffe
 
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Derek Hauffe
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15 July 2017 08:24
 

I’m enjoying this episode (as I enjoy many of them). I’m about 22 minutes in, and something Mr. West says doesn’t make sense to me. He’s talking about mammals’ systems being optimized, beyond the ability of improvement.

I agree with the premise that natural selection optimizes whenever possible. I think we should also consider the idea of local maxima, in which a system is ideal within a certain range of possible changes. Small changes from the current optimal state may result in declines of optimization. If a more dramatic change were to be introduced, a new optimal state might be achieved.

Natural selection isn’t engineering. It’s gradual optimization. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved upon.

Thanks to you, Mr. Harris, and to Mr. West.

 
Twissel
 
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Twissel
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17 July 2017 09:18
 

Note: sorry Nhoj for jumping the gun, but I really liked the podcast and can’t wait to share my ideas about it

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Geoffrey West about his book Scale


#86 - From Cells to Cities A Conversation with Geoffrey West

This thread is for listeners’ comments.

 
 
Twissel
 
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Twissel
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17 July 2017 09:39
 

Thanks Sam for picking a very interesting guest. I think most of us learned something from the podcast, and got interested in some of the issues that remain unclear.

I particularly liked the explanation how organisms are limited in size and growth by their “infrastructure”, i.e. blood transport, and how this can easily be used to study objects such as cities, too.


For me, the big issue unresolved is the concept of Emergence. It is clear that neither Geoffrey West nor Sam Harris have a very good grasp on the concept, and it seemed to me that Harris was downright hostile or at least very skeptical about its implications.
For me, the best way to get a grip on the idea came from Terrence W. Deacon in this book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10955059-incomplete-nature).
While Deacon does believe in top-down causality caused by living systems onto their components, he is clear that this is a feature that is simultaneously build on bottom-up effects.

Emergent phenomena are best observed in cases were systems have a constant influx of energy, like fast running water in a stream, waves streaming over a beach, hot air vents or sunlight. It turns out that in these cases, simple physical phenomena do a poor job of transforming the energy, mostly because they can only affect their intimidate surroundings.
But to take Harris’s example of the round stone: on a beach, the motion of the waves will sort the pebbles according to size and shape: the energy of the waves, contrary to intuition, creates order.
Why and how?
On a solid beach, waves would foam and crash, but couldn’t dissipate their energy effectively to the shore. By causing debris to move, energy is transfered and total entropy increased. Pushing the odd shaped pebbles back an forth will cause them to become more round, which in turn will make the transfer of energy from the wave to the stones more effective.
A simpler example are eddies in a fast-running stream: these ordered flows exist because they allow water to travel faster than it could in a disordered fashion.
Convection cells are another example were order is created spontaneously because they are faster at transferring energy than non-ordered systems are.

In this sense, it becomes clear how life works: by making transfers of energy possible that didn’t exit before, or which were very slow. The biggest source of energy in our solar system is the sun, but it is almost totally insulated by the vacuum of space. Most other forms of energy are locked away in a similar fashion. Life can create connections that didn’t exist before, and constrain the flow of energy so that it must go through the organisms to power them.
So Emergence doesn’t add anything to the matter which constitutes a complex system, but it constrains the system in a way that maintains order and restricts the flow of energy along internal pathways.

Not sure if that was even remotely understandable.
Maybe Sam needs to invite Deacon to explain it better.

[ Edited: 17 July 2017 09:42 by Twissel]
 
 
shawnmitchell
 
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shawnmitchell
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17 July 2017 21:34
 

Great podcast but I have one nit to pick. When talking about extending lifespan Dr West refers to slowing metabolism and improving repair mechanisms. After spending a fair bit of time on caloric restriction and core temperature reduction, he seems to brush off the subject of improvements in repair mechanisms by saying that such mechanisms themselves rely on metabolism. It does not seem to me that modern humans in developed nations are in any way limited in our sources of food for metabolization. If genetic hacks to our repair mechanisms meant we’d all have to consume 5000 calories per day, but also allowed us to live to 500, I think we’d find a way to make that work!

 
flingflang
 
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flingflang
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18 July 2017 08:10
 

Human civilization is a reiteration at greater scale of the thermodynamic processes that resulted in cellular life, energized primarily by fossil fuels. Humans are equivalent to the RNA in biological cells except that we inhabit technological cells, acting as nexus between stored, evolving information and the tools it specifies. The technological system is consuming the ecosystem to build its temporary complexity spurred by competition between psuedo-speciated organizations also know as nations.

I have created the blog site http://www.megacancer.com to more fully explore these ideas. Always enjoy listening to Sam Harris and Geoffrey West. The man-cave is getting hot. I’m going outside to feel a little convection and be with the other cellular organisms.

 
LoriBell
 
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LoriBell
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18 July 2017 11:49
 
flingflang - 18 July 2017 08:10 AM

Human civilization is a reiteration at greater scale of the thermodynamic processes that resulted in cellular life, energized primarily by fossil fuels. Humans are equivalent to the RNA in biological cells except that we inhabit technological cells, acting as nexus between stored, evolving information and the tools it specifies. The technological system is consuming the ecosystem to build its temporary complexity spurred by competition between psuedo-speciated organizations also know as nations.

I have created the blog site http://www.megacancer.com to more fully explore these ideas. Always enjoy listening to Sam Harris and Geoffrey West. The man-cave is getting hot. I’m going outside to feel a little convection and be with the other cellular organisms.

I followed the link to “www.megacancer.com” and got an “expired” message. Any further update on that?

I too have some ideas about the “body social” and the various ways in which physical infrastructure of cities and societies interact with the biological beings that we are creating larger organisms - including similar systems for energy production, waste management, information transfer, etc., etc.

And to be specific, I have just communicated again today (on Facebook) my sense of how the Federal Reserve Banking System is a huge “cancer” in the U.S. that has infiltrated almost every area of the American “body social” and is “sucking the life out of it”. How to eliminate the “cancer” without killing the “host” is a very tricky problem, especially given the magnitude of the “cancer”. (And given it has its “blood vessels” reaching into many other areas of the world-economy as well.)

 
BumpyJ
 
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BumpyJ
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19 July 2017 03:54
 

I think this conversation could be followed up with one with Herman Daly or other steady state thinker. The problems with unlimited growth are broader than what was talked about here and far more relevant to today’s policy choices.

 
flingflang
 
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flingflang
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19 July 2017 07:46
 

Sorry, http://www.megacancer.com is down until tomorrow or thereabouts. The Western banking system extends credit and creates debt that demands conversion of natural resources into product that can enter the general circulation of the “cancer”. Alternatively the credit and debt can be used to expand distribution or the construction of the wide variety of technological cells. The owners of the Federal Reserve are evidently addicted to power and Russia stands in the way of exerting total control even as the house burns down or is metabolized from the growth that their credit creation enabled.

I not sure things would be much different if some other entity had provided the credit/debt. They have been very effective as a cancer promoter and follow the Maximum Power Principle like most humans and other organisms. Since they have probably ignored or been deficient in understanding ecological and/or thermodynamic principles, I’m sure they’re in a bit of a quandry as to what to do as conditions deteriorate.

 
Gamril
 
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Gamril
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19 July 2017 08:06
 
Twissel - 17 July 2017 09:39 AM

Thanks Sam for picking a very interesting guest. I think most of us learned something from the podcast, and got interested in some of the issues that remain unclear.

I particularly liked the explanation how organisms are limited in size and growth by their “infrastructure”, i.e. blood transport, and how this can easily be used to study objects such as cities, too.

Yes…  this bothered me a lot.  I’m not sure how anyone can argue against emergence when we see the difference in properties in elements simply by the addition of more and more protons.


For me, the big issue unresolved is the concept of Emergence. It is clear that neither Geoffrey West nor Sam Harris have a very good grasp on the concept, and it seemed to me that Harris was downright hostile or at least very skeptical about its implications.
For me, the best way to get a grip on the idea came from Terrence W. Deacon in this book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10955059-incomplete-nature).
While Deacon does believe in top-down causality caused by living systems onto their components, he is clear that this is a feature that is simultaneously build on bottom-up effects.

Emergent phenomena are best observed in cases were systems have a constant influx of energy, like fast running water in a stream, waves streaming over a beach, hot air vents or sunlight. It turns out that in these cases, simple physical phenomena do a poor job of transforming the energy, mostly because they can only affect their intimidate surroundings.
But to take Harris’s example of the round stone: on a beach, the motion of the waves will sort the pebbles according to size and shape: the energy of the waves, contrary to intuition, creates order.
Why and how?
On a solid beach, waves would foam and crash, but couldn’t dissipate their energy effectively to the shore. By causing debris to move, energy is transfered and total entropy increased. Pushing the odd shaped pebbles back an forth will cause them to become more round, which in turn will make the transfer of energy from the wave to the stones more effective.
A simpler example are eddies in a fast-running stream: these ordered flows exist because they allow water to travel faster than it could in a disordered fashion.
Convection cells are another example were order is created spontaneously because they are faster at transferring energy than non-ordered systems are.

In this sense, it becomes clear how life works: by making transfers of energy possible that didn’t exit before, or which were very slow. The biggest source of energy in our solar system is the sun, but it is almost totally insulated by the vacuum of space. Most other forms of energy are locked away in a similar fashion. Life can create connections that didn’t exist before, and constrain the flow of energy so that it must go through the organisms to power them.
So Emergence doesn’t add anything to the matter which constitutes a complex system, but it constrains the system in a way that maintains order and restricts the flow of energy along internal pathways.

Not sure if that was even remotely understandable.
Maybe Sam needs to invite Deacon to explain it better.

 
LoriBell
 
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LoriBell
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19 July 2017 16:17
 
flingflang - 19 July 2017 07:46 AM

The owners of the Federal Reserve are evidently addicted to power…

I know you’ve written this somewhat casually, but what if the money/power “addicts” of the world were really recognized and Treated as “addicts”?  Something tells me they and the rest of the world would be better off for it!

I suspect there are other unmet needs driving them, just like drug addicts, and as Wayne Dyer said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”

 
Gamril
 
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Gamril
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20 July 2017 05:06
 

Yes…  this bothered me a lot.  I’m not sure how anyone can argue against emergence when we see the difference in properties in elements simply by the addition of more and more protons.

 
Twissel
 
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Twissel
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20 July 2017 05:36
 
Gamril - 20 July 2017 05:06 AM

Yes…  this bothered me a lot.  I’m not sure how anyone can argue against emergence when we see the difference in properties in elements simply by the addition of more and more protons.

Emergence has the stink of Dualism, or at the very least teleogenics (i.e. downward causation).

 
 
flingflang
 
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flingflang
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20 July 2017 06:04
 

“Nature” sanctioned human addictions, the pursuit of certain things like wealth and power, food, and sex for the maximization of reproduction,  Due to our relatively fast evolution into the role of RNA in the technological system, we have also entrained an energy flow that can support great complexity in the evolution of information and resultant tool production and use at our scale. The people that have inherited the legacy Western banking system may be placed at an extreme end of the power and wealth normal distribution curve, but there are many, many more that would function in their places. The fear of death, real and imaginary, may also drive them. Bounded by the ecosystem, human behaviors couldn’t do much damage, but systematic evolution at our scale with a large pulse of energy from outside the ecosystem can only result in exponential growth and collapse.

 
fractalcities
 
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fractalcities
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20 July 2017 18:11
 

Really enjoyed this. I’d love to speak with and present a city design to Mr Geoffry West.

I wrote a paper to explain my proposal in academic terms:

The GCoT Model – A Complex Systems Model For Spatio-temporal Settlement Design, Planning, Adaptation, Ecological Restoration, Economic Growth and Biourbanism; Employing Fractal Geometry, Recursion, Complexity, Emergence, Landscape Ecology, Biological Remediation, Agroecology and Central Place Theory

https://www.academia.edu/24779851/The_GCoT_Model_A_Complex_Systems_Model_For_Spatio-temporal_Settlement_Design_Planning_Adaptation_Ecological_Restoration_Economic_Growth_and_Biourbanism_Employing_Fractal_Geometry_Recursion_Complexity_Emergence_Landscape_Ecology_Biological_Remediation_Agroecology_and_Central_Place_Theory

Based on my original fractal city design:

https://www.academia.edu/12257381/A_Garden_City_of_Today_v2.0

see my twitter account : @fractalcities   #smartgardencities

and blog about the fractal city and its applications social, economic and environmental:

http://circlesdesign.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/smart-fractal-garden-city.html

and design image gallery: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcusbusby/albums/72157647208012937/with/22244931289/

Thank you so much for this podcast - i look forward very much to listening to more,

Kind regards
Marcus Busby

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