Have you ever contemplated how an embryo develops from a fertilized egg? That cell divides and divides and divides again until there are trillions of cells making up an organism.
But how come that doesn't just end up with a big slime of cells?
We do have slimes of course, and they are very successful actually but what about the life forms that aren't slime? And in those living things the same genetic material ends up enabling all sorts of different cells from bones to retinas. And more amazingly how do we end up with so many different kinds of living things?
We have a pretty clear idea WHY things worked out that way (hint: natural selection) but have only in the last hundred years had any idea just how that works.
It's a process a developmental process. It's conceptually simple: do the same thing over and over while responding to local conditions.
This may remind you of the way fractals work it sure does remind me and I see many similarities between the sorts of forms created by fractal math systems and those produced by developmental processes.
By the time the egg has divided 3 times and there are 8 cells those cells recognize their position. One knows its at the head end. One know that it's at the other end. The rest know they are on the sides. Due to hormone gradients each cell actually is in a slightly different environment. This difference causes the DNA in each cell to be expressed a bit differently.
So just as the egg provides the overall genetic material for the whole entity each of those 8 cells provide a particularly activated set of DNA to all of its daughter cells. Those daughter cells respond to their sisters in the same way the particular expression of their DNA is influenced by their position in the body. One early piece of evidence of this was the observation that very young embryos of all cordates (from fish to people) are very similar.
I discovered an interesting thing that the underlying genetic mechanism that creates legs is the same in lobsters as it is in cats. In fact the whole body plans at the genetic of cats and lobsters are very similar the same sort of cells that develop into legs and heads occur in the same place in the young embryo of each.
How do we think of cause and effect in developmental processes? We can describe how that process works but can we really say that we know what caused a leg? Centuries after Hume basically debunked the idea of cause and effect it's still a very compelling idea.
It's obvious to us in lots of situations like when we play pool and cause the balls to move by hitting them with a cue. But can we really understand everything with the same simple concept that we use to play pool? I think it leads to pretty severe problems it's called reductionism.
We never actually see a cause.
hat we see is successive states of affairs. Many thinkers prefer to think of ‘becoming' instead of cause and effect and understanding developmental processes work can lead to ways to explain just why something became what it is. Are developmental processes only associated with things that are alive?
I've looked a bit at embryology, and I'm sure it's pretty clear how evolution is a developmental process. And we can see the same sort of thing in other aspects of reality like in society and in the way we think and perhaps we can advance our understanding by trying to frame questions in terms of development instead of in terms of cause. Concepts like developmental processes also counter our ancient intuitions about ourselves.
Cause and effect plays to our concept of power over ourselves and the environment. If we are strong we cause effects. If we are weak we are affected by causes.
It's easy to think that our thoughts cause our behavior. And from there it's easy to ascribe moral responsibility. When we think in terms of developmental processes, morality is seen in a different light rather than personal responsibility, the onus for understanding moves to understanding how a particular situation became.
What do you think?