Using biology to understand polling data

It’s easy to look at U.S. polling data and come to the conclusion that there is a massive portion of the population that is stupid or dishonest. The percentage of Republicans who thought the economy was doing well doubled almost overnight when Trump was elected. Ninety percent of Republicans said in a recent Gallup poll that they think Trump is intelligent, compared to thirty percent of Democrats. When you see numbers as skewed as this, you probably come to one of two conclusions: either most people are so biased by their political leanings that they really believe the answers they are giving; or, they are lying out of feelings of “tribal loyalty”: they don’t want the world at large to see “their team” as failing, so they will do or say anything to preserve the appearance that “their guy” is doing well.

I’d like to offer a third possible explanation, based on evolution and cell biology. I know how that sounds, but please bear with me. The perspectives on biology, evolution, and language that I describe below are based on the Autopoietic Theory of living systems developed in the 1970’s by evolutionary biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. I wrote a very basic introduction to that perspective in my article “Living and knowing mean the same thing“, if you are interested checking that out. I will also summarize the most important parts here. It will take a moment to get through, but if you can be a little patient and follow along, I promise the connection to polling data will make sense in the end.

Let’s start by looking at how cells work. They are little chemical machines. The action of these machines is triggered by changes in the environment that cause changes in the structure of the cell. (Here I’m using the word “structure” to include changes in chemical makeup as well as changes in the physical shape or arrangements of parts.) When the cell membrane is damaged, for example, it causes a series of chemical changes in the cytoplasm that cascade all the way back to the nucleus of the cell, causing transcription RNA to start producing proteins that are then carried out to the cell membrane to repair the damage. From the “point of view” of any of the components of the cell, what triggers their action is a change in the cell itself. The outcome of their action is also a change in the cell itself.

It’s all about the cell.

The term “autopoietic” (literally: self-creating”) describes a systems in which the functions of all of its parts can be described in terms of the creation and maintenance of the system itself. Cells are autopoietic systems because all of the chemical relationships are arranged in a way so that when something in the environment alters or disrupts the system, it will “fall back to equilibrium” by undergoing changes that preserve the system as a whole.

This is just as true of sensory and motor cells as it is of any other. We are used to using the common metaphor of “input” and “output” when talking about our sensory and motor systems… but the cells don’t know that. A chemical components in a cone cell in your retina don’t know they are encoding and transmitting information about light in the environment. From their “point of view”, the light is simply causing a disruption of the chemical relationships in the cell, and they are “fixing” those disruptions. We can interpret the cascade of events resulting from these chemical actions as “sending a signal to the brain about light in the environment”; but that interpretation is all on us, it isn’t inherent to the rules by which the chemical components of the cell are acting.

Let’s shift to entire organisms, now. Organisms are autopoietic systems, too. Yes, of course you can view our sensory systems as “input systems” and our motor systems as “output” to the environment. You can interpret our behavior and language in terms of these information processing metaphors. But if you actually think about the underlying biology, that is not what is driving the physical functional relationships of the system. The functional relationships of the organism are all internal: the chemical and physical relationships of the parts of an organism are all pointers to other parts of that same organism. The goal of the system is to maintain its own structure, which means that when the structure is altered or deformed, the system responds by bringing the structure back into an acceptable range of relationships.

The deformation of the physical and chemical relationships within the organism is what we call “perception”. The autopoietic action of the system that returns it to an equilibrium state after that deformation is what we call “action”. But just like the individual cell, the functions of the parts of the organism are all about the organism. They aren’t “about” the outside world.

What does this mean for language?

Because we are used to the input-output metaphor, we are used to thinking of language as transmitting information from one organism to another: I have a mental state, I encode it in some kind of behavior, you receive the information by sensing that behavior, and you decode it so that your mental state creates the “meaning” that I was trying to convey. We think of language as being successful if information was conveyed correctly.

Except that’s not how evolution works, now is it?

Evolution only knows if behavior is effective within a given environment. Evolution has no access to “internal mental states.” It cannot assess whether information “was accurately transmitted” between organisms.  If I say “a tiger is coming, run!” the only thing evolution cares about is whether or not you escaped the tiger: it doesn’t matter (from an evolutionary perspective) whether you know what a tiger is, and formed an accurate mental representation of a tiger in your mind upon hearing the word.

As I point out in the previous article I wrote on autopoiesis, this is actually how we judge all “knowledge”: you say someone “knows how to swim” when the person swims effectively; you say someone “knows how to dance” when the person dances effectively; you say the person “know calculus” when that person can use calculus to achieve a particular goal, such as taking a test in school or figuring out an engineering problem at work.

Despite what you might have been taught, “knowledge” clearly isn’t internal representation: it’s effective action. And that’s the only criteria that has, over the centuries, driven the evolution of language.

Back to polling data.

It’s easy for us to look at the unusual political climate we are currently in and think of that 30% of the population that idolizes Trump and supports everything he does as edge cases of language use.  We are tempted to say: “Normally language is used to accurately convey information. Normally people answer survey questions by taking in the question, understanding it, and then producing their best attempt at an answer to that question. The fact that committed Trumpists produce such out-of-touch, contradictory responses to things just means they are living in the extremes: extreme loyalty, or extreme denial.

Is that wrong, though? When you look at the biological function of language, they don’t seem like edge cases at all.

If you look at biology, and evolutionary theory, they are using language to do exactly what it evolved to do. Language was never about “information” or “mental states”, much less honesty. Language is behavior, and for autopoetic systems that means self-preservation and effective action. It means maintaining your world view, and acting in a way that allows you to keep existing. If, in the past, that behavior had some correspondence to “truth” or “information”… well, that was just a coincidence.

Our current political climate is just shining a light on the basic flaws that have been baked into the way we look at language from the beginning.



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  1. Brian Hood says:

    Very thought provoking, Greg! Also: disturbingly reductive.

    I’m going to put on a hat I typically reserve for special occasions that require me to dress out of character and ask “What about agency?” I believe I have a grasp on autopoiesis at the cellular level as you have described it, but cells are neither conscious nor do they have wills. I suspect here you might object that I am simply begging the question by assuming humans have agency/will. Further, I’m inclined to pound the table and boldly assert that as as certain as I am that I have hands, am I that I have representational capacities that cells do not have, and I can choose act on those (or not). To consider a mental representation as functionally similar to the disturbance of a cone seems a bit hasty. Additionally, I wonder how your analysis accommodates conceptual shift. It seems, to the extent you capture the explanandum, you explain only the preservation of beliefs, but belief revision is left unexplained. Given that belief revision, as a phenomenon, can be quite heterogeneous (e.g., from cases of seemingly spontaneous mind-changing to cases of diligent weighing of evidence), I’m not sure the model of autopoiesis is appropriate.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Maturana and Varela describe themselves as “radical biological constructivists” — they would deny that organisms have “representational capacity” in the traditional sense, because when analyzed in terms of their biological function there is no way for the “aboutness” if structures in the organism to point to anything other than the organism itself. Autopoietic systems are “semantically closed” systems, in a sense.

      However, I don’t think this view is reductive… at least not in the traditional way one thinks of reductionism in western sciences. Instead the view is fully biologically constructivist. Any “world view” is inherently a product of the structure of the observing organism, and to talk about a “description of the universe” that is somehow independent of an observing organism is logically incoherent, because “description” is something that only observers do. When viewed through that lens, everything about the way we organize our understanding of the universe (including autopoietic theory itself) is a complex consequence of our own structure and its relationship to the environment. There is nothing “privileged” or “primary” about it. It’s not the way things are it’s a way of seeing things and within that self-consistency it is completely comfortable, without the need for anchoring in some kind of “objective ground”.

      I didn’t quite follow your thoughts on conceptual shift, although I believe an autopoietic analysis would frame such things as shifts between different stable equilibria in the organization of the observer. Maybe you can go into more detail about what sorts of conceptual shifts you were thinking about.

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