Two theories of action: Edelman’s neuronal group selection and the poetics of Paul Valéry
“I have been a hands-on cell biologist for most of my life. I remain puzzled by how cells make decisions on a daily basis. I’m particularly interested in the narrative aspects of what is going on,” said STIAS fellow Marcella Faria of the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, New York. Faria was presenting the first fellows seminar of the second semester of 2021 and an update on the work she has been undertaking at STIAS this year. Her project aims to unpack how culture, politics, literature and science share a common vocabulary and how metaphors and analogies are continuously interchanged between these domains of human activity. She is focusing on identifying overlaps between cell biology, history, and literature and other art forms. (See https://stias.ac.za/2021/03/cell-stories-how-key-are-the-words/)
Her seminar specifically focused on the work of American biologist Gerald Edelman and French poet Paul Valéry.
“I am looking at poetics and neuronal brain function,” she explained. “The formative acts that underlie each and account for their increasing complexity and subjectivity.”
Paul Valéry (1871 – 1945) was a poet, essayist and philosopher. He produced daily notebooks (Cahiers) later published, which contained insights into his creative process as well as reflections on art and science.
Gerald Edelman (1929 – 2014) was a biologist who shared the 1972 Nobel Prize for his discovery of the structure of antibodies. He later worked in neuroscience developing a detailed theory of neuronal group selection, known as ‘Neural Darwinism’, which explains the development and organisation of higher brain functions. The theory has three basic tenets – developmental selection, experiential selection and re-entry or neural circuitry.
“Edelman generalised the Darwinian ideas of variation and selection to the cellular level in his Sciences of Recognition, a broader theoretical framework that includes ‘Neural Darwinism’,” explained Faria. “Valéry, as a poet, reconciled inspiration and technique in what he calls ‘works of the mind’, a concept underlying all the creative processes mediated by sensing and making sense, which he detailed in his Poetic Theory. The particular deployments of individual formative acts – in neuronal activity and artistic composition – are the main objects of these two theoretical frameworks emphasising pragmatic levels.”
“Shared insights and converging concepts, i.e. variation and selection, integration and differentiation, ambiguity and degeneracy, binding and blending, memory and unconscious, closure and coding, are illustrated by pairing and comparing textual fragments from the authors,” she continued. “Consciousness and poetic composition, neural networks and poems on the page, scientific and artistic labour, become a ground of reconciliation between the natural sciences and the arts. By showing possible ways to grant a place to experience in nature, and make imagination a form of reason, the two thinkers momentarily bridge the usual dichotomy between objective-mechanical-empirical and subjective-creative-experimental.”
“Valéry acknowledged the necessity of theory in art. His notion of works of the mind focused on the physical aspects of the production of art. He placed great importance on the act itself. Art is always about the making. You bring into being something that could not otherwise exist. He thought about the creative process as a process of enquiry with an emphasis on the method not only the end result.”
Faria explained that Edelman’s theory is about understanding the building blocks of brain function where specialisation is selective. “One trigger may generate various possibilities. It’s about the choices a cell makes during its embryonic development. The possible trajectory is determined beforehand but what actually happens depends on experience. A cell can become a heart or a brain cell, a neuron can stablish functional synapses or die. New functions can arise, it can use one thing to do other things, some kind of ‘tinkering’ in the words of François Jacob, another important French thinker. It’s a process of selecting over variation. Individual variation then leads to the retention of functional sets. Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Linking this to the poetics of Valéry, Faria explained that Valéry believed that an inventory of primary elements are at the basis of all writing and possible writing formations. “He saw words as storyboards. How they integrate and unify leads to a certain effect. He saw his poems as organisms that develop and grow with differences in state between the parts and the whole, and the interplay of images, ideas, melodies and rhythms repeatedly seeking to prolong or renew the experience.”
Both Valéry and Edelman pointed to the role of flexibility as well as the embodied sense of self and subjectivity.
“In both cell development and poetics the ‘art’ is in choosing from the observables and deciding what to include,” added Faria. “There are not always rules for how to do that.”
During the creative process the mind proceeds from disorder to order with the drafting of possibilities, errors, hesitation and, finally, integration. “For Valéry flexibility is attributed to ambiguity which is the rightful domain of poetry,” said Faria. “And artwork is the union of abstract and reality, the general and the particular.”
“For both spheres is about being able to live with ambiguity but also attempting to make sense of it and integrating it. We need conventions for a broad spectrum of possibilities.”
Faria highlighted the historical context and chronology of ideas in the arts and sciences. “Theories are by definition tentative, contextual, vague, speculative. Still, they are often discredited in the life sciences for being too much (tentative, contextual, vague, speculative) and, in the arts, for not being enough. From the late 18th century the idea crystallised that science has theories but should have laws, and artists should be creative and unpredictable with no need for laws or theories. It wasn’t always like that – it’s a construction of a certain point in history. Romantic scientists as Goethe, and pragmatic philosophers as Pierce, for example, resisted a radical divide as such.”
“Arts and sciences have arbitrary and conventional rules as they evolve, develop and act. In this sense, they are as artifactual as life itself.”
She ended with a quote from Italian theoretical biologist (and also STIAS fellow) Marcello Barbieri:
“A world of artifacts may well have unexpected rules of its own, rules that we may call epigenetic because they were not present at the beginning and appeared only during a process of exploration and development. In those cases, we can truly say that ‘Life is artifact-making’ becomes ‘Life is art’.” – Marcello Barbieri, 2011.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS