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Nature is Round, and Humans are Square

Ivy

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I promise not to God all over this thread-- but I wanted to say how interesting I think it is that in discussions such as these, people tend to imbue nature with a sense of competence or incompetence or clumsiness or not-clumsiness. It seems that we come hard-wired to see purpose and agency on the part of the universe. Maybe this is where God-ideas come from.
 

Haight

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As you stated elsewhere the Engineer views it as clumsy but not the scientist.
I think that's the root of my answer.

In other words, maybe this has nothing to do with how things found in nature are mostly round and squares seem like anomalies (since my wife just convinced me that that is not the case), but rather, it's based on our perception of these non-human creations. So in the end, maybe I just have to look closer, because my visual abilities are so limited.
 

HilbertSpace

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You've probably been reading Wolfram.

I just found this little site -

http://www.collidoscope.com/modernca/lifelikerules.html

When that applet first started, I thought it was the ants building piles problem. The piles problem is canonical in questions of bottom-up intelligence - it's a problem of dispersed coordination.

Say you have a bunch of grains of sand, evenly distributed, and you want them piled up. To to this, a (centralized, monolithic intelligence) would simply start moving all of the grains to a single spot on the board. If the person was coordinating ants to do the job, he might tell each ant to move a particular grain from Point A to Point B.

However, the same effect can be brought about by simply encoding each ant with two trivial rules, and using the idea of stimergy to coordinate them: If you run into a grain of sand and you're not carrying one, pick it up. If you run into a grain of sand and you are carrying one, drop it.

This is the sort of thing that nature does - the constraint here is that your ants are pretty stupid - they only have room in their minds for a couple of simple, concrete rules, and they can't even talk to one another. There's no possibility of having a foreman. But even with those constraints, they can still build a pile.
 

kuranes

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I promise not to God all over this thread-- but I wanted to say how interesting I think it is that in discussions such as these, people tend to imbue nature with a sense of competence or incompetence or clumsiness or not-clumsiness. It seems that we come hard-wired to see purpose and agency on the part of the universe. Maybe this is where God-ideas come from.

I agree, along with the fact that people like to think that their part in the "design" will continue.
 

Wolf

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When that applet first started, I thought it was the ants building piles problem. The piles problem is canonical in questions of bottom-up intelligence - it's a problem of dispersed coordination.

Say you have a bunch of grains of sand, evenly distributed, and you want them piled up. To to this, a (centralized, monolithic intelligence) would simply start moving all of the grains to a single spot on the board. If the person was coordinating ants to do the job, he might tell each ant to move a particular grain from Point A to Point B.

However, the same effect can be brought about by simply encoding each ant with two trivial rules, and using the idea of stimergy to coordinate them: If you run into a grain of sand and you're not carrying one, pick it up. If you run into a grain of sand and you are carrying one, drop it.

This is the sort of thing that nature does - the constraint here is that your ants are pretty stupid - they only have room in their minds for a couple of simple, concrete rules, and they can't even talk to one another. There's no possibility of having a foreman. But even with those constraints, they can still build a pile.
You need additional rules, as this will result in a loss of ants until you no longer have any ants. The environment and initial distribution of sand and ants also changes the rules.
 

Zergling

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Nature is not clumsy. The bottom up approach appears haphazard but it's not.

It's "haphazard" in the sense that it occurs without any direct organization or planning.


In natural process, a lot of things (such as diffusion, gravity, heat flow, light flow, sound) go in all directions equally unless conditions are different in the different directions, so structures made by these type of effects will be spherical. In the case where conditions aren't the same in all directions, they tend to not change suddenly, so the resulting structures formed are still smooth, but not exactly spherical (mushroom clouds.). there's also general randomness in processes, and having squares or rectangles is less likely than having round shapes, so things like fires aren't square partially because they aren't likely to be.

Most human structures are built to divide up space, and for support, in these areas, square shapes work better. (The flat surface on top of cubes won't have things sliding off it as round shapes would, and squares are one of three basic shapes that can cover an entire 2-d space.)
 

HilbertSpace

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You need additional rules, as this will result in a loss of ants until you no longer have any ants. The environment and initial distribution of sand and ants also changes the rules.

I over-simplified because I know I tend to make long posts, and I am consciously trying to keep things brief, but you're entirely correct. I believe the original papers on the experiment came out of ALife III or IV, but I can't find them at the moment (or else those were the ones where the ants were supposed to make patterns with the colored grains of sand...).

The main idea that I was trying to get across is that systemic constraints, including being able to deal with only highly localized information and limited computational resources will guide the design of the larger system, and that the resulting system (and products of that system) will look different than one that was the result of a monolithic approach.
 

Zergling

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Zerg: How do you know there's no planning?

I don't, however, almost all of what happens in natural processes describable by things that are unplanned and just happen to work a certain way, so for the purposes of comparison, natural processes are very likely to be unplanned.
 

HilbertSpace

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I don't, however, almost all of what happens in natural processes describable by things that are unplanned and just happen to work a certain way, so for the purposes of comparison, natural processes are very likely to be unplanned.

Absolutely not. That's the point of this thread (well, one of them). We might consider it "unplanned" in the sense that there isn't a Master Programmer, but it's certainly not what I would call unplanned, either.

Living systems learn to interpret signals from the environment. To the extent that they can, they can also incorporate the time-based nature of signals - they can easily learn that one thing precedes another. We can see this in everything from animal learning models to physiological responses.

Specifically, we can say that living organisms perform an evolutionary exploration of phenotypic space. We can think about it in terms of stimulus-response, but that's an over-simplification. First, when a stimulus precedes an event, the organism can learn to associate the two (like in chemotaxis, where a microorganism will swim towards food or away from poison). Ants can store food for lean times (even your body cells, without conscious thought, do this).

We see planning throughout nature as a result of iterative adaptations of bodies and behaviors.
 

Zergling

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We see planning throughout nature as a result of iterative adaptations of bodies and behaviors.

We're using a different definition of "planned" than. When I say "planned", it means something has considered the possibilities for a process or object, has gone through information beforehand about what to do to make it, and than causes an object or process to occur based on that information. When stars, clouds, planets, etc. form, there is, given what we know, nothing that looked at the possibilities for star formation, cloud formation, etc., and decided that those particular objects would form there. the formations just happened a certain way. It is incorrect in just about every sense to say that these were "planned". (Unless we find out gods or aliens did it.)

In terms of living things, it may depend on the process, and what is considered "planning". A change in size, shape, or behavior over time to to natural selection type of reasons is really iffy to call "planned", unless some species somehow ended up with a behavior of "drive this group extinct" and followed through on it, since there was no information processing that lead the living things to decide on extinction and change behavior based on it. Non living thing gs mentioned earlier have no information processing or response, and have no planning of any sort (unless a really wide definition is used.)
 

HilbertSpace

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In terms of living things, it may depend on the process, and what is considered "planning". A change in size, shape, or behavior over time to to natural selection type of reasons is really iffy to call "planned", unless some species somehow ended up with a behavior of "drive this group extinct" and followed through on it, since there was no information processing that lead the living things to decide on extinction and change behavior based on it. Non living thing gs mentioned earlier have no information processing or response, and have no planning of any sort (unless a really wide definition is used.)

I agree that planning is a property of living things, for the most part. But I think that, in all honesty, you do have to extend the idea of planning to them.

This is not to say that mutations are directional, but rather that, when combined with selection, you have the same kind of "evaluate, then reinforce or discard" activity that goes into cognitive planning. You can then have a range of responses, each of which is anticipatory (that is, it fills part of a plan that takes place over time), and which itself is plastic in response to continuous environmental feedback.
 

Siúil a Rúin

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Enough with the trees silly twaddlings.

Is a big part of the circles vs. square one of utility and the path of least resistance? Spheres are economical shapes and tend to occur in nature as a result of erosion and maximizing volume to surface area? Cube shaped result from building materials made of straight lines that fit easily together (early interchangeable parts concept). Trees are cut to form straight logs, rocks are quarried in squares to fit together once moved, steel beams, and other materials are more easily manufactured in straight lines, correct? Isn't the most economical use of straight lines to build a cube? Isn't that the straight line version of maximizing volume to surface area?

Humans who use more fluid building materials produce more fluid designs like the tee-pee and the dome-shaped Navajo hogans, straw huts tend to be cylindrical with roof material radiating out from the center, etc.
 

HilbertSpace

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Is a big part of the circles vs. square one of utility and the path of least resistance? Spheres are economical shapes and tend to occur in nature as a result of erosion and maximizing volume to surface area? Cube shaped result from building materials made of straight lines that fit easily together (early interchangeable parts concept). Trees are cut to form straight logs, rocks are quarried in squares to fit together once moved, steel beams, and other materials are more easily manufactured in straight lines, correct? Isn't the most economical use of straight lines to build a cube? Isn't that the straight line version of maximizing volume to surface area?

I think you're absolutely right. I would characterize the building materials and the shapes they encourage as a constraint because they act as a sort of limiting (or, at least, channeling) factor, but you can also think of a utility regarding optimal use with the channel of constraint.
 

darlets

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Humans who use more fluid building materials produce more fluid designs like the tee-pee and the dome-shaped Navajo hogans, straw huts tend to be cylindrical with roof material radiating out from the center, etc.
Yeah, I was going to say, there's alot of human architecture that is round. Alot of tribes build circular huts and circular villages.

There's also a train of thought in architecture that human are more at ease in round surrondings (I'll find more on this later)

When the need arises too, we're also very unsquare. Aircraft/Rockets, submarines, tennis balls (o.k maybe that last one isn't a good example)
 

Zergling

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This is not to say that mutations are directional, but rather that, when combined with selection, you have the same kind of "evaluate, then reinforce or discard" activity that goes into cognitive planning. You can then have a range of responses, each of which is anticipatory (that is, it fills part of a plan that takes place over time), and which itself is plastic in response to continuous environmental feedback.

Again, this is a different definition of planning than what I am talking about.

This is not "planning" the way I use it, because no information was processed separatly from when the actual events occured. It has the same effect as if someone looked at the options, and decided well on one over the other, but did not occur by the same process.

Toonia said:
Is a big part of the circles vs. square one of utility and the path of least resistance? Spheres are economical shapes and tend to occur in nature as a result of erosion and maximizing volume to surface area? Cube shaped result from building materials made of straight lines that fit easily together (early interchangeable parts concept). Trees are cut to form straight logs, rocks are quarried in squares to fit together once moved, steel beams, and other materials are more easily manufactured in straight lines, correct? Isn't the most economical use of straight lines to build a cube? Isn't that the straight line version of maximizing volume to surface area?

There are also natural processes where this sort of thing occurs. (Crystal structures minimize energy when in square or hexagon shapes rather than round or random shapes.)
 

Ivy

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Since I can't quite hang with the science talk (although it excites me), I'll drop in and suggest an interesting book that touches on this from a literary perspective: The Mirror and the Lamp by Meyer Abrams. Up until the Enlightenment, literature (and, by extension, other aspects of culture) acted as a mirror, reflecting and interpreting the world. There was a shift around then that changed the focus from reflecting the world to illuminating and improving. This seems to be about when people decided that the best way to go about inventing was to do the opposite of nature and forge ahead with better ideas. The pendulum appears to be swinging back in the other direction somewhat.
 
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