Brain Science Podcast's Ginger Campbell has posted a fascinating interview with Terrence Deacon, a biological anthropologist who teaches at Berkeley and was once a resident of West Seattle. The interview concerns the ideas presented in his new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. The core idea in this book is that we (or the biological sciences) need to face the fact that emergence explains little about the dynamics of life and consciousness. A whirlpool, for example, emerges when water is disturbed in a specific way.
Here is [one of] Deacon's [main] points and [new ideas in his book Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter]. The nature of the contraint or contraints of a [thing determines if it is biological or merely morphological]. For example, a whirlpool's constraint (this being, of course, what is the whirlpool) functions to maximize the undoing of the whirlpool. Meaning, the contraint is there because water doesn't want to be a whirlpool. Water wants to get rid of the disturbance, the imbalance, the disequilibrium. Now life has constraints, but their function is completely opposite to the function of a whirlpool's constraint. Life's constraints are there to maintain life, to keep it going, to keep things together, and to generate more constraints. To lose your constraints is the meaning of death. So, life at its core is more than an emergence, more than mere morphodynamics—it's a much deeper dynamic, a dynamic the retains, remembers, generates, and transmits contraints.
Then came this shocker, posted by Tom Bartlett, "Stolen Ideas? Or Great Minds Thinking Alike?":
One would never think from reading Incomplete Nature that the author’s main contentions have already been systematically developed by others, and that there is in fact hardly an original idea in the book. Two works, in particular, stand out in the prior literature: Dynamics in Action by Alicia Juarrero and Mind in Life by Evan Thompson. Neither book is cited by Deacon, although they cover much the same ground as his—far more lucidly and insightfully.
if you are wondering, to Terrence Deacon's new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. (By the way, a controversy is steadily consuming this work. It appears that Deacon took, without credit, many of his ideas directly from another book, Dynamics in Action, which was written a decade or so ago by a Cuban-born philosopher, Alicia Juarrero, who teaches at a community college in Maryland. I read Juarrero's book and her discussion on constraints and emergent systems is brilliant, lucid, and identical to Deacon's—again, more on this in another post).
Well, guess who is the latest guest on Ginger Brown's Brain Science Podcast? Evan Thompson. Just two or so months after Brown interviewed Deacon, she interviews the man many suspect Deacon stole his central ideas from. Sadly, Brown brings none of this up, and the closest we ever get to the controversy is this statement about his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind:
A guiding idea through the book is the idea of self-organization. I draw a lot on notions coming from the study of self-organizing systems in biology, and also in neuroscience to some extent. And I try to show how the tools that come from the study of self-organizing systems are very illuminating for an understanding of cognition and perception, and also have echoes, you could say, in aspects of our own experience and how it organizes itself in time as a kind of flow or stream of consciousness. So, the book covers a lot of ground. But that's in very, very general terms what the book is about.
To say I'm not disappointed by this missed opportunity would be untrue.