Direct and Indirect Constraints:

In today’s post, I am following on the theme of Lila Gatlin’s work on constraints and tying it up with cybernetics. Please refer to my previous posts here and here for additional background. As I discussed in the last post, Lila Gatlin used the analogy of language to explain the emergence of complexity in evolution. She postulated that lower complex organisms such as invertebrates focused on D1 constraints to ensure that the genetic material is passed on accurately over generations, while vertebrates maintained a constant level of D1 constraints and utilized D2 constraints to introduce novelty leading to complexification of the species. Gatlin noted that this is similar to Shannon’s second theorem which points out that if a message is encoded properly, then it can be sent over a noisy medium in a reliable manner. As Jeremy Campbell notes:

In Shannon’s theory, the essence of successful communication is that the message must be properly encoded before it is sent, so that it arrives at its destination just as it left the transmitter, intact and free from errors caused by the randomizing effects of noise. This means that a certain amount of redundancy must be built into the message at the source… In Gatlin’s new kind of natural selection, “second-theorem selection,” fitness is defined in terms very different and abstract than in classical theory of evolution. Fitness here is not a matter of strong bodies and prolific reproduction, but of genetic information coded according to Shannon’s principles.

The codes that made possible the so-called higher organisms, Gatlin suggests, were redundant enough to ensure transmission along the channel from DNA to protein without error, yet at the same time they possessed an entropy, in Shannon’s sense of “amount of potential information,” high enough to generate a large variety of possible messages.

Gatlin viewed that complexity arose from the ability to introduce more variety while at the same time maintaining accuracy in an optimal mix, similar to human language where there is always constant emergence of new and new ideas while the main grammar, syntax etc. are maintained. As Campbell continues:

In the course of evolution, certain living organisms acquired DNA messages which were coded in this optimum way, giving them a highly successful balance between variety and accuracy, a property also displayed by human languages. These winning creatures were the vertebrates, immensely innovative and versatile forms of life, whose arrival led to a speeding-up of evolution.

As Campbell puts it, vertebrates were agents of novelty. They were able to revolutionize their anatomy and body chemistry. They were able to evolve more rapidly and adapt to their surroundings. The first known vertebrate is a bottom-dwelling fish that lived over 350 million years ago. They had a heavy external skeleton that anchored them to the floor of the water-body. They evolved such that some of the spiny parts of the skeleton grew into fins. They also evolved such that they developed skull with openings for sense organs such as eyes, nose, ears etc. Later on, some of them developed limbs from the bony supports of fins, leading to the rise of amphibians.

What kind of error-correcting redundancy did he DNA of these evolutionary prize winners, the vertebrates, possess? It had to give them the freedom to be creative, to become something markedly different, for their emergence was made possible not merely by changes in the shape of a common skeleton, but rather by developing whole new parts and organs of the body. Yet this redundancy also had to provide them with the constraints needed to keep their genetic messages undistorted.

Gatlin defined the first type of redundancy, one that allows deviation from equiprobability as ‘D1 constraint’. This is also referred to as ‘governing constraint’. The second type of redundancy, one that allows deviation from independence was termed by Gatlin as ‘D2 constraint’, and this is also referred to as ‘enabling constraint’. Gatlin’s speculation was that vertebrates were able to use both D1 and D2 constraints to increase their complexification, ultimately leading to a high cognitive being such as our species, homo sapiens.

One of the pioneers in Cybernetics, Ross Ashby, also looked at a similar question. He was looking at the biological learning mechanisms of “advanced” organisms. Ashby identified that for lower complex organisms, the main source of regulation is their gene pattern. For Ashby, regulation is linked to their viability or survival. He noted that the lower complex organisms can rely just on their gene pattern to continue to survive in their environment. Ashby noted that they are adapted because their conditions have been constant over many generations. In other words, a low complex organism such as a hunting wasp can hunt and survive simply based on their genetic information. They do not need to learn to adapt, they can adapt with what they have. Ashby referred to this as direct regulation. With direct regulation, there is a limit to the adaptation. If the regularities of the environment change, the hunting wasp will not be able to survive. It relies on the regularities of the environment for its survival. Ashby contrasted this with indirect regulation. With indirect regulation, one is able to amplify adaptation. Indirect regulation is the learning mechanism that allows the organism to adapt. A great example for this is a kitten. As Ashby notes:

This (indirect regulation) is the learning mechanism. Its peculiarity is that the gene-pattern delegates part of its control over the organism to the environment. Thus, it does not specify in detail how a kitten shall catch a mouse, but provides a learning mechanism and a tendency to play, so that it is the mouse which teaches the kitten the finer points of how to catch mice.

The learning mechanism in its gene pattern does not directly teach the kitten to hunt for the mice. However, chasing the mice and interacting with it, trains the kitten how to catch the mice. As Ashby notes, the gene pattern is supplemented by the information supplied by the environment. Part of the regulation is delegated to the environment.

In the same way the gene-pattern, when it determines the growth of a learning animal, expends part of its resources in forming a brain that is adapted not only by details in the gene-pattern but also by details in the environment. The environment acts as the dictionary, while the hunting wasp, as it attacks its prey, is guided in detail by its genetic inheritance, the kitten is taught how to catch mice by the mice themselves. Thus, in the learning organism the information that comes to it by the gene-pattern is much supplemented by information supplied by the environment; so, the total adaptation possible, after learning, can exceed the quantity transmitted directly through the gene-pattern.

Ashby further notes:

As a channel of communication, it has a definite, finite capacity, Q say. If this capacity is used directly, then, by the law of requisite variety, the amount of regulation that the organism can use as defense against the environment cannot exceed Q.  To this limit, the non-learning organisms must conform. If, however, the regulation is done indirectly, then the quantity Q, used appropriately, may enable the organism to achieve, against its environment, an amount of regulation much greater than Q. Thus, the learning organisms are no longer restricted by the limit.

In the same way the gene-pattern, when it determines the growth of a learning animal, expends part of its resources in forming a brain that is adapted not only by details in the gene-pattern but also by details in the environment. The environment acts as the dictionary, while the hunting wasp, as it attacks its prey, is guided in detail by its genetic inheritance, the kitten is taught how to catch mice by the mice themselves. Thus, in the learning organism the information that comes to it by the gene-pattern is much supplemented by information supplied by the environment; so the total adaptation possible, after learning, can exceed the quantity transmitted directly through the gene-pattern.

As I look at Ashby’s ideas, I cannot help but see similarities between the D1/D2 constraints and Direct/Indirect regulation respectively. Indirect regulation, similar to enabling constraints, helps the organism adapt to its environment by connecting things together. Indirect regulation has a second order nature to it such as learning how to learn. It works on being open to possibilities when interacting with the environment. It brings novelty into the situation. Similar to governing constraints, direct regulation focuses only on the accuracy of the ‘message’. Nothing additional or any form of amplification is not possible. Direct regulation is hardwired, whereas indirect regulation is enabling. Direct regulation is context-free, whereas indirect regulation is context-sensitive. What the hunting wasp does is entirely reliant on its gene pattern, no matter the situation, whereas, what a kitten does is entirely dependent on the context of the situation.

Final Words:

Cybernetics can be looked at as the study of possibilities, especially why out of all the possibilities only certain outcomes occur. There are strong undercurrents to information theory in Cybernetics. For example, in information theory entropy is a measure of how many messages might have been sent, but were not. In other words, if there are a lot of possible messages available, and only one message is selected, then it eliminates a lot of uncertainty. Therefore, this represents a high information scenario. Indirect regulation allows us to look at the different possibilities and adapt as needed. Additionally, indirect regulation allows retaining the successes and failures and the lessons learned from them.

I will finish with a great lesson from Ashby to explain the idea of the indirect regulation:

If a child wanted to discover the meanings of English words, and his father had only ten minutes available for instruction, the father would have two possible modes of action. One is to use the ten minutes in telling the child the meanings of as many words as can be described in that time. Clearly there is a limit to the number of words that can be so explained. This is the direct method. The indirect method is for the father to spend the ten minutes showing the child how to use a dictionary. At the end of the ten minutes the child is, in one sense, no better off; for not a single word has been added to his vocabulary. Nevertheless, the second method has a fundamental advantage; for in the future the number of words that the child can understand is no longer bounded by the limit imposed by the ten minutes. The reason is that if the information about meanings has to come through the father directly, it is limited to ten-minutes’ worth; in the indirect method the information comes partly through the father and partly through another channel (the dictionary) that the father’s ten-minute act has made available.

Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was D1 and D2 Constraints:

3 thoughts on “Direct and Indirect Constraints:

  1. This message has been coded in English and by a code of conduct espoused by “cyberneticians” – people working in the domain of cybernetics. I’m being constrained in writing this message by constraints of the English language and the domain of cybernetics. The English language provides me with a grammar, structure, which suits (me) very well in communicating “content” – the words of this message; cybernetics limits or constraints the meaning of my words, as they’re having a circumscribed (“defined”) meaning delimited by the community of cyberneticians. In adapting my words to the constraints of cybernetics, as described in their “dictionary”, I’m being constrained in successfully communicating the essence of my message. The essence is not in the words, it’s in me.

    I once started a (PowerPoint) presentation on an international conference in Chinese. Only a few people could read it. Proving meaning was not in the words. The “meaning” of an object like a chair, is in its use. Wittgenstein noticed that the meaning of words is in their correct use. He failed to mention that the meaning of a chair is in the sitting, but that one cannot sit on the word “chair”.
    One has no need to look for the meaning of “chair” in any dictionary: just sit there. One does have to use the meaning of meaning as dictated by the dictionary-in-use, used by the group one “belongs to”. You’re not allowed to sit on the chair of the Chair, like the Speaker in a parliament. This is why we’re calling it “dictionary”: as is being dictated, by a (sitting) dictator.

    Here we have the paradox of meaning – and why Shannon circumvented this in his theory on signal transfer – : the more one determines meaning of words, the more one constraints thinking. The more constrained their use, the less they’re useful. Just listen to dictators (or better, not).

    The structure – grammar – of our current dominant use of language is based on “command and control”.

    A few months ago I said this to a friend/facilitator working in India.
    He said: “Give me an example.”
    I said: “You just did.” He was silent for a moment. “Can you give me an example, please?”, he asked.
    I answered: “That’s a command also, phrased like a question. My mother used to use that: ‘can you please clean your room?’. When I said ‘No’, she would say ‘now!’.

    Now, I’m not against “command and control” structures. One can use these in emergencies. And in using real objects, like chairs. Also one uses machines using “command-and-control”-structures (aka programs, instruction codes, we used to call them). This explain why machines cannot use “meaningful behaviour” or behave, to say it differently “artificially intelligent”. Coding is an art, but meaning is a practice.

    When structuring language to command and control thinking, in other human beings and by defining narrow meanings, one also binds people strongly to each other. Every jargon, Oscar Wilde wrote, is a conspiracy against lay men. Every C&C language plots against others, naturally “selecting” the fittest words and men.

    I’m reminded of William James who wrote that meaning is in the fringe, the border, boundary. When ever one focusses on the center, the core, meaning “disappears”. When one shifts ones “gaze”, to see it better, meanings shift too. One “looks for meaning”, while it’s already present.

    So, excuse me for the long introduction. “There is a method in my madness” or structure in this chaos Constraints constrain constraint*s. Code coding code*. Organism organically organize organism*s. Structures structuring structure*s. Evolving evolution evolves.

    I’m not against using concepts like information, successes, random events, innovation, errors, rules and regulations, environment, organization … to understand. I limit my understanding by my own understanding, using these concepts as “fictions”, “as-ifs”, ideas, as if they really exist. They exist only “in my mind”. When using understanding –means – to control situations – end -, beyond metaphorical use, one looses ones understanding reality. There is no actual helmsman in cybernetics.

    I’m a big fan of Ashby’s Law (one of it’s paraphrases is the theme (and the core) of my book) , but, as the name seems to suggest, the law has been invented by a human being. Nature natures naturally (of course), “out of control”. Or perhaps better “Though this be madness (chaos), yet there is method (nature) in ‘t.”


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