The Human Condition:

Hierarchies of Learning – March 29, 2015

Mandelbrot fractal

I saw an article in Nature magazine recently about a ribosome signaling method, used to start the synthesis of a protein, that was common to both prokaryotes (single-celled organisms like bacteria) and eukaryotes (multi-celled bodies like plants, animals, and us).1 I found this fact surprising, because when I worked at the biotech company, one of the lessons I learned from my scientific coworkers is that bacteria have a structurally different ribosome—the cellular component which reads the bases in RNA and uses them to assemble amino acids into a protein—from the ribosome in the cells of plants and animals. This difference is the target of most “antibiotic” and “antibacterial” agents: they keep germs from making proteins, and this kills them, but the chemical doesn’t harm us, our livestock, or the household cat.

That same morning someone posted on Facebook a NASA Hubble Space Telescope photograph of a galaxy which had both the dust lanes featured in spiral galaxies and the globular shape of an elliptical galaxy. So either the image showed the result of a merger of two different types of galaxies, or our notions about galaxy formation must allow for the possibility of a rare anomaly.2

This got me thinking about the nature of learning and how we come to accept statements that are “true” or “real.” As a person delves more deeply into a subject, he or she finds that the initial set of facts learned in the early, introductory courses are … not wrong, exactly, but more like a generalization that needs refinement.

So to say that prokaryotes and eukaryotes have different kinds of ribosome is basically true, but more detailed analysis shows that some chemical features and functions are common to both. Or to say that galaxies are divided into spiral and elliptical types is basically true, but a more thorough survey of the cosmos shows that galactic formation is fluid.

For every subject that’s worth studying, it would appear there are layers to the onion. It’s like saying, “Boston is a city on the East Coast,” which is true. It is even more true to say, “Boston is a city in Massachusetts located north of Cape Cod Bay.” But it is also true to say, “Boston is an urban environment that includes the city proper as well as East Boston, Charlestown, Brookline, and South Boston.” That is, people who consider themselves proper “Bostonians” might actually live as far away as Cambridge, Somerville, and Chelsea.

Reality is complicated. Useful definitions are seldom exact or include all the exceptions necessary to understand what’s really happening. We learn by steps, graduating from one level of truth to another. A different way to say this is that reality has a fractal nature. Big generalizations, big concepts, big shapes are redefined as a series of smaller, more intricate shapes that often share a common pattern with the whole.

In considering this, I’m reminded of the dubious effort to measure the coastline of California. A straight line from Pelican State Beach on the Oregon border above Crescent City down to International Park on the Mexican border below Chula Vista might be a first approximation of the distance—but it’s hardly exact. You get a slightly more accurate measurement if you make one bend in the line at Point Arena north of San Francisco and another bend at Lompoc west of Santa Barbara. And you get an even more useful measurement if you survey your way around every point and into every bay along the coastline.

To measure more accurately than that requires some decision making. Do you want to take your reading at high tide or low? Do you measure around every rock and pier on the shoreline? How about every grain of sand? With each decision, your measurement gets longer. And ultimately, by encompassing sand grains, it becomes for all practical purposes infinite. So what is the real distance? What is the most accurate—as opposed to the most useful—measurement?

In the same way, Newtonian physics and its definitions of time, distance, and the effects of gravity work perfectly well on the human scale of thrown baseballs and dropped cannonballs, as well as on the astronomic scale of orbiting planets and the influence of nearby stars. But Newton’s equations break down at the extreme scale of lightspeed and galactic masses, as well as at the infinitesimal scale of atomic particles. To encompass those realities, we must—in the outward direction—adopt the counterintuitive logic of Einsteinian relativity, with its linking of space and time into a single reality and its suggestion that both are relative and may be curved. In the other, inward direction, we must adopt the sometimes il-logic of quantum mechanics, with its particles that shift their properties, generate invisible fields, and pair off over immense distances in ways governed only by pure mathematics.

As a person who is interested in truth and was taught to believe that some things are absolute, this is all very disturbing. What is a true statement if, a few layers further in, we can find exceptions, differing definitions, and contradictions? What part of the fractal represents its real nature?

Perhaps one has to accept a kind of “conditional truth,” as being true on a defined scale or level of understanding that is neither universal nor infinite.

I state that I am a singular creature. And on the level of people, dogs, and cats, this is a true statement. But on the cellular level, I do not exist in any way that is meaningful to my consciousness. My brain is a collection of one or more types of nerve cells; the bones, muscles, and skin of my mouth and my hands are each another kind of cell. And all of these collections of cells are involved with keeping my heart pumping blood, my lungs drawing air, my entrails processing foodlike chemicals, and my muscles moving me away from danger and toward safety. These collections are far more concerned about these survival functions than with my dreamy and sometimes spurious notions of philosophy, astronomy, or biology. Some of those cells—the damaged or cancerous ones—may no longer support the health of the whole and may be actively working against it. And still another kind of cell—those thousands of species of bacteria that constitute my personal microbiome on my skin and in my guts—are no more “me” than the oxpeckers that perch on the back of a rhinoceros or the remoras that ride along with a shark.

In the other, outward direction, I as an individual body am also part of one or more composite entities. I am a member of a family—a collection of individuals bound by genetics, economics, and affections—and have a specific role in that setting. I am also a member of a profession and in times past have been part of a company and one or more teams within that organization. I am also a citizen of a town, a state, and a nation. Each of these roles imposes the expectations of other people upon my behavior and actions. I may work diligently in the interests of and to achieve the goals of these groups, or I may rebel and work against them because I have a different idea of interests and goals. If my opposition is too direct or abrupt, the organization may reject me like a damaged or cancerous cell. But I can never be entirely free of their influence, just as I can never leave the beating of my heart.

Some of these domains are related, as disease will diminish a my ability to act effectively as a parent or employee, or as stresses from the job or in my family may create a condition of fatigue and sickness. But in many ways, these two worlds are unrelated, as the fact that my stomach is working over my breakfast oatmeal has nothing to do with the way I plan to vote in the next election.

Our lives, our thoughts, and the realities we experience are more like a Venn diagram, with overlapping and separate areas of action and interest, than they are a unified whole. In such a situation, why should I look for a single fact to be true in all cases? As I learn more about a subject—that is, encounter more cases, add more details to my understanding, perceive more rules to be made and modified—the circles of the diagram grow. That forces a redefinition of what fits inside and what may still lie outside.

Reality is complicated and fractal. Why should I expect any true statement to exist beyond its time and scope?3 The world is fluid and change is constant. A mature person must realize this—or be bruised and crushed by the breaking of old patterns.

1. See Initiation of translation in bacteria by a structured eukaryotic IRES RNA from Nature for March 5, 2015. The full article is behind a firewall.

2. See “Hubble Views ‘Third Kind’ of Galaxy” on the NASA website.

3. And doesn’t that question smack of Einsteinian relativity?