Mayr’s lemma

September 1, 2019

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I’ve just started reading Mark Fedyk’s 2017 book The Social Turn in Moral Psychology which I picked up on an impulse in the MIT bookshop on my last visit to Cambridge.  I’m only one chapter in but I suspect it will end up on The bookshelf.  

To set the context for this I have long argued that one size fits all  approaches don’t work.  One of the main functions of Cynefin was to create a both/and culture in contrast to the linear succession of management fads, each claiming universal application, which have been a plague in management science and practice for many decades.  At the same time it is not a matter of saying anything goes or in the false cant of the Young Earth creationists – everything is a theory and therefore all theories have equal validity.   Many, many theories are incoherent to the facts and not worth persuing, others have coherence, they have explanatory and sometimes predictive power and their exploration is thus a worthwhile journey to embark on.

I also, back in 2016 I’m pleased to say, made a key distinction between explanatory and predictive power linked to scalability. A distinction that Fedyk also makes in looking at the biological and ethical roots or moral psychology.  All of this is a part of a series of key questions for those of us working in complexity science, namely how do we deal with inherent uncertainty and when can we say that something is right?   I’m not of the school of thought (although I think Ralph Stacy is but I could be wrong) that takes an extreme post-modern position is denying the possibility of material and evidential truth.  But that said this is a problem and some irony – in taking the science of complex adaptive systems I am starting from a realist philosophical position, qua materialist while talking about emergence and inherent uncertainty.

This is an ongoing issue and we will all make progress over time but Fedyk has helped me considerably with his idea of Mayr’s lemma (he references this to Ernst Mayr in a 1961 paper which introduced the proximate-ultimate distinction into biology.  Now I knew of this but had forgotten it (which is not unusual) so it was good to get a refresh with some added insight.  I’ll summarise Fedyk (pp page 31-32) before drawing some conclusions. 

  1. Proximate explanations are mostly endogenous to the body of an organism, they cure within, and within the life time of the organism and provides sceptically plausible explanations of behaviour based on those properties: genetic, biochemical, neurophysiological etc.
  2. Ultime examplanations are those that occur exogenously to the body and affect more than a single organism.  They exist over long periods of time and are almost always structure properties and constraints of the environment so we get population-leve phenomena such as natural selection.
  3. Mayr’s lemma describes scientifically plausible uptime and proximate explanations that stand in a many-to-many relationship.  We can’t infer which proximate explanation is true from an ultimate explanation and it is also not possible in general to anger which ultimate explanation is true from a confirmed explanation either. 

Paraphrasing in the above is entirely my responsibility!  The differences here allow Fedyk to assert that contemporary moral behaviour is a subset of adaptive social behaviour, something supported by Jablonka and others. It means that an explanation of human morality while possible from a purely deterministic approach (Wilson’s Sociobiology) the fact that there is an explanation does not mean that Sociobiology is all we need; transdisciplinary approaches will all produce some form of explanation with varying degrees of coherence.  Critically this means that morality in humans may be more than the social behaviour of a species.

Now all this is very important for many reasons but I want to draw out two:

In terms of our work on ethics and aesthetics it means that there are qualities that cannot simply be derived from biology or context for that matter and we can thus work on holding people responsible for moral acts, and also we can develop moral sensibilities and education for leaders and others.

In terms of method I now have another dimension on constraint mapping and strategy formulation.   I’ll probably work those out teaching the advanced masterclasses in Reading and San Francisco later this year and in blogs post before and after those events.

I realise overall this post is  little obscure – but it is an important one never the less  and maybe seminal in terms of Cynefin development- now back to the book.


Banner picture is cut from an original ‘Lateral Root Emergence’ by  BlueRidgeKitties on Flickr used under a creative commons license – see link for terms

In text picture is of a Monocot Root: Epidermal Root Hair in Lilium from Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library

The two illustrate the difference between exogenous  origin of root hair and endogenous origins of the lateral root.  Lateral roots original from the pericycle deep inside the root, while root hairs are superficial/

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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