Many people couldn’t imagine Math and Biology going out on a date. Flirting with each other from time to time…maybe. But a date? Never! Math is precise, abstract, cool, and distant. Biology is messy, unpredictable, prone to mood swings, and chemically dependent…as it were.
But this may be changing.
“The conversion of biology into a more quantifiable science will continue to the extent that it might even become the main driving force behind innovation and development in mathematics”
Let me explain why I think Math and Biology are ultimately compatible, and in fact, part of a Single Reality.
Math Evolved in the Biosphere
Let’s start with numbers. Imagine a mother crow busily feeding her three chicks. She would become worried if she came back to her nest to suddenly find two chicks instead of three.
She would know there something is wrong with this picture…because crows can count (they can subitize small numbers, like about 2 or 3).
How did it come about that some animals, like crows and humans, can count? First of all, in order for intelligent beings to be able to count, they have to live in an environment where countable objects are found, and where counting has some evolutionary benefit. Consider a gaseous planet where fluids intermix and there is no way to detect a “thing” or “event” and to compare that with another “thing” or “event”. In this kind of world, there is nothing to count.
For that matter, it is unlikely that an intelligent entity that can count could ever evolve on such a planet in the first place, because structure and differentiation at some physical level are required for living things to bootstrap themselves into existence.
Theories of autopoiesis, negentropy, and the emergence of mind from matter rely on the existence of a prior structure to the universe where it is possible for self-regulation, and self-creation to arise. One might say that the origins of life had a head start long before those first molecules started dancing together and accidentally reproducing. Maybe it wasn’t such an accident after all.
…which brings me to a core concept: since Earth’s biosphere gave rise to animals that can count, as well as those things that can be counted – at the same time, we must understand ourselves as in and of the biosphere – we and it all evolved together: one did not come before the other.
Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Neither. They have both been in a continual state of becoming since egg-like things and chicken-like things have existed. And if you go back in time far enough, these things look less and less like chickens and eggs.
We animals have evolved to understand containment, and that is partly because hierarchy evolved within the fabric of physical biology. We know what it means for something to be “inside” or “outside” of something else. We clumpify, categorize, differentiate, compare, and identify. All animals need some degree of this compartmentalization of nature in order to operate within it.
We cannot separate our math from the environment from which it evolved. The very foundations of math evolved within the bodies and minds of animals as a part of evolution. At least this is what several recent scientists and philosophers are suggesting. (Mathematicians are more likely to claim that math is universal, constant, and unchanged by biology.)
In a previous article I consider what kind of math would have emerged if octopuses has evolved to become the complex and dominant species on earth, instead of humans. This is not so hard to imagine, considering how intelligent they are.
Would an advanced octopus race have stumbled upon complex numbers? Would they have become as obsessed with the Cartesian coordinate system as we are? Since they have no skeletons, would they have formulated a geometry based on angles and lengths? Of course we can’t know, but it is likely that they would have created some math concepts that we may never achieve. And that would be because the long history of math that we have built and that we rely on to create new math has taken our brains and societies too far away from the place where an octopus-like math would naturally arise.
Now consider aliens from a completely different kind of planet than Earth. What kind of math would originate in that world? Many people would argue that math is math and it doesn’t matter who or what discovers or articulates it. And there may be some truth to this. But we can only hope and imagine that this is the case.
Until we meet aliens from another planet and ask them if they understand and appreciate the fibonacci sequence, I have to assume that their math is different than ours.
What do you think?
(I would have consulted one of my octopus friends on the subject…but I don’t speak their language).