february 24, 2017: slow time in the anthropocene



The Biosocial After the Digital: Emergence, Ontogenesis, Individuation

Coordinators: Profs. Sha Xin Wei and Adam Nocek, School of Arts, Media + Engineering, Arizona State University

This seminar addresses the growing consensus in the sciences and the humanities that the complexity of living matter cannot be adequately captured by information theoretic explanations. To engage this complexity, this seminar brings together a vibrant and diverse group of scientists and scholars from across North America and Europe to participate in a series of workshops and public events hosted by Arizona State University and The Santa Fe Institute. Participants in the seminar will use the meetings to reflect on the limits of these explanatory frameworks and to examine the concepts, methods, and practices that are best suited to express the complexities of living phenomena. Of particular interest to the seminar is the fact that computational theorists, theoretical biologists, mathematicians, and humanists increasingly share the goal of discovering (or inventing) alternatives to information theoretic accounts of the living, considering that biosocial phenomena cannot be reduced to digital computational models.

It is in an effort to bring this shared perspective into sharp focus that the seminar pays special attention to the rich conceptual terrain shared by the biological sciences, nondiscrete mathematics, and the theoretical humanities. Over the course of the seminar participants weigh in on concepts from theoretical biology—such as developmental complexity, the adjacent possible, niche construction, symbiogenesis, and extended inheritance, among others—that attempt to account for the fact the living systems emerge outside of predictive models constructed on pre-given categories — e.g., “no law entails the evolution of the biosphere” (Longo, Montévil, Kauffman 2012). Participants also direct their attention to concepts from the theoretical humanities that have been marshaled to account for the motors of dynamic change that exceed mathematical models—e.g., ontogenesis, individuation, concrescence, virtuality. The seminar therefore aims to bring these different conceptual registers into closer proximity through their mutual engagement with dynamically evolving systems.

In doing so, this seminar does not aim to disregard or reduce the importance of mathematical, physical, or computational frameworks. Rather, and in keeping with the spirit of Stuart Kauffman’s latest book,Humanity in A Creative Universe, the goal is also to discover the relevancies, in addition to the limits, of these frameworks. It is for this reason that the work of Alfred North Whitehead will be a particularly powerful lure for us moving forward. In the Concept of Nature, Whitehead famously resisted the modern temptation to bifurcate nature into mental and physical “stuff” by placing “everything in the same boat, to sink or swim together” (CN 148). Similarly, this seminar wishes to put living and physical stuff into the “same boat,” without reducing one to the other.


At present, the seminar has 3 main components:

1. January-May 2017: PhD seminar co-taught by Sha and Nocek. Giuseppe Longo from the École Normale Supérieure Paris will join us—February 27 through March 15.  Prof. Longo is one of the most distinguished mathematicians and scientists re-thinking paradigms about living organisms and computation. He will speak on the topic of “Ontogenesis, phylogenesis and the formation of ‘sense’.”

2. April 19-23: Santa Fe Workshop hosted by the Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University. In attendance: Stuart Kauffman, Michael Epperson (CSUS), Cary Wolfe (Rice), Sha Xin Wei (ASU), Ronald Broglio (ASU), Adam Nocek (ASU), Phillip Thurtle (UW)

3. October 2017: Symposium and public roundtable at Arizona State University. Invitations will be sent to a wider network of collaborators