Saturday, July 5, 2014

"Pattern" as a Term of Art

In continuing to think about pattern I remembered some old notes I’d made about the concept of a biological niche. I’d decided that a niche was a pattern that some organism “traced” or “inscribed” in an environment.

Back THEN I was using the concept of pattern to explicate the concept of niche. In this current context, the focus, of course, is on pattern.

That is, I am developing “pattern” as a term of art and so I want to recast the ordinary notion just a bit. The ordinary notion of patterns is that, well, they’re everywhere. The ordinary notion is indifferent to how patterns are identified. The means of identification is off stage; it’s not even implicit; it’s simply not there.

I’ve decided that that won’t do for my purposes. As a term of art the concept of pattern is inherently relational. As a tentative formulation, a PATTERN can be said to be inscribed in a matrix by a vehicle. In the case of a biological niche, the organism is the vehicle, the environment is the matrix, and adaptation (or perhaps merely living) is the means of inscription.

What I like about the niche discussion is that it isn’t about humans. The niche is not a pattern conceived by humans. That’s one thing.

The other is that patterns emerge as the result of a process. Niches emerge as organisms live and become adapted to their environment. The patterns I’m interested in are the result of human perception and cognition.

Here are my old notes, from 1988, somewhat edited.

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Niche as Pattern

The last time I looked (in the 1970s) I was unable to find a clean definition of the niche, and of correlative terms such as environment and habitat. Environments are complex and so are organisms. The niche seems to be a pattern which exists only in the relationship between an organism and its environment.

There are biologists who talk about a niche as existing independently of any organism. The niche exists and the organism moves into it. This really isn't satisfactory. For there is a sense in which organisms create niches. And I’m not thinking of the concept of niche construction, where an animal actively modifies its environment by building nests and trails and so forth, though that is obviously as aspect of the process.

One can think of an organism as a set of capacities. Given some pre-existing organism, it creates a niche when placed into the appropriate environment, namely, an environment whose structure corresponds to the organism's capacities.

But, in fact, there is no such thing as a pre-existing organism. Organisms always exist in environments, to which they are always (more or less) adapted.

In the abstract we can imagine talking about the material, energetic, and informatic patterns which are such that organisms, perhaps of a specific chemistry (such as one based on carbon and oxygen), are evolved to exploit them. Consider the following definition (which presupposes the arguments in A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity):
A niche is a collection environmental phenomena in which low energy utilization of information allows an organism economically to obtain the energy and materials it needs to maintain its life.
As far as I can tell they only way to identify such a collection of environmental phenomena is to design and an organism which can successfully exploit them. And the best way to “design” such an organism is to evolve it.

I take it then that there is no way to identify a pattern of environmental affordances (to borrow a term from J. J. Gibson) independently of identifying an organism that utilizes them. To be sure, you may read a biologist talking about such things as “a niche for two kilogram night foraging herbivore,” but that’s only because they know that such creatures exist and have one in mind when writing those words. Such formulations sound like the biologist is simply looking at an environment and spelling out a niche pattern based on general theoretical notions. But those theoretical notions are based the examination of real organisms in real environments.

It’s irreducible: Niches are patterns, and those patterns are “identified” by the organisms that occupy the niches. That’s the simplest way. And it’s not very simple. The universe is irreducibly complex.

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Pattern: Some Cases

We have this tentative definition from above:
A PATTERN can be said to be inscribed in a matrix by a vehicle.
Now we have something to think about more generally. But not now. For now I offer these lists:
Biological niche:
matrix: environment
vehicle: organism
inscription: adaptation
Perceptual pattern:
matrix: environment
vehicle: nervous system (animal or human)
inscription: learning
Cultural pattern:
matrix: the world
vehicle: the human group
inscription: cultural evolution

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