19 January 2017

Arborescence

Often when writing I subsequently discover that something I thought of myself has been thought before. I don't mind too much not being original, especially if the person who thought of it first is smart. After all, I got to the same conclusion on my own, right?

Sometimes however the idea is attributed to someone I don't like, say a post-modernist like Gilles Deleuze. Today's example is what he called arborescence - which he uses to refer to the overriding principle that sees nature in terms of a series of binary branches.

Back in 2013 I complained that the tree metaphor was hopeless for evolution because evolution was characterised as much by convergence as by divergence. For example all Europeans have Neanderthal and Denisovan genes, as well as genes from another human species of which we have no fossil record. The tree cannot show this. I suggested a braided river might be a better metaphor.

Now I discover that Deleuze and another French guy made the same kind of complaint in 1980! I disagree with him on just about every other aspect of philosophy - so far as I can tell. But I've adopted his term.

The same argument is made against seeing features like gender as a simple binary. Actually Edward de Bono mentions something like this in his weirdly titled book I Am Right and You Are Wrong (1990). He attributes these either/or watersheds to inherent features of neural networks.

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