Now that my Fulbright grant is completed, ITMO University asked me to make a short video about my Digital Humanities research in poetics, butterflies, Nabokov, Turing and reaction diffusion processes to show prospective students what kind of creative learning they might expect to undertake in this interdisciplinary field.
I’ve working on a collection of short stories and essays about artistic creation entitled after a line from Nabokov, “chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower.” The introduction to the collection describes my work as a philosopher of science and literary fiction author and how these two parts of my life are seamlessly interwoven. This month the online and print journal Pangyus offers the introduction in their science section.
My work in science and art has been inspired by Nabokov and the volume will include several Nabokovian stories and essays about Nabokov’s work in lepidoptery. My science is also inspired by Alan Turing, who provided some theories about butterfly wing pattern development that I’ve used in my work on Nabokov’s theory of the evolution of mimicry, and I also need to mention Goethe, who, as the quintessential artist-scientist, plays an important role in all this too. The last story in the volume is a Faustian tale about Turing with Nabokov making a cameo appearance.
I hope you enjoy this piece.
The Brian Boyd Prize, for the best book of 2016 – 2018 by someone who has previously published a book predominantly on Nabokov.
Awarded to Professor Stephen Blackwell (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and Kurt Johnson for Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art (Yale University Press, 2016).
The judges write: ‘The judges for this Prize carefully considered five impressive books on Nabokov published in the last three years by established Nabokov scholars. Each would have made a worthy recipient, but ultimately they chose Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art, edited by Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson (Yale University Press, 2016). Being a distinguished lepidopterist as well as one of the twentieth-century’s great novelists, Nabokov is a writer of outstanding interest to all those who care about the complex relationships between science and art. Fine Lines carries the existing work on this subject forward by presenting us with no fewer than 148 of Nabokov butterfly drawings, beautifully reproduced. The elegantly written and intellectually sophisticated introduction, drawing meticulously on a range of sources, sheds new light onto Nabokov’s thought and writing by focusing in particular on the fundamental questions of taxonomy and systematics. The annotations to each drawing are exceptional, providing every context that future students will need to understand what Nabokov was thinking about as he drew his butterflies. Although the Prize is awarded for the quality of the introduction, editorial work, and annotations, the judges note that the volume is enriched by ten excellent essays (by V. N. Alexander, Stephen Blackwell, Brian Boyd, Robert Dirig, Victor Fet, Lauren Lucas et al., James Mallet, Naomi Pierce et al., Robert Michael Pyle, and Dorion Sagan) and a valuable bibliography. Yale University Press also deserve the praise and gratitude of Nabokovians, and of the literary and scientific community more broadly, for having made this beautiful book.
At #8 in my Biosemiotics Series, this video is a little belated, but worth the wait.
Why do biologists refer to a something excreted by one cell and taken up by another as a signal? Doesn’t this invest the cell with intentionality that it doesn’t really have? Why don’t biologists just refer to the process of chemical exchange as simply a chemical reaction?
A molecule passed between cells is called a “signal,” if it sets off a response that is ultimately good for both cells and/or the body they’re part of. So a signal has a function for survival and maintenance, and the cells have been evoloved by natural selection to process signals. A chemical in the body that does not have this kind of effect is not a signal.
Biosemiosis offers real explanatory power for science. It explains why people believe things that aren’t true. It explains why we can have allergic reactions to neutral things. It explains how life first emerged. It explains how meaningless things can acquire new meanings. It explains how creativity is possible. It explains why AI fails compared to Biological intelligence when it comes to adapting to contexts.
This video is based on the preface to a talk by V.N. Alexander at Moscow State University, Department of Philosophy, entitled, “Group Think: The Diffusion of Signals” at the 19th annual gathering of biosemiotics, on July 3rd 2019, Moscow, Russian Federation.
The fact that AI has not yet passed a Turing Test has not prevented it from being sold to the public as a superior kind of intelligence capable of handling vast amounts of data and therefore capable of making “evidence-based” decisions about human behavior. There is no basis for this claim. AI uses advanced statistics to fine-tune generalizations; it is a glorified actuary table, not an intelligent agent. At the time of his death in 1952, Alan Turing was exploring the differences between biological intelligence and his initial conception of AI. This paper focuses on those differences and sets limits on the uses to which current AI can legitimately be put.
I am very excited to have the opportunity to do research this spring at ITMO University in St Petersburg, Vladimir Nabokov’s home and Cyber Capital of Russia.
ITMO — which stands for Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics — has recently launched a Digital Humanities Lab where I will be working with graduate students on the poetics of science. The idea is to bring the tools of the arts into science and the inspiration of science into the arts. Nabokov famously argued that neither art nor science can be done well without the other. One of the projects I hope to be undertaking in my time there is working with programmers to design a digital simulation of butterfly wing pattern development to test Nabokov’s theory of insect mimicry. Using non-linear mathematical techniques first developed by Alan Turing, we may be able to use our digital imaginations to discover what kinds of designs nature would be capable of creating in the absence of natural selection.
“In biosemiotics, we say that the human ability to interpret signs—which is the ability to think really, to think creatively and adaptively and learn new things—didn’t just emerge with animals; rudimentary sign reading emerged in the simplest forms of life with single-celled organisms,” says Victoria Alexander, biosemiotician, Director of Dactyl Foundation, Fulbright specialist, and author of The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature. Continue reading
We have been hearing a lot about “fake news” and “propaganda” lately, and it is as important as ever to use our critical thinking skills. But we also need to understand how propaganda works and why it is so difficult to counteract with logic. Propaganda takes advantage of the way our brains function when we are not paying attention. When we are paying attention our analytical skills are engaged. When we are not, our brains go on processing information in a non-analytical way, using what might be called a poetic logic, based mainly upon similarities, coincidental patterns, associations, repetition, and emotion. There are sound biological reasons for this mindless type of processing, which actually helps us learn faster, retain memories longer, and make appropriate decisions without really thinking. In this presentation, we will explore how and why art and poetry may actually be more helpful in developing critical thinking skills. Art also works with the poetic logic of subconscious processing, but does so in a way that is not manipulative, deceptive or dishonest.
[This is a version of a talk I originally presented at the 2018 Biosemiotics conference in Berkeley last June, re-presented on Dec 9th to a Biosemiotic study group online organized by Pille Bunnell. The video is a little rough. The brilliant Qs that sparked some of my As were cut because I neglected to get permissions from all the participants beforehand. Thank you, Pille, for organizing the session.]
Synopsis Representative Democracy, Capitalism, Communism, Socialism or Anarchy? No matter what philosophy you begin with, over time political systems tend to concentrate wealth and power. Government and individual freedom should really be co-creative of one another. Why is it that we can’t seem to achieve this? As a biosemiotician, I have learned that creative and intelligent behavior emerge in complex systems when individuals have semiotic freedom and enabling constraints. Government/culture should provide the enabling constraints (language, tradition, borders, laws, courts, currency, public buildings, hospitals, schools, mass transportation, energy and communication networks) but the people making use of those constraints should have the semiotic freedom (i.e., the ability to interpret rules and even misinterpret rules) to make their own decisions, set their own goals, and enjoy/suffer the consequences.