Interview with Tyler Volk – Transcription
Hosted by Laura Lee and Paul Robear
This is the transcript of our interview with Tyler Volk. Tyler edited the first hour and fifteen minutes, in which he presented his slide show.
Tyler goes deep in his research on Metapatterns, embracing both nature and culture, those grand-scale patterns that help explain the functioning of our universe. Spheres, Sheets and Tubes, Borders, Binaries, Centers, Layers, Calendars, Arrows, Breaks, and Cycles head the chapter list in his book Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind. To reveal how the form-building and relational and many-layered aspects of these archetypal patterns of space, Tyler draws upon on an astounding range of material from art, architecture, philosophy, mythology, biology, geometry, and the atmospheric and oceanographic sciences. Prepare to be dazzled with his slide show.
Tyler Volk is also the author of Quarks to Culture, CO2 Rising, and Gaia’s Body. An Emeritus Professor in the departments of Environmental Studies and Biology at New York University, Tyler’s areas of interest and research include principles of form and function in systems, environmental challenges to global prosperity, CO₂ and global change, biosphere theory and the role of life in earth dynamics.
You can also watch the entire interview on YouTube.
Paul Robear 0:22
Hello, and welcome to the Cuyamungue Institute, our q&a conversation for exploration series. I’m Paul Robear, the executive director and president of the Institute. And along with my wife, Laura Lee, the director of research, education and outreach, we want to thank you for joining us today, on behalf of our board of directors, our advisors, our volunteers, and our supporting members. The Cuyamungue Institute is an independent nonprofit research organization committed to researching consciousness and the human experience following the footsteps of our founder, anthropologist, Dr. felicitous Goodman. And as an educational institution, we take a very open approach. And we invite scholars and related fields to help broaden the scope of our own work and exploration. And that’s why we call this segment Conversation for Exploration. And on these Sunday discussions, we’ve had a full spectrum of topics from neuroscience, anthropology, art history, archaeology, mythology, Archeo, astronomy, and much, much more. And you’re welcome to visit our website at CuyamungueInstitute.com. All of our presentations are free. And as a nonprofit, of course, we invite you to become a supporting member. And we want to thank you the community members who continue to support the mission of the Cuyamungue Institute.
Today, we are pleased to have the return visit of Tyler Volk. We spoke several times over the years but last month, we had a wonderful, insightful and lively discussion into the underlying patterns of the universe. And today, we asked him back, bring your slideshow and specifically explore the concept of meta patterns. And so what is meta patterns? A metapattern is a pattern of patterns a large scale pattern of other patterns. So in the broadest sense, the study of meta patterns embraces both nature and culture, seeking out the grand scale of patterns that help explain the functioning of our universe. From a complexity science point of view, meta patterns, the embedded in emerging patterns in the natural world. And if you take a glance at the chapter list in Tyler’s book, meta patterns across space time in mind, patterns such as spheres, sheets, tubes, borders, binaries, centers, layers, calendars, arrows, breaks and cycles. And so Tyler will break this all down for us with an in depth slideshow. He draws upon an astounding range of material from art, architecture, philosophy, mythology, biology, geometry, and more. Tyler Volk is the Emeritus Professor of Environmental Studies in biology at New York University.
Laura Lee 3:10
Well, our interest in patterns runs deep. And we understand these as symbols, we use them. A lot of symbols, social functions, we conceptually dance with patterns, but their dynamical functions is so interesting, it’s in the very fabric of how nature unfolds and shapes itself, both on the animate and the inanimate level, on the molecular level, to the astronomical Level, macro to microcosm. And that’s where we begin to glimpse the secrets of the universe to understand that you understand us a little more. And I always say nature is my favorite artist. And this study of patterns confirms for me in a mythopoetic way, my degree was an English literature with a lot of art history, that meta patterns, patterns are among nature’s palette, that all we see. And all we are, are her creations, her art, and to understand how she creates is to celebrate creation, and our place in it in her art. So yes, Tyler is a biologist, but one of his gifts is to look at whole systems in a cross disciplinary way to see the relations of parts, which he did for us in our last talk with kombo Genesis, looking at how the patterns relate and the new relationships that form but we’ve asked him back to look at the patterns themselves. And all that he does meta patterns. It’s really fun book meta patterns, indeed, across time, space and mind to look at all the patterns and all the ways that they express themselves. It’s just a dazzling to the brain. So back by popular demand. Welcome, Tyler.
Tyler Volk 4:58
Thanks. Thanks, Paul and Laura. Glad to be here. I feel very relaxed today, especially since it’s the second time. So I know the scene and we’re going to have a lot of fun.
Laura Lee 5:08
Very good. Yeah. And I have to mention that Tyler has also asked that after his initial talk, we’re going to shut off the recording, and have the after talk. So you were invited, after we officially stop, we’re not going to close the recording, we’re going to continue talking for the after party. And that is Tyler’s idea. So I think that might be a new open discussion and q&a.
Paul Robear 5:36
So where do we start?
Laura Lee 5:38
Well, first of all, again, tell us why you’re intrigued with patterns, not just patterns, but the overarching patterns that you see over and over again, where did that interest start for you?
Tyler Volk 5:49
Well, I am going to start the slideshow by showing a few moments from my personal history that I’ve never shown in public before, to try to take people into my into my insights and thought processes that led to the concepts of metapatterns. It was after architecture school and I was looking at everything as design. There will be some people with us today that are already familiar with metapatterns. For example, a few here were involved were involved with my book published with Columbia University Press. And I’ve got a number of friends that know a lot about metapatterns. But there are some totally new people, and there are some “systems” people from the International Society for Systems Science here today. So I do promise I have something for everybody. Whether they’re new to metapatterns, or they know quite a bit—something for everybody. So that’s my plan for our discussion today. And I do intend to frame some of this of what I know, Laura and Paul, given your interests, as a person’s personal journey? I did that a bit last time and will do more for sure.
Laura Lee 7:02
To start, what’s the importance of patterns? Why should people care about patterns?
Tyler Volk 7:06
Well, just so we get to the basics right away: the metapatterns approach is a way of thinking. With this apprach is a way of asking questions about anything you could be interested in. The approach could lead to new ways of framing questions for yourself. I also see these patterns as doorways into (and I hesitate only a bit to say) mystical experiences, experiences of oneness with the universe. So metapatterns are ways to induce states of consciousness that might be desirable. In addition, metapatterns can help with practical design. They are patterns to think about when you’re designing something, perhaps designing a piece you are writing or painting, or industrial design, or architecture, or framing points when talking with friends—analyzing conversations, analyzing politics, and more. I don’t want to try to claim too much here. But I hope to give some justification for all these claims as we proceed.
Laura Lee 8:17
I want to say that we can also add the ancient symbols that we see on cave walls, we can also understand and start to decode our ancient ancestors and their art, which are containers for their cultural identity, their understanding of the universe, symbols that they used a new daily that these are so instinctive within us that we see them in the earliest some of the earliest start. So I like that aspect, too.
Tyler Volk 8:41
Yeah, definitely. I’ve studied some of the early art, just just for that reason that this is glimpses into the deep mind, the origin of the of the human mind. And what what are the first pictorial expressions of that? Yes, I think I have a bit of that today in there.
This is a new talk. I haven’t done it before; I designed it specifically for for you all today. And I intend to present first there’s a bit of introduction, a general introduction to patterns. Then I’m going to go into some personal history, as I said, to some moments when I was in my 20s and how I first came up with several early ideas that took me decades to work out. The book “Metapatterns” was not published until I was 45 years old. So some of the early ideas were 20 years before that. Then I’ll give you a tour of the metapatterns. I’ll have to watch the time and because the patterns are so rich I can only touch on them for highlights. If I don’t get through them all, that’s going to be okay, because toward the end I do want to give some call outs to other people who are working along similar lines of doing “pattern language” work, including patterning and systems work. And there are some people online with us today that are going to get a call out, as well as other people who are not. When I get to slide about the NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns, you’ll know I am at my ending point. The journal will provide an indication of how the metapatterns can be used in various ways, either by individuals or as possibilities for education.
Laura Lee 10:39
Regarding a pattern language, Christopher Alexander and architecture is really a pivotal and really insightful book for architecture.One application of that that is a breakthrough.
Tyler Volk 10:50
In fact, Laura, Alexander will be one of the call outs today. I agree, and and he passed away recently. Alexander did so much in his book A Pattern Language and in later books, too.
Laura Lee 11:04
Beautiful. It just shows you how it unfolds in our lives and how we arrange cities in houses and furniture.
Tyler Volk 11:13
(Slide 1) So, Paul, Laura, just to double check: Do you see the image? The ring of metapatterns? (Paul: Yes.) Okay. So these are the metapatterns I’m going to be talking about today, everyone, and thank you so much for attending this talk. I don’t have labels on any of the patterns you see. I will give names to them, as we progress. But I show the icons all in a ring and I’m going to show this slide several more times during the talk as a way of transitioning. Now, these patterns emerged to me from working through an idea that one could take everything in the universe and look at everything as the field of study. I hope that will become clearer as we talk. And certainly, I’m happy to entertain lots of discussion. And as I said, at the beginning, maybe before the recording started, I love when there’s some pushback and we get into some issues that might arise as controversy, because I’m trained in the sciences and I love when debate happens.
(Slide 2) So a first call first goes to Gregory Bateson, who coined the word metapatterns. He used it not very much, in fact, only once in all his main published writings, but he clearly was a metapatterns thinker. For example, he did work on what I would now call binary systems, multiple versions of reality, and evolutionary dynamics that operate in both biology and culture. Bateson was truly a superb, incredible thinker. I had the privilege of studying with him for a semester at the Lindisfarne group in New York City in the latter part of the 1970s. So that’s where the word metapatterns comes from. Bateson used it to mean, as you already said, Paul, a pattern of patterns. So we’re talking about degrees of abstraction.
(Slide 3) And here is a collage I made of his single printed use of the word metapattern. Up at the top, you can read “the pattern which connects” is a metapattern. It’s a very famous phrase of Bateson’s. He only said the word metapattern once in his in his writing, but it is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern that defines the vast generalization that in indeed it is patterns that connect. In my words, patterns can connect various parts of the world that you are looking at. Let’s develop a little bit more background on that.
(Slide 4) A very important concept is the word “affordances.” This is a book that I really enjoyed. It’s from a professor of English–Carolyn Levine–and she uses the word “affordances” and describes it very well as she investigates wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks, in literature and also in socio-politics. The word affordances means that these patterns have certain characteristics that allow the systems that embody these patterns to perform in certain ways. For affordances, a biologist might say “function,” so the word affordance is close to function in meaning, I think of affordances, though, not as functions that are happening, but as possibilities, or functional possibilities. Another related term I very much like is the idea of possibility space, or affordance space, or opportunity space. These patterns offer opportunities for things that find the patterns. And, please, I’m using the word “thing” here in the most general way.
(Slide 5) This slide quotes Helmut Leitner. He wrote a book about the work of Christopher Alexander, who we’ve already talked about. Leitner explains his use of the word “pattern,” following Christopher Alexander. This use aims at a specific form of pattern specific meaning the problem solution pattern. So it’s not the pattern that you might think of in the sense of everyday sense of the word, you know, mere pattern. The patterns Leitner refers to are are patterns that have inherent, dynamic possibilities when they get materialized or instantiated or embodied in various things.
(Slide 6) Here is another quote from a book that I’m very much liking: “The Human Swarm,” by Mark Moffett. He’s an anthropologist and expert in animal societies and writes about all kinds of social organizations. And he says, “making comparisons is most fruitful, when parallels are noticed between ideas or things or actions ordinarily treated as distinct.” It can be fruitful, to look at these parallels, which I will be doing today, showing you some general patterns that can be used to make fruitful parallels.
(Slide 7) Now, there are some people here from the International Society for Systems Sciences, which was once called the Society for General Systems Research. There was a strong movement in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s. And it continues top develop general systems theory. Carl von Bertalanffy was one of the founder, a biologist turned general systems theorist. One of the terms was being used for the concept of principles that cut across and connect disciplines–a term very much like metapatterns– is “isomorphisms.” For example, one isomorphism that was important for von Bertalanffy was the concept of feedbacks in various manifestations: feedbacks biological and in ecosystems and feedbacks in human social systems and in your own mind, as you’re thinking through your thought patterns and how you want your life to be; well you are giving yourself getting feedback on yourself. That’s a bit of introduction to the idea that patterns have inherent affordances to them, which we’ll be looking at.
(Slide 8) Now, I’m taking you into my personal history. And this is material that I’ve never shared publicly for a recorded talk, and rarely in a lecture that wasn’t recorded. But we’re having some fun here today. And it’s it gives me a way to tell you some personal history of where and how my ideas began. And here I am, a bit after architecture school, early 1970s, in front of a geodesic dome I built, a Bucky Fuller dome in the woods, to serve as an architecture thinking studio. And how I posed myself here really dates me. But I was having a number of revelations at the time and just just opening up to what for me were new aspects of life and the universe.
(Slide 9) This was a drawing I did for a book in progress that never got published, which I was writing in my 20s when I was first having some of these ideas. It shows a moment in which I was having an experience of everything in the universe together. Now this is true, everything is together. We all know that fact, whether we are having a major mystical moment or not. But sometimes, as many of you here know, the ordinary can become a doorway to the mystical and nothing has changed except one’s experience and one’s emotions in it. I sometimes call these “emo-sophical” experiences, where they’re emotional and philosophical at the same time. So everything in the universe was together, and that was in my mind as well as implied by the word “universe.”
(Slide 10) And then moreover, the next phase of the experience was that everything was in interrelationship, potentially with with eyes. Now, I have to say I am not personally a panpsychist. That can be discussed later, and it can be nuanced. But here I share this drawing of mine to show that there are active relationships going on among everything in the universe. And for me this was a huge moment. It happened in a particular moment, which I simplified to be on an empty floor sitting on a mattress. The crucial landscape was happening inside, inside the bubble shown here as my mind.
(Slide 11) More moments from that time in my life were similarly mind-opening. One occurred when I was walking near a grape vine. It was autumn. I saw, simply, the ripe grapes on the left on the slide. The virtual perfection of the sphere–the grapes as spheres–is what got to me. It was an emosophical moment. I can’t just almost can’t describe the intensity of that moment. What is a mathematical object doing in a biological form? It’s so nearly perfect. And I knew that this was not the definition of a sphere from high school geometry class: the the locus of all points that are equidistant from a center point. That’s not what the grape is doing, the grape is growing using this form. Furthermore, the stems of the grape vine are not spheres. And yet the cells in the tubular stems have the same genes as the cells in the round grape. So the grape plant is actively choosing differeent shape for different parts of its body. Around the same time– this is a drawing I did also for that book that never got published–I had an experience in which I was standing in front of the rising full moon one evening, again, right about the same time. And the moon is this perfect sphere. And we know the moon has been worshipped by many cultures throughout history, the sun and the moon both spheres. And yet now I saw: Wow, there’s a sphere in geology. Now this is so simple. It says okay, the grapes are spherical. The moon is spherical, you know. And you know, so what? What this meant for me was that there might be some principles that are transcending the individual instances shown here, transcending biology, transcending geology, and there were more spherers to be found, as around the same time I looked at spheres in eggs of animals. At that time, when was doing drawings, I had message, felt almost a voice of thunder that came down or into me, almost like I can’t claim it. The thunder came both up from the grape and down from the moon. And it was the following. The message was the following. “All things in the universe are spheres, unless they are acted upon by non-omnidirectional forces.”
(Slide 12) Now, I know there are hints here of something like Newton’s law or something. “All things in motion remain in motion unless acted upon by . . . ” So there was, I even realized then, a kind of copycat thing going on, but consider my sphere principle as a principle about the architecture of nature. And what about my use of the word “force”? I mean it very generally. Here’s the idea in action. I had another moment in which I was sitting by a lake and everything became spherical. A swarm of insects, a tree, a cloud, the lake, a rock, the planet Earth I was sitting on–oh, that Earth–and all, though not exactly spherical, were more or less spherical. I mean, some clouds are more, some less; the sun is more perfectly spherical (but not exactly). Some trees are more spherical than others. A lake can be sort of roundish (circular or not) and rocks become more spherical as they are tumbled in a river. So see everything as various degrees of deviation from sphericity–this is why I emphasize non-omnidirectional forces–the deviation from sphericity would tell you something about the forces acting on these on these things. By “force,” I don’t mean just physical forces from physics, but these forces could be biological influences, biological “forces.” So, for example, in another drawing of mine, the leaf on the lower right shows the leaf as a flat surface. Its flatness provides high surface area. It’s not a sphere, it could be said to be opposite from a sphere, in a sense, with its high surface area affording it a way to capture the sun’s planar field of rays coming down. And the way this leaf can intersept the maximum number of solar of sunrays is by being flat, by being a plane to the incoming rays. I guess if the plant lived on in a place where the sun was coming from all directions, you know, we’d probablyfind it evolved to be a sphere. And Paul and Laura, where you live in the desert, lotsof cactuses are nearly spheres, at least more spherical than flat, deciduous leaves, because the cactuses are evolved (“trying”) to conserve water. So these different biological factors can interplay with each other–the need to conserve water, and the need to capture sun. These needs are not physical forces, like the laws of physics. They are environmental opportunities. This is where the word affordance comes in, or opportunities. So the flat leaf affords the function of capturing a lot of sun light. At the upper right of the slide you see a plant with a stems and how it’s got these little leaves that are not on a single as small flat shapes, but instead they’re clumped in nearly spherical groups, because this is a good and easy way to grow. And then we have the stems as conduits that transport nutrients and water in two directions up and down, water up and the photosynthetic materials down: tubes. Tubes will be one of the metapatterns to come, and contrasted to the sphere by its unique affordances. On the right there as I’ve abstracted the the plant as tubes and spheres. You can note the different functions for the different shapes. There are benefits for the cells and tissues being close together and benefits for them being stretched apart for transportation.
(Slide 13) As I said, a worthwhile meditation is to look upon all things in the universe are spherical unless acted upon by non-omnidirectional forces. Consider the elementary things of fundamental physics. The quarks, electrons, etc. in the standard model of particle physics are commonly considered as points because they have properties but not insides (as far as currentrly known) insides. But the nucleons—protons ands neutrons, with diameters) are approximately spherical. At the next levels in the building up of what I have termed “combogenesis,” atomic nuclei are also approximately spherical, the atoms (the nuclei plus electrons) are approximately spherical, because they’re vibrating in all directions even though some of their electron orbitals are in intriguingly lobed shapes. When you get to the next level of molecules, you find the first non-spherical things. And it’s a lot of non-spheres after that. But as I showed, you can go upwards into a region of pattern, such as biology and suddenly the sphere pops back into existence, here and there, for reasons that have to do with the benefits to be had by being spherical. (Laura: “Can I ask a question?”) Yes, please, Laura,
You even say when you talk about borders, in your book Metapatterns that cells encased in lipids, in origin of life experiments, the lipids in the water shrink wrap themselves into spheres. So there you have this combination of the dynamical forces of how atoms want to adhere in shape and also biological. So is that just an example of just the natural tendency to go into spheres?
Yes, the lipids going into a a bubble type shape would be an example of a physical force acting to minimize a kind of potential energy (surface tension) among the molecules, Laura. And many origin of life scientists think that these natural shapes would have helped the origin of life when active networks of protein molecules got inside these natural lipid spheres. And I’ll show I’ll show some of the single cell biological spheres in a second.
(Slide 14) Well, when you get to something like a lizard and you have a “sphere” that’s going to eat out of an orifice and because it needs to move and get the one end and now it’s useful to move and get the food it has evolved to becomes a tube, a stretched shape. So claim (stumbling toward it here) is that by looking at a living thing (say the lizard), one can make a binary in the mind between a sphere and the specific form that you’re seeing. This is the opening up to thinking about everything. You can start one can start thinking about what those what those fingers are doing, what’s the tail doing. Note that the main bulk of the body is closer to being spherical than the fingers are, for a reason: because the main body contains a lot of the organs. It’s important as a volume. So one can use the mental sphere projected on to the things of nature as a doorway into thinking about anything you want to think about.
(Slide 15) So first metapattern is the sphere, with its affordances of high volume and low surface area. It affords strength, as Bucky Fuller knew via building the geodesic domes. The sphere is also a apt symbol of thingness in human thinking; you know, we often draw diagrams with circles and lines between them. In this picture: lower left, a single grain of pollen, we see the Earth, on the upper right is a spiked radiolarian, which is a single celled protist, stretched as background from lower left to upper right are soybeans. And at the lower right is one of the first transmission electron micrographs of atoms, one of the first times that atoms ever visualized.
(Slide 17) I’m going to emphasize in this talk a lot of the symbolic, psychological, cultural, and linguistic aspects of these patterns, because they are not just patterns out there in the world. I got very fascinated at one point by looking at circles and spheres in art and architecture, and trying to track them down because I was intrigued by the fact that they were so important in sacred architecture, sacred art and architecture. And here are various examples of that. See the lion holding the sphere, a symbol of power, and that’s from ancient Florence, a symbol of royalty. So the sphere has been taken into human symbol systems because of some of its really special properties and affordances of those properties. One fact relates to the sphere being omnidirectional and thus it can be turned in all directions. and remain the same. Alberti, the Rennaisance architect, noted the perfection of the sphere because say it’s got infinite sides and no sides at the same time. The sphere has a lot of, let’s say, mystical qualities to it.
(Slide 18) In contrast to the sphere, consiser sheets and tubes. Here we shift the next metapatterns. Sheets and tubes have high surface areas. They are forms useful for transport, particularly tubes, and tubes can bridge space to make structures that connect space. I show here the Eiffel Tower, tendrils on a grape vine useful when the grape is trying to find its way up a pole or up another plant. It’s not using a sphere to climb, it’s using a tube to climb or a line. I like the word “tube” because it evokes three dimensionality to the pattern. But these are linear shapes. And on the lower right there, the picture shows a snake, a rocket, and a dolphin, all streamlined in a direction of travel. This is not omnidirectionality. This is traveling in a direction. A tube is very good for that because of its low surface area at the front, and yet it has an elongated body that can power or guide the travel.
Slide 19) Now to go to something I’m very fascinated with: namely, the use of circles and lines in human thought structures. And what we have on the right here is the Jewish Kabbalah, in the middle is a logo from the American Society of Agronomy, which diagrams the sense of their mission, the various things that the society does. And on the left there is an Australian Aboriginal dreaming, which has different interpretations. The circles and lines have different interpretations, but one of them is that it’s paths, paths between mythical spots on a landscape. The landscape is real in Australia, but it’s also a landscape in the mind, this isvery, very interesting to me. And we’re all familiar with this idea of things being connected by lines. I’m much a proponent of the fact that our thought structures came from nature to a large degree, they could be independently discovered to some extent, but the similarity between some of the biological patterns I showed you before of spheres and tubes and our thinking structures, is, to my mind, really, not just remarkable, but worthy of a lot of contemplation. (Laura: “Neurologically embedded.” Tyler: “neurologically embedded.”) And one person who has been doing work on the neurological embedding is George Lakoff and he’s actually a linguist. I’m going to spend a couple minutes on this because this carries over into everything else, all the other patterns. The field is cognitive linguistics and it talks about image schemas and metaphors. And when I first saw this book, “Metaphors We Live By,” on the lower right here, it’s just blew me away. Because what they claim to have found are some of the most important metaphors in human thinking. There’s almost a one to one correspondence between these metapatterns that I developed at the time, just from looking at things. As I said, I was just in my 20s early on, and I worked these out over decades in teaching at the School of Visual Arts and then my own involvement with graduate school and then eventually a Ph. D program, which was on the global carbon cycle. But I kept working on these patterns, kind of in the background as I had other work, but I have to say the patterns also helped me think. I’m convinced they helped me do some of my fundamental thinking about specific questions of science. Now Lakoff’s metaphors–I want to emphasize–are not your high school English class metaphors; you know, “my love is like a red red rose.” But to cite Wordsworth, keeping with the poetry here, they are “far more deeply interfused.” These are deep in our thought patterns. So for example, Lakoff says, we easily talk about of ideas as things we connect, we toss around ideas, we follow a line of logic, or we have a we have a train of thought. These patterns involving things (ideas) and their relations are so easy for us to do. You might say, well, thought is a train. Well, the claim of cognitive linguistics and it’s also in in Lakoff’s co-author Mark Johnson’s book, another book I really like “The Body in the Mind–we think of the mind in the body, but consider the body in the mind, namely, that we have developed some of our thinking patterns because they are patterns in our bodies and in the world. And so, this idea that metapatterns are in the world and also in our mental structures is going to be a theme as I as I walk through some of these metapatterns.
(Slide 21) One metapattern very important to my mind and to the general systems theory and people doing work in systems is boundaries. I prefer to call it “border.” the affordances here are that borders can offer a barrier to separate inside and outside, which is necessary for living things: in the image the shell of dragonfly, the chrysalis of a butterfly in the lower right, on the lower left you see cell walls and insider the cell the oblong darker shape is a chloroplast, which has a cell-like membrane around it as it functions inside a plant sell. So some some separation is necessary. That’s a function of our human skin. But we also know that in our skin are sweat pores and, and more generally, we have openings and bridges to the environment for exchanging matter and energy between body and environment. And so the border means not just separation but in a wider sense of includes separation and interaction, thus “barrier” and “bridges” simultaneously. Instead of “border,” some people talk about”bordering,” thus a process, a system process, not a mere structure.
(Slide 22) Humans: we are are bordering creatures! We are just excellent at it. Well, sometimes not so excellent. I’ll show you a problem, a problem that can happen, later, where I get to binaries. But here we see game game courts, tennis agricultural fields, states, US states, US counties. This is the Chinese Forbidden City, the Walled City in Beijing. And when I did mathematical modeling of the global carbon cycle, we would divide the ocean into zones and put fluxes between them. Well, the ocean is not in zones, but this conceptual bordering was useful in the mathematical modeling, to divide things up and then make make fluxes between the skillfully defined boxes, almost like living things. And we know the ocean is one, but this dividing allowed me to reach certain new understandings of the ocean.
(Slide 23) And then there’s cognitive borderings. So Lakoff and Johnson again: one of their metaphors corresponding correspondence with one of my main metapatterns. Ah, there are other people thinking this way too. So I’m going to show at the end that one of their main metaphors is the container metaphor. And we don’t mean a soup in a canned container. Instead, they point to the way we talk about states such as “enthusiasm,” or we build in prefixes that into our words using the container metaphor, like enthusiasm, educate (to draw out to e-duct, to draw out of somebody), you get “into” a book, you fall “in” love, you turn clay “into” a pot (turning something “into” something else is something in time, a is a process in time). As we use the word “into” in many cases is to mark transitions of things and changes in states of mind. So much we can only talk about with a container metaphor. And in fact, Dr. Felicitas Goodman, who you guys (Laura and Paul) use, she talks early on in her book about “doorways,” about about trance states being doorways (Laura: “doors and portals” (Tyler: doors and portals)
(Slide 24) Okay, binaries: this is a huge pattern many people have been thinking about, including the Daoists going back 1000s of years, including the alchemists. For the image on the lower left, I took a sun and moon pair from one of the ancient alchemy drawings. And by the way, I suggest you might look at alchemical drawings, because they’re just full of these basic patterns. I love those drawings and Carl Jung did great analyses of alchemical systems and patterns. Of course, Jung was searching for archetypes of systems and that’s up for a discussion sometime, too.
Laura Lee 42:57
The Red Book is full of it too.
Tyler Volk 42:58
Oh, the Red Book is full of it. Yeah, where he’s doing his dreams. And I put a superimposed here electromagnetic field lines. So physics is discovering some of these binary systems. At the top, I forgot to say the affordances of the binary are really important. I once spent a full semester at the School of Visual Arts, doing a class for art students on binary systems; we just we focused on that for a whole semester, it’s super rich. The bottom line: two is to is the minimal new to give you the simplest complexity, the simplest relationship, the simplest synergy, the simplest competition. Therefore, when a simple way to make complexity is advantageous, sometimes twoness is a way to reach that advantage. You see what I’m doing here, we’re not so much focused now on the geometric shapes like the sphere. Binary is also a shape in an abstract sense. For example, Buddha and Michelangelo’s painting of Jesus–they’re both making gestures of going up and down. And this is associated well in the case of Christianity hell is below and the gestures are separating people into two groups. So I’m fascinated by the fact that our two hands can be used to signal up and down and get applied to myths. Thus there can be correspondences between multiple binaries. This principle can be useful when looking at biology. So the plant, the part of the plant that is above in the sky, and the part of the plant that’s below that’s in the earth. So the binary plant is related to a division of geological substance of earth and sky, an example of how we can start seeking correlations of binaries. Some people call these dualisms. I’m not insisting on the term “binary,” only pointing to the metapattern.
Laura Lee 45:17
Going back to biology, so the hormone system, you have homeostasis available, because you’ve got two opposing hormones that can interplay. Right, and you’ve got our eyes, two eyes afford a three dimensional view. Right?
Tyler Volk 45:36
Yeah, a great example: by having two eyes, we can get sight lines on two aspects of an object and from that we get three dimensionality. And you mentioned the hormone system. In the brain, as an example, there are, excitatory neurons and inhibitory neurons. So there’s an interplay between excitation and inhibition, which comes in
Laura Lee 46:07
Negative charges that interplay there too.
Tyler Volk 46:12
More generally, amplifying and dampening that’s happening in systems to give feedback.
Laura Lee 46:20
Or two legs that need each other to move forward. One’s resting, one’s active.
Tyler Volk 46:26
Yeah, using each other to move forward. Perfect. If you’re one legged you’re hopping, you’re on a pogo stick, it’s not so great. The two legs, Laura, is an interesting example because that would be a kind of a minimum. Again you can add legs and there are four legged animals and six legged animals, which leads to the point that just because two is the minimum complexity does not mean it has to be two. Twoness is an opportunity when the minimum is useful and for humans for we two-leggeds (and I guess maybe kangaroos and some of the dinosaurs) for humans two legs as the minimum for walking also freed up the hands up so the hands could be used and then further evolved to grab tools. So now you have a binary (feet and hands; I’m free associating here, Laura), you have a binary between the feet and the hands so we weren’t were four legged, now we have two hands specialized and two feet somewhat specialized to be a binary with with walking and holding things,
Laura Lee 47:39
We can do a lot more with two hands than one.
Tyler Volk 47:41
(Slide 25) Two hands versus one. Now, binary comes in really importantly in our human thinking, such as systems engineering in designing an airplane wing. The wing’s upper surface is more curved than the lower surface and that provides a difference in air pressure across the wing to provide lift. And a binary in science experiments: knowledge gets lifted using the binary of experiment and control. So Louis Pasteur had flasks with broth; one one flask got broken and exposed to the air, the other did not. The one that got exposed to the air grew mold in it and Pasteur showed that there was stuff in the air that could grow microbes. Science is working very powerfully via a binary system. See the upper right for related issues, including, we also have to think beyond the binary, and trinities, quaternities, and the unity of the binary in parallel pairs, already noted, which are binaries hooked together. Now the metapatterns often interconnect. My example here uses borders, the bordering of inside and outside. On that border, you now have a dualism between inside and outside, which, say in the case of animal societies can be an in-group and out-group. And then when that social binary gets morphed and paralleled into the human mind, we can get concepts such as safe biological, safe and biological dangerous, or it can be in humans, using safe and dangerous as terms in thought and language, in which safe somebody wearing a different symbol can be now dangerous and bad. So we construct connected parallels of good and bad to other pairing, in complex ways. Such constructions themselves can be very bad, obviously, in a larger sense of humanistic social dynamics, and so it can be good to go beyond the binary. A great book on these matters, by the way, “Behave,” isRobert Sapolsky, who takes you all the way from the neuron up into up to the enigmas and problems of in-group and out-group. Relationships
Laura Lee 49:53
To see the power of the binary–zero and one–just look at computers.
Tyler Volk 49:56
(Slide 26) Computers: yes, a perfect example. Yeah, thank you. Ok, centers. (And Laura, can I ask you the time I actually can’t see it from where I am, the top of the hour? Okay. So, Laura, what if I officially went for 10 more minutes? And then
Laura Lee 50:22
We have no time, we’re beyond time and space here.
Tyler Volk 50:25
Okay (slide 26), what the metapatterns of centers offers, so now that you get the idea of metapatterns and their affordances, I’m going to go through some of the affordances that centers offer: the affordances of efficiency of organization in contrast with with a pattern that I’m going to call “distributed.”
(Slide 27) One of our shared heroes here is Bucky Fuller. I took this photo at a lecture I attended. Two of his favorite shapes were the icosahedron (above) and the cube octahedron (below). The icosahedron is all triangulated and is stable; in contrast, the cube octahedron can be stabilized only with a central sphere. And because Fuller made a big deal about triangulation, we can we can make a binary between distributed systems and centered systems. And so for example, an ecosystem is very distributed. But an ant colony with a queen can be thought of as reproductively centered. So these patterns offer affordances. And I want to say at this moment, to make an another point of emphasis, that more and more, I am now seeing these metapatterns as gradients and mixes. They’re not either/or’s. So if you take our political system, there is a sense in which via the federal government the United States is a centralized system. But it’s distributed in the way power also is in the states, counties, cities, townships, etc., and there’s a continual debate in the United States–indeed everywhere in the world–between decentralization and centralization.
Laura Lee 52:22
You take it to the concept of God, which I think is brilliant.
Tyler Volk 52:27
Thanks, Laura. Yeah, one can analyze religions with these patterns, and ask, is one or another more centralized in their concept of a master God or more distributed like in an animistic concept? Right, Laura? (Laura: Yep.)
(Slide 28) So think of these metapatterns as presenting affordances, in other words, opportunities for doing mixes of patterns within things within systems. About the metapatterns of layers, I can only touch on a few things. This image shows Dante and Beatrice approaching the divine Empyrion. The affordances of layers: complexity, scale, and richness.
(Slide 29) And all these major metapatterns have subfamilies. Just as plants have different kinds of groupings within the angiosperms and gymnosperms, the metapattern of layers has hierarchies and holarchies, holons and clonons, with clonons offering the advantage of having lots of units that are repeated. So if you’re going to make a brick wall, it’s good to manufacture them and have them all pretty much the same. But if you want to have, let’s say, a small group of to people get together and talk about something useful, it’s good to have them different from each other. So there are different viewpoints as part of the crerative process. And down at the bottom, Laura, are alphabetic holarchies, the pattern of the way that small numbers of different parts, like the ones and the zeros of the computer language, can build up into very, very much a complicated layering such as, well, the software that we’re all now using.
Laura Lee 54:11
You call that combogenesis.
Tyler Volk 54:13
(Slide 30) Now, many people have thought about decentralization and centralization. It’s a huge huge topic out there. Niall Ferguson, “The Square and the Tower”: the square being the decentralized public square, the tower being sort of the centralization (control from above), and he traces these as two as two waves through history. And he looks at people who studied networks such as the network of the of the Medici family. You can look at the structures of networks from the Freemasons to Facebook, and he sees these as interplaying with each other, both with pros and cons. You know, you don’t want to make the sphere when you need a tube and you may need both to make a full plant
Laura Lee 55:20
Or the circle for the female, the arrow for the male. (Tyler: “yeah”)
Tyler Volk 55:24
(Slide 31) Now we go into time for a bit: metapatterns of time. What are patterns of change, and I offer three: arrows, breaks and cycles. I’m going to move through them relatively quickly (and you can get my papers online, the free access papers I published in certain journals). We will talk again about affordances of these. The affordances of what I call “arrows,” — here shown in developing flowers, which are arrows or gradual changes–we would include growth, decline, things go up, things go down, development, evolution. And there are arrows in physical space; it’s important for us to move on two feet. I
(Slide 32) It’s important for us to note in property space. And often ups and downs are linked to each other in in systems with feedbacks with processes that are causing amplification and processes that are causing dampening. Another sub-pattern of arrows consists of arrows both in and out: the spherical is pumping food into itself, and the sphere of the grape is growing. We also note arrows in possibility space–the tree networks formed by by evolution, this would be one standard analysis of the resulting pattern in clades of related species. This pattern is not something you see, this is something that happens by analyzing time patterns. After the big bang we might consider Big History (some of the big history folks are on this zoom today). The idea of Big History is a great, complicated arrow of the universe’s development. It’s not that some things can’t go backwards, of course. But there’s been a sort of an arrow. (Laura Lee: an “evolutionary arc”). Thanks, Laura. I’m really enjoying you chiming in there; I’m grateful).
(Slide 33) Breaks. In this pattern, breaks are not instantaneous, but they’re relatively rapid speeds of change, in contrast with more gradual arrows. So they’re a metapattern of contrast (breaks compared to arrows). Breaks do take time to happen, except maybe during in the quantum world (I’m not going to try to get into whether that takes time or not). Consider three examples here. One is on the right: egg to tadpole to frog. frog, Three arrows, and they have breaks between them in the frogs development. There are transition times, or zones. On the far left are three stages in the 10 ox herding pictures of Zen Buddhism, in which you move toward enlightenment in stages. Actually the circle at the “end” (the top), is one of the supreme examples of enlightenment and Zen. In the middle column:, Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Now any geological transition, even a mass extinction, take some amount of time. In the mass extinction between the Triassic and the Jurassic there were large shifts in the evolution of the dinosaurs. Coming into the Triassic itsewlfg (not shown) was the Permian, which ended in the largest mass extinction of all. Ending the Cretaceous was the mass extinction that took out the dinosaurs, that great one that led to the radiation of types of mammals. One cannot argue “function” in the geological example of breaks, but one can speak about function in the mental conceptualizations on the left, and then in biological development (the frog). In biology there can be functional reasons for having times of quick transitions, such as between teo developmental states. an equilibrium. Yeah, that’s a punctuation, a developmental punctuated equilibrium (breaks between arrows).
Laura Lee 59:47
You’re also helping me understand the monotone beat, where it’s action-pause-action-pause. Okay, that’s very significant, too.
Tyler Volk 59:58
Okay, action-pause-action-pause again.
Laura Lee 1:00:00
A monotone beat or swing. Yep. Yeah, it’s useful to our work; you will understand why later, but go ahead.
Tyler Volk 1:00:08
(Slide 34) And then the transformation of the psyche. I told you some of my moments of times that were revelations to me that started me off on some of these paths. Here at the slide’s bottom is the lizard of alchemy as a symbol of a transmutation or trance. Transition. And at the top is a picture from Gregory Bateson photographs of studying trance and dance in Bali, of this little girl. In my memory is Bateson Bateson who showed us movies of these Balinese girls going into trances. And I know, Laura and Paul, you’re very much into this work.
(Slide 35) Cycles will be my last metapattern before I do some call outs to some systems thinkers. When cycles are put together arrows and breaks, you can make helixes. The basic affordance of the cycle is change and return. With change and return, there can be advantages to going out of your home, for example, to the grocery store and then back. That is really a simple example. Getting food and coming back, or, more generally, an animal going somewhere to get food and coming back to home base. There can be advantages to do more abstract change and return, too, to go to sleep and wake up, cycling over qnd over, even though you maybe haven’t moved very much.
Laura Lee 1:01:37
What about life, death, and rebirth? Logically, biologically, that pattern is also in stars.
Tyler Volk 1:01:46
Biologically, yes, Laura. And yes, stars, the disintegration of stars or the explosion of some into supernovas and then re-coagulation of that material back into new stars. And as that happens, the carbon level in the universe is building up (an arrow). Because it’s the carbon is formed in fusion. So the planets are presumably getting more and more carbon in them as the universe ages. That would be an arrow, and well, astronomers speak about an era of metallicity or something like that. Metallicity includes everything except hydrogen. So these higher elements are formed as an arrow over time through the cycles of stars. Very cool.
Laura Lee 1:02:29
Making life and us possible,
Tyler Volk 1:02:31
Making life possible. So cycles powering arrows and the music of the cycles. I fantasized, Laura, after I did this PowerPoint, I fantasized changing everything and just doing a guided meditation on levels of cycles or something like that.
Laura Lee 1:02:49
Oh, you’re invited to a special event.
Tyler Volk 1:02:52
(Slide 36) Now there are relationships between the other metapatterns and the cycle. Consider tube: things can go back and forth from from spheres. Cycles in relationship. Lower middle left: cycles within a center as a system like a cell with a centralized nucleus, and the metabolism. In the middle: binary relationship, with back and forth. The minimum relationship is a binary cycle. Other sub-patterns: a complete cycle within the turning of say a metabolism or a society or something like that.
(Slide 37) All right, the family of metapatterns. And then I do have some call outs to people. On this slide, you have the icons of the metapatterns, and I’ve left out their names. On the upper left is Blake’s drawing of Isaac Newton. And this is one aspect of metapatterns, namely, I see them useful for analyzing and designing. And by analyzing it’s not a mathematical analysis. Although you know, when we analyze we can note a topology, and I sometimes think of the metapatterns as functional, topological potentials. But it’s not what you get when you look up the the math of typology, it’s not like that, but sort of, well, it’s a sort of science of shape and form and function, I guess. On the upper right is a more mystical aspect of the metapatterns, according to which one can take one of these patterns and just walk down the street and start looking at things and looking and asking and just looking for that pattern as a way to connect things. And I will suggest that you can really put yourself into a very interesting positive state of mind by doing this. At least I have found it to be so.
(Slide 38) So some call outs, quickly. I want to say I’m not intending that you read everything on them, just to give a little bit of a warning. Just since you’re recording this and posting it later, I just want to be complete. So I show where I got photos from and things like that. OK: Carolyn Levine’s book again, on forms: whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network. You now see there’s almost a one to one correspondence: rhythm being cycles, whole being my sphere, she actually brings in boundaries there and boundedness, hierarchy being my layers, network being another form of layers, and she also talks about oppositional binaries, in social political structures and in literature. So many of the metapatterns are there.
(Slide 39) This is Peter Stojko, who’s in the ISSS, the International Society of Systems Science. He’s a designer doing work with he calls a system visualization involving design thinking. Well, you see there: nesting, centrality, container, levels of scale, feedback, and bridge. I just picked out a few of his. You can look them up on the website, if you’re interested. He’s doing fantastic work. And he’s starting to do work with making these in motion.
(Slide 40) Helene Finidori, and I believe she’s on this zoom. She also an ISSS member, doing work in pattern literacy and pattern languages, looking at different kinds of pattern languages from from indigenous African people to architects such as Christopher Alexander and very aware of Bateson’s work, also.
(Slide 41) Here’s Christopher Alexander, who’s come up several times. He has developed these patterns (he died recently) these 15 properties of living structures. And as Leitner describes in his book, the English word “living” does not encompass what the German word for this could be. I think it’s “lebendig.” And the German is better, Leitner says, because you can use the word lebendig for a concert that you went to. And Alexander was using the word “living” in this very expansive way, both for nature and for culture. But look at his properties there: strong center, boundaries, gradients, binary, alternating repetition (that is cycles). He’s got the Yin Yang symbol there, positive space, in and out, it’s all there. We’re all on the same–kind of–the same wavelength here.
(Slide 42) Len Troncale, former president of the ISSS. He’s been doing work–lots of work, incredible work–on (following von Bertalanffy) the concept of “isomorphisms.” Here’s just one of his analysis on cycles. And you see he’s developing the subcycles of the phenomenon of cycles. Len did this and we just sort of discovered each other recently in the last couple years as some people from the ISSS got a hold of me and we’ve been having talks But when this was was done, this was indeed totally independent work. And yet there’s some strong correspondences which makes me think there’s some objective reality to to this.
(Slide 43) Barbara Widhalm; PhD. work on community learning structures and systems using principles by Fritjof Capra and the Center for Ecoliteracy, but then applying those tho community learning. Look at this: cycles, flows which are arrows, development and the arrow of property space, dynamic balance, binary forming a synergy, and network, some sort of inside and outside with boundedness.
(Slide 44) George Mobis, current president of the ISSS. One of his books: Principles of Systems Science. Here’s one of his diagrams to do thinking in systems. What’s your boundary? What’s your system of interest? It’s open to you, what are the inputs and the outputs? It’s your system of interest to do interesting thinking about it.
(Slide 45) Jesse Henshaw. I think she’s on the zoom today and doing a lot of work with (as you see on the upper left) there: a universal development pattern, universal growth patterns, with what I would interpret as an arrow of upswing and then a transition point and an arrow of leveling off, in which there’s breaks at the bottom and she calls a germ and then fulfillment and autonomy. She’s been using this in everything from analyzing biology to how you build a building to thinking about sustainability in the future (lower left there: centers with boundary zones. This is abstract. It’s not necessarily around a house. But the concrete image is one example of how you can think about it. Same language completely independent from what I what I did; I did not know her when I was doing this work.
(Slide 46) Jeff Bloom, a colleague of mine, we’ve written some papers together. He put together the metapatterns wikidot website. He’s a science educator, a former professor, educating people to be educators. And he’s been doing work with he’s now with the Gregory Bateson Institute, the international Bateson Institute. But he did some work using metapatterns to analyze children’s thought structures on unguided thinking (or with the teacher as minimal guide), as the children were thinking about density. They’re thinking about the problem of density. And the thought system that they’re going through Jeff put into metapatterns as a patterns language to analyze the the children’s social dynamics, and not just their social dynamics, but their thinking patterns, as they argued and they came to agreements, in patterns that were cycles, breaks, etc.
(Slide 47) Just a couple more. Gabriele Rico wrote a book called Writing the Natural Way and using the right brain to help you write. And here was another mind blower for me: these are all diagramming techniques. And there was very close correspondence to the metapatterns, in her thinking about rhythm, thinking about central ideas, and peripheral ideas, so using centers.
(Slide 48) And finally, the NYU Student Journal of Metapatterns. When I occasionally had the opportunity to run this materiasl as a course at NYU, in though it did not fit into ordinary departmental categories. But there were sometimes at NYU to run these as special seminars. And this was from the last time I ran it in 2020. And actually Jeff bloom put together the graphic on the left, in which this collage has figures from every student’s paper. In the course we used the metapatterns to think about the human future. Now undergraduate students are naturally concerned about the future, especially Environmental Studies students, and they were using the metapatterns and there you can see, well you can just scan through titles. And I show the metapatterns that were focused on in each paper, after they went through the entire group of metapatterns. They did small projects on all of them to kind of work up their metapattern muscles, and then took up a large topic of a personal interest, and used metapatterns as thinking tools. that they used metal patterns to expand and go on go with the research.
Laura Lee 1:13:10
Tyler Volk 1:13:11
(Slide 49) Okay, in conclusion, one question to the group, which I’ll throw out. Of course, I’m going to field anything and everything and listen to controversy, pushback, you know–but one question I have that I’m interested in from all of you is: What do you think it means that all these people are doing similar work with a somewhat similar approach? And I say nonmathematical, that’s something I haven’t touched upon the relationship between this and the mathematical work going on and network theory and complexity theory. But to some extent, this is looking at stuff that you could not necessarily mathematize immediately, but still usefully see patterns in there. So there are varieties between the people I showed you, of course, and viva la difference. And I think I’ll stop the show.
Laura Lee 1:14:08
First of all, I love your image there. I want a poster of that. So, brilliant. You know, it’s so interesting that so many people are using it as a roadmap into their field to, to cite these comparisons, to draw these comparisons, to gain these insights. And I was just thinking how in anthropology and art, as you mentioned, sociology, the design traits, so much more, that should be a textbook, right? This should be foundational understanding for symbology, art history, all of it applies across the board. And I want to give my own shout out so if you want to stop your slide, I want to give a shout out and this comes straight from your book. Thank you for that, that was just dazzling.
Laura Lee 2:29:06
Thank you so much. It’s just been a delight with all of these wonderful people who joined this forum today. This is just the dance that we have with the universe. In this way, we have, with the forms, the symbols, the patterns, that’s one way the universe speaks to us. And that we can understand what we are made of, were made of, these dynamical forces, these potentialities, these unfoldings… Newton had his mission. Let me look at the handiwork of God to truly understand Her. And we’re doing the same thing. Are we not? Isn’t that what all of life is about? Understanding the world around us, and our place in it. And to celebrate that, and you’ve helped us do this in so many beautiful ways with all the threads that you put together the many disciplines. This is what society is about, finding the relations between us, us–as moving parts. So thank you for that.
Paul Robear 2:30:36
Well done. Thank you so much.
Tyler. Yeah. Very welcome.