High and Low Gain

My research is in the theory of complex systems.  It may appear to be all over the place, but as Tom Sharkey once noted in some surprise, it is always about ecological hierarchy theory.  The major themes of my current research described below are:

High and Low Gain Analysis of Biosocial Systems

Narrative in Science

Ecological Economics/Ecological Engineering


The distinction between high gain and low gain is between facets of all biosocial systems.  These two facets reflect the energetics and the controls of such systems.  Biological systems need food or photosynthate as the basis for doing anything.  When that dominates behavior, system prediction yields to thermodynamic models.  We say the system is high gain when it is in that phase.   On the other hand, biological systems also exhibit control of energy flux through constraints that are coded in some way.  The obvious example is DNA and the genetic code.  However, other coded controllers might be hormones or mating rituals, or a host of other signals.  Coded signals describe plans or structures needed to make plans workable.  Not that UUU on the genetic code does not mean phenylanaline at a rate, it just means it, that’s all.  So coded limits are static not dynamic, and may influence dynamics only by imposing limits on rates.  When that facet of the system dominates, we say the system  low gain.  Note that the energetics of social systems depends on imports, mined materials or grown or gathered biological material, and it is that which controls high gain aspects of social systems.  The codes and plans for efficiency or economizing in social systems are spoken or written.  These predict low gain behavior of social systems. 


While empirically detected at the outset, it is now realized that necessarily a system will be seen in one phase or the other, but not both at the same time.  The reason for this crisp distinction is that flux is seen as dynamic when it is not against a limit, while it is only seen as a static pressure when limits are imposed.  You can see the limit or the flux, but not both at the same time.  It is not that codes are suspended in a high gain system, or that flux ceases to occur under low gain.  It is rather that the system as described will be dominated either by flux, or by controls on fluxes.  When we “say system as described” there is an implicit level of analysis.  The level of analysis is influenced by how long the system is studied or measured.  It will also be influenced by the spatial extent or inclusiveness of what is defined as the system.  Thus high and low gain are not material issues, but rather turn on how the system is described.


Narratives - What is the logical response when logic breaks down in science?

My answer is narrative.  There is a substantial literature on the nature of narrative in the humanities, and I have recently begun taking apart the notion of the scientific narrative.  And this matters, because the inability of science to deal with the important issues, such as global climate change or sustainability, is its failure to understand the role that unspoken narratives play in science.  The cavalry to rescue science may very well be the humanities, not let in as tokens, but invited in as equal partners and perhaps guides in the narrative process.  This arena is called post-normal science, which is what to do when the stakes are high, time is short, values are in conflict, and unresolved variability is large.  By identifying the narrative, one can choose to change it.  That is what theorists do, they de-construct assumptions so as to open up a new narrative.


A good example of changing the narrative comes from our recent advances in the origins of the genetic code.  Scientists generally fail to identify the existence of a narrative, especially if it is universally held.  For instance, stop codons are clearly for punctuation, so what is the narrative there?  We hypothesize that this may be the wrong  narrative for many situations. My genetic code work (with Lisa Hodgewicz - undergrad) suggests that stop codes were primarily weapons used by the present code, against an orthogonal old code (see Beland and Allen 1994, for orthogonal codes).  So stop codes as punctuation is only one narrative, as opposed to a device for killing victims, quite a new story.  This then raises some potentially huge ideas.  So, is cancer using stop codes as weapons to get control?  Or can we use stop codes as weapons to cure cancer or get it into remission.  Narratives direct where science goes.


Narratives in ecological engineering and ecological economics

Over the last 5 years I have moved into ecological engineering and ecological economics.   Not only do economists and ecologists tell stories, but so do the systems of which they speak, as organisms communicate or societies announce policy.   Investigators listen to the narratives of biosocial systems and then pass them along as stories about what is being studied.  Ecologists’ narratives often see resources ending in depletion, as in gloom and doom scenarios.  Economists’ narratives say you don’t run out, things just get expensive, giving an incentive for resource substitution and technology; often a better story.  The narratives are about the way the system updates the meaning it transmits to its context (e.g. what organisms tell their mates or competitors, and what societies mean to each other) .  The story comes from interaction of two aspects of biosocial systems: dynamics of processes (e.g. metabolism) versus planned constraints operating through stasis.  This tension between dynamics and stasis arises in the story of a tennis match.  The game  ties together the dynamics of the play and the critical changes in the coded discrete scores.  The story moves forward at the rate at which the situation of the biosocial system changes (e.g.  the meaning of losing a set point).   The default narrative ecologists pass along is of death or extinction.  In the economists’ default narrative, the coded plan changes to increase efficiency that effects some sort of substitution (e.g. wood to coal).  Each narrative has limits.  Ecologists must learn to include changing returns on effort and efficiency, as when systems economize or work harder and different.  Those responses are manifested in things like the nuanced statements of  “The Ghost of Competition Past.” Economists must learn that sometimes there is no magic substitute “technology.”  Both extinction and non-sustainability occur in nature and society quite often.  In a challenging future, economic ecology should tell as a unified narrative, both the story of responding to context and the story of lost sustainability.  A bad end may be inevitable, but we can learn to postpone or ameliorate it.


In ecological economics, knowledge without narrative is dangerous.  “Blade Runner,” speaks of the danger of a world without narrative.  In the movie, replicant humans are created as adults, and so have not gone through the process of becoming themselves.  Having no narrative, replicants lack values and so must be hunted down because of the dangers they pose when unleashed on Earth. The humanities are our defense against replicant knowledge in ecological economics.  


As an example of a change in level of analysis changing the types of predictions that can be made, consider energy systems in societies.  The energy system of a society may be defined as limited to just the consumption of fuel at the time it is used.  Issues of efficiency in petroleum use could well ignore oil drilling and refinement, and consider only the energy in a gallon of gas transferred into moving a vehicle.  But a reasonable alternative might be to include the effort in mining the material before it is used.  Is uranium ore in the ground external to the energy system, or is it included inside? Are we including Navaho miners as inside the system, or is that limited to just those who run the power plant.  Which definition one uses will change the predictions about the behavior of the “energy system” from high to low gain.   Perhaps the uranium is seen as inside the system only when it is been already centrifuged to concentrate the radioactive isotope.  In that case the uranium generates lots of high quality energy, and the energy system is governed by flux and energy flow in high gain mode.  But if the uranium is seen as inside the system already as it is mined, then it takes a huge effort of efficient refinement, before energy is generated.  The energy generated is still large, but the effort of concentrating and controlling the material is gigantic, making the system low gain.  At a still larger scale, one might consider how uranium in the ground is finite and will eventually not be worth the effort of prospecting.  Over that century or so, the system will be predictable by a grand high gain flux that will diminish.


High and low gain are not absolutes, but must always be cast in terms some other system that is of the other type of gain.  High gain systems are relatively small, concentrated around a resource hot spot.  Low gain systems larger with all else equal.  Hot spots run out, and so a high gain system is not sustainable and is ephemeral.   Low gain equivalents are relatively diffuse, using lower quality resources, of which there is more over a wider area.  Paradoxically, the worse the resource that can be used (low gain) the more of it there is, and the larger the system becomes as it processes more energy than its high gain equivalent.  Low gain is longer lived because it changes efficiency as need, whereas availability of good resource is out of the control of an equivalent high gain system.  Under high gain, some other process has concentrated the resource, and it is available to be harvested.   Under low gain, diffuse material of low quality is captured, and it much be concentrated by user of the resource.