Only the Variation is Real

Increasingly, I don’t see institutions as enjoying a different ontological status than the processes and entities that comprise them.

This is my undercooked contribution to the chicken-egg discussion of values/habits and institutions that came up here and here. I am on board with the broad thesis that Adam presents here. Mostly what I’m presenting below is a kind of alternative vocabulary, a result of my different corpus than you guys. Sorry- I’ll learn your language in time.

A species, I hope you’ll agree, is not a platonic, idealized form that individual creatures attempt to actualize. The Aristotelian approach is also too typological: A species is not a class of which individual creatures are instantiations or examples. Ernst Mayr, self-proclaimed ‘population thinker’ and perhaps the father of the modern definition of the species:

The ultimate conclusions of the population thinker and the typologist are precisely the opposite. For the typologist the type (eidos) is real and the variation an illusion, while for the populationist, the type (the average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real. No two ways of looking at nature could be more different.

Mayr’s ultimate definition of a species has little to do with apparent morphology or external categorization, instead relying on the relation between individual creatures- the capability to interbreed.

Individual creatures are also assemblages of smaller, arguably independent organisms and processes. The literal idea of an essence of a species or an individual or an institution doesn’t strike me as a very convincing concept except as a shorthand (and as it is said, “all non-trivial abstractions are leaky”).

Obviously an institution’s current habits or structural constraints can be spoken of, but I think we often make too much of it.  When we change our social environment we change ourselves, but one part of this process does not clearly precede the other. We respond to what we can, more-or-less blindly, and what works is propagated. I do not think that ideas and technologies are so cleanly delineated that one can be said to be causal in any strict way.

The United States of America is comprised of states(!) and also can annex and hold some level of dominion over those states. This is a clean and easy-to-understand interplay between a broader system and its components. That’s how we would teach the kids. But there are also a formidable contingent of exceptions and general weirdness that warp our conception of this idealized relationship: Washington DC, Puerto Rico, the various not-quite-foreign-but-not-quite-domestic Native American reservations, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa (where inhabitants are only US nationals), The Howland, Navassa, Wake, Jarvis, and Baker Islands, the Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, the Midway Islands, Serranilla and Bajo Nuevo Bank… these entities are only partially integrated into the American political assemblage, and several of them are more populous than many of our states. It’s far from a clear cut business.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit already.

Like my last/first post, it might seem that I’m coming off bleak and obscurantist. I sure hope not but I could see that. Speaking of virtues and the like are unnatural to me, but I’ll read up and try to engage appropriately. I’ll be clearer in future posts. (Or maybe not.)

One thought on “Only the Variation is Real

  1. Pingback: Bundling and Unbundling I | fogbanking

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