The Institution of Sequences

 Of Constraints and Chimeras

Imagine you are driving home late at night. You are in the countryside and there is little traffic. You come to a red light at a crossroads and stop. Asked why you stopped, you might answer, “because the light was red.” Perhaps, after reading this far in this book, you might even say, “because the traffic signal placed a boundary condition on my trajectory.”

In terms of physics or basic biology, you know this makes no sense. No flying frisbee, no rolling ball, no speeding bullet would stop for the red light. And no animal is going to stop either, no wolf, no moose, no horseshoe crab, nothing except perhaps a trained service animal. In fact, most humans who have ever lived would not stop. Our preliterate ancestors might have been curious about the signal as a physical object, but absent the institutional constraints inscribed in the one-dimensional patterns of the traffic code, there would have been no specific effect on their behavior.

The reality is that a traffic light is a flimsy constraint; it can incline but not necessitate. If traffic engineers wanted to stop you cold using nothing but light, they would need something blindingly bright that would render you unable to proceed. They could also install a physical constraint, perhaps a gate like those found at toll booths and railroad crossings, but even those can be breached with a little momentum. Stopping you decisively would require bollards like those used to protect important government buildings. But why go to all that trouble and expense when a simple red-yellow-green signal will do just fine? Traffic engineers know your code and have access to your machinery.

Of course, the traffic light is not the ultimate constraint in this scenario. To be sure, it is the proximate constraint, the local switch that cycles the intersection through its affordances—stop, go, stop, go. But lurking in the background is the ultimate constraint. Of course, it’s a sequence, a small part of the large corpus of traffic regulations that govern your behavior when you drive. For example, in the statutes of the U.S. state of North Carolina, the sequence randomly accessible by the marker §20-158(b)(2)(a) reads:

When a traffic signal is emitting a steady red circular light controlling traffic approaching an intersection, an approaching vehicle facing the red light shall come to a stop and shall not enter the intersection. After coming to a complete stop and unless prohibited by an appropriate sign, that approaching vehicle may make a right turn.

And that is why you stop, because of this sequence, which is itself embedded in an enormous system of interlocking sequential boundary conditions called the traffic code. Other sections of the code lay out the penalties you might suffer should you fail to be constrained by the red light and authorize certain government employees to impose more expansive boundary conditions upon you.1 But you get the idea. Behind the simple allosteric constraint of the traffic light is a complex set of sequences whose linear patterns guide your three-dimensional behavior at distant times and places. Think of it as an institutional constraint.

But tell the truth. Aren’t you just a little bit tempted to drive straight through the red light? It’s late and you want to get home. The affordances all say go. There is no cross traffic, so there is no danger of collision. There are no police officers in sight, so there is no danger of institutional sanctions. Nothing about the physical or social dynamics of the situation offers any motivation for you to stop. Why are you ignoring what you perceive? Why are you just sitting there passively, wasting time, waiting for the light to change?

There are many possible reasons. Perhaps your teenage daughter is sitting in the passenger seat next to you. As a parent you are concerned for her safety. You want to set a good example. You want her to develop prudent habits You are motivated to make sure she reaches sexual maturity and is able to reproduce. Were you alone you might be inclined to ignore the light, but with her there next to you, you stay put.

What about that box attached to the signal pole? It’s hard to make it out in the dark. Your visual perception is being tested to its limit. Is it a red-light camera? Will it capture your transgression and mail you a citation? Maybe it’s nothing, just part of the signal equipment, but why take a chance? You are risk- averse; better safe than sorry.

Or maybe your friends are in the car with you and are egging you on, teasing you for being so docile and deferential in a situation where following the letter of the law yields no benefit. Why are you such a stick in the mud? Can you resist their mocking, or will it overcome your judgment?

Perhaps you are almost ready to give in and run the light when a car pulls up alongside. You think you recognize the driver. Is that your gossipy neighbor? If you ignore the signal now the whole neighborhood will hear about it. You want to protect your reputation. You do not want to be known as a scofflaw.

Should you stay or should you go? In this simple scenario, there are many potential boundary conditions on your trajectory. Parental care and risk aversion are constraints rooted in your biology, ultimately guided by the sequences of your genome. Peer pressure and reputation management are chiefly social, shaped through the verbal and written sequences of culture.

But the relevant boundary conditions in this and many other situations actually reside in extensive bodies of text. These institutional constraints—whether legal, religious, commercial, or academic—govern many of the day-to-day details of our behavior, although we rarely stop to think about them. To John Searle they provide “the logical structure of complex societies.”2

In the Iliad, the hero Bellerophon tamed the winged horse Pegasus and rode off to slay a fire-breathing she-monster with the body of a goat, the head of a lion, and the tail of a snake. This creature was called the Chimera. Early in the 20th century the term chimera was adopted in biology and later in medicine to refer to individual organisms possessing a surplus of gene sequences, more than one genotype within a single phenotype. Like the genes of parasites which can override the genes of their hosts, the surplus sequences of the chimera compete for expression within their common phenotype.3

As we wait for the traffic signal to change to green, we are chimeras of a sort. We may possess only one biological genotype, but our trajectory is subject to boundary conditions arising from many sources. The written institutional constraints of the traffic code say one thing. The affordances of the physical environment say another. Our biological instincts also have their say, as do the constraints of our complex primate social relationships. “A person is not an originating agent,” says B.F. Skinner. “He is a locus, a point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect.”4

Sprawling, self-referential institutions like law, religion, and academia are the most complex expression of textual constraint in human culture. They have become one-dimensional worlds unto themselves. “Animals running in a pack,” Searle writes, can

have hierarchies and a dominant male; they can cooperate in the hunt, share their food, and even have pair bonding. But they cannot have marriages, money, or property. Why not? Because all of these create institutional forms of powers, rights, obligations, duties, etc. and it is characteristic of such phenomena that they create reasons for action that are independent of what you or I or anyone else is otherwise inclined to do.5

What Searle calls reasons for action I am calling constraints, and in many cases, they are independent of what yon or I or anyone else is otherwise inclined to do. Our personal trajectories are governed by the interplay of myriad boundary conditions, some physical, some biological, some social, and some institutional. Except for the physical, almost all are rooted in some sort of sequence. We are at once physical, biological, social, and institutional creatures, and our behavior is the result of an ongoing free-for-all6 among the relevant constraints.7 Which affordance we act upon depends on the tyranny of context as well as our developmental and cultural histories, all time bound and space bound.

“Our symbolically mediated actions can often be in conflict with motivations to act which arise from more concrete and immediate biological sources,” says Terrence Deacon.

Calling some actions ‘free’ and others not oversimplifies what is really only a matter of the degree of the strengths of competing compulsions to act, some compulsions arising from autonomic and hormonal sources and others from our imagined satisfaction at reaching a symbolized goal.8

Biological chimeras result when dueling genotypes compete to construct and configure their common phenotype. But in humans the competition for control is not between sequences of the same type, like two different sets of genes but rather between two different kinds of sequences, genes and language, sequences which originate and function within different internal and external systems. Biological chimeras are first-order, but we are second-order,9

We have seen that sequences constrain interactors either by construction or by configuration, and we second-order chimeras are governed by one of each. Our biological phenotypes are the result of a developmental construction process orchestrated by DNA sequences in our genome. These biological phenotypes are then configured by the spoken and written sequences of human language. The longstanding question of nature vs. nurture, then, is mostly a question of sequence vs. sequence. Human behavior arises from the complex classifications and reclassifications of internal and external systems of constraints. “Because of inherent differences between the two channels of information transmission across generations,” says Robert Paul, “the relations between them are characterized by a certain degree of opposition, conflict, or tension: their agendas are, in fact, to a significant degree at cross-purposes.”10

In their 1981 book Genes, Mind, and Culture, biologists Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson write that “genetic natural selection operates in such a way as to keep culture on a leash.”11 In their view, variation among human cultures is subject to boundary conditions imposed by our underlying biology. The constraints of biology tend to prevail over those of culture, especially in areas like survival and reproduction, but where the biological boundary conditions are weak—where there are don’t-care conditions—culture can range off-leash.

“Different cultures are different forms that an underlying biological substructure can be manifested in,” says Searle.

An institutional constraint “can only make use of what is already there in the organism, provided by its self-construction under the aegis of the DNA,” says Paul,

but in order to do so it must redirect the actions of the organism from those provided by the imperatives of the genetic program and orient them toward the performance of its own priorities which are in many key areas at odds with or even opposed to those of the genetic program.12

Donald Campbell puts it pithily: “The genes say ‘Thou shalt covet;’ ultrasocial human culture says (or used to say) ‘Thou shalt not covet’” (emphasis his).13

To return briefly to the cell, the folded enzyme combines strong bonds and weak bonds. The weak hydrogen bonds that account for the three-dimensional shape of the molecule bend but cannot break the strong peptide bonds that make up the backbone of the primary structure. Culture is a weak bond that can bend but cannot break the strong bond of biology. “There could not be an opposition between culture and biology,” says Searle, “because if there were, biology would always win.”14 Like the tangle of multiple transcription factors competing to regulate expression of a gene, internal and external constraints in our chimeric mix compete to orchestrate our trajectories. “My phenotype is some sort of quantitative polygenic compromise,” says Richard Dawkins,15 a compromise that includes not only sequences of genes but also boundary conditions expressed in the sequences of speech and text.