There is no atom

It's time to revive my blog, and I'll do it by attacking a big topic, that of atomic units (or lack thereof) and resolutions (not the new year's kind). An interesting study recently showed that inhibitory signals have a strong role in rapid convergence of decision-making among bees. This result is not surprising, since we already know that such inhibitory signals have a large role in our own brains, and the authors explicitly discuss the parallels.

We seem to have a tendency to look for atoms and use them as the foundations for theory-building. Unfortunately, this is often a bad approximation. Individuals (the mere word assumes some atomicity of the self) usually behave as complete units, and the "person" approximation is useful in many contexts, but not always: psychologically, people have important conflicts that can be understood when breaking down the atoms of our brains to smaller units; physiologically, we actually host many billions of organisms within our bodies – are they part of the atom? My answer would be: there is no atom.

The bee study is a great example: the same principles we see within a brain apply between individuals. Similarly, to understand evolution, it helps to shed the atomic illusion: it's not about the individual, or about the gene, or about the group. None of these units is sufficient to fully explain evolution.

Of course, simplified models are often very helpful in understanding the world around us. I definitely do not propose saying "it's complicated" and giving up, which would be the scientific version of post-modernism; my point is that as Einstein said, "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience". Use atoms when they provide a model which is good enough, but keep in mind that nothing in life seems to have a single scale, and zooming in and out can be powerful modeling tools.

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