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Monday, March 15, 2010

Guest Blog:The Theory of Plasticity

Thanx to the MC for allowing me to share his space:

Evolution is the process of imbuing living things with plasticity, whereby loss of function signals a rerouting of biologic systems in an attempt to regain function. The mammalian brain, for instance, is prototypical. Here, irreversible damage is accompanied by the adaptation of local cells that do not normally carry electrical impulses to ones that do. The new impulse-carrying cells detour the electrical signal around the injured area in an attempt to re-establish function. The immune system is equally elastic. When certain proteins once thought to be essential to the immune response are genetically deleted in experimental animals, the effects are minimized by other proteins that realign their purpose and establish immunocompetence. Plasticity is also necessary for learning. Our brain learns by creating new pathways to unused parts of the cerebral cortex. Our immune system constantly programs itself through surveillance of self and non-self antigens, shutting off certain signals and engaging others in an attempt to stave off the deleterious.

Adaptation is oftentimes but not always the culmination of elasticity. Adaptation is a matter of form, whereas plasticity is a matter of function. Accordingly, plasticity can manifest beyond the cellular level as recognizable phenotypes of adaptation-- the color of the skin, the curve of the beak, the shape of the claw. In sum, plasticity is inherent to most biologic systems and is required in order to adapt and to survive. Living things with nominal plasticity may survive but do not thrive and therefore, are at risk for demise. Of note, simplicity of life forms does not negate plasticity, as evidenced by the rapid adaptation of certain bacteria to adverse conditions.


The theory of plasticity can be extrapolated to societal systems, as well. Societies are comprised of individuals just as living things are comprised of cells. Like cells, societies that organize activities efficiently and interact optimally with their environment improve their chances of thriving. But to flourish requires an inherent plasticity. Centralization of government services may provide a highly organized structure for society but it is the antithesis of elasticity. Consequently, highly centralized governments either fail (ala, Soviet Union) or simply survive (ala, North Korea) but rarely thrive. Complex societies also tend to generate complex economies, the successes of which depend on their plasticity. It’s no coincidence that the American economy is perhaps the most elastic in the world and consequently, the strongest. Capitalism promotes plasticity by fostering a multitude of economic sectors. When one sector collapses, investments reroute to any number of other sectors to shore up the economy. History has shown that even small gyrations towards a centralized economy are detrimental to the vibrancy of American business.

China, on the other hand, is a seeming paradox— a Communist country with a prosperous economy. But the key to China’s success is due in large part to its partial decentralization and promotion of capitalism. If the theory of plasticity could be formulated, however, its computations would predict the end of China’s prosperity in large part because of its socialist roots. Even casual Communism has its limits and cannot escape its inherent rigidity. Information is at the heart of society's plasticity because information is power. A society that curtails information or propagates misinformation curtails its elasticity. The demise of Google in China is the first major sign of the country’s failure to progress towards greater plasticity and therefore, is a harbinger of economic stagnation.

But as Frank Zappa points out, not all things are subject to plasticty;

"I searched for years I found no love. I'm sure that love will never be the product of plasticity."

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