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Different Kinds of Sameness

Here I'd like to say a few words about what I mean when I talk about different kinds of novelty. I named this essay Different Kinds of Sameness just because I like the sound of it, but there's an interesting point there as well. Novelty and sameness both describe change or lack of change; what I'm interested in here is not the presence of change so much as the different directions (or dimensions) in which change can occur. These different directions are the same thing as the different knobs on the Subjunc-TV in Hofstadter's dialogue Contrafactus. (The characters are watching a football game, and are seeing different subjunctive instant replays.)

Well, folks, that's what would've happened if Palindromi hadn't stepped out of bounds.

:

Well, fans, that's how it would have gone, if footballs were spheres instead of oblate spheroids!

:

That's how the last play would have looked, football fans, if this had been a game of baseball.

:

And there, friends, you have the subjunctive instant replay as it would have happened on the Moon.

:

And there you have it, 3-D fans, as it would've looked if football were played in four spatial dimensions.

In the above, the directions in which variation can occur are indicated via subjunctives or hypotheticals, but this shouldn't be taken to mean that variations must always remain hypothetical. For example, the idea of varying the design of computer keyboards by splitting them down the middle for ergonomics was once just a what-if idea someone had, but now it's a reality.

Variations in human works do often begin with an intentional hypothetical, but there are also plenty of cases where variations occur by accident, as when, say, one makes a wrong turn while driving and discovers a new short-cut. Here's one more example, as reported by Dawkins in The replicators.

I suppose the scholars of the Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big when they mistranslated the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin’, coming up with the prophecy: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son … ’

From all the above, you can see that variation can occur in most anything: the events in a football game, the design of computer hardware, the processes by which we do things, or the words in a document. (Speaking of variation in the design of physical objects, the book The Evolution of Useful Things is very nice. Here's the subtitle from the cover.)

How everyday artifacts—from forks and pins to paper clips and zippers—came to be as they are.

This brings me at last to the topic of evolution. I don't want to go into great detail here; all I really want to say is that in any system, be it nature, art, or the design of paper clips, two processes are needed in order for evolution to occur: variation and selection. The name “natural selection” was carefully chosen (by Darwin, I assume) to indicate that the selection of biological entities was occurring via a natural process, death. (Although the selection is performed by removing failures rather than by accepting successes, it amounts to the same thing.)

 

  See Also

  Art as Novelty
  Association
  Evolution
  Tree of Authority, The
  Variation in Content

@ April (2000)