of Nature, Mind, and Culture

Advanced Honors Seminar Spring 2017


Tuesdays 11:00 –1:30 p.m.

Tyler Volk

Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies

1157 Brown Building

(OFFICE HOURS: Mon. & Wed., 10:30 AM – 12:15, usually)

take Waverly Building elevators to 11th floor, turn left;

also meetings by appointment; or just drop by)

Mailbox: Biology Department, 1009 Silver

PHONE: (212) 998-3736 EMAIL:

Metapatterns are functional patterns or principles common across a variety of “things,” very important in both biology and culture. We start with the fact that systems that evolve—whether biological, cognitive, or cultural—are produced from an iterative sequence of propagation, variation, and selection. Therefore, the things that result are patterns shaped by interaction and must “work.” In considering the general principles for the creation of patterns, including those of physics and chemistry, you will learn and apply metapatterns as general tools for analyzing systems. Metapatterns include binaries, borders, layers, alphabet-like systems, arrows in time, and breaks and cycles in time. Your exploration and findings about these and other wide-ranging, logical principles (such as systems theory, networks, positive and negative feedbacks) can include topics that interest you, such as the nature of physical laws, patterns of life from physical trees to evolutionary trees, animal societies, language, music, symbols, architecture, mental phenomena (i.e., the time-patterns of thoughts), politics, philosophy, and a wide spectrum of environmental issues. For a sense of the material, see the instructor’s book Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind, or the instructor’s papers about metapatterns available from this website (; for example, Volk and Bloom (2007)), or the instructor’s trio of YouTube videos on metapatterns (search “professortylevolk” and “metapatterns”). Cross-listed with Environmental Studies as ENVST-UA 254.001, and for ES students, this course can count towards the major.

Tyler Volk is Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies and a recipient of the University’s Distinguished Teaching Award. He is the author of Metapatterns across Space, Time, and Mind and of papers that point to common functional principles at different scales. Several relevant papers can be accessed at Volk conducts research on the global carbon cycle and Earth’s future. His forthcoming book for Columbia University Press is Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be (2017).

Your work: This is primarily an active, project-based course, in which you are going to be facilitated into independent research pretty much right from the start. We might use “peer review” for papers. There will ongoing classroom presentations, using powerpoint and other media (the board, handouts, etc.).

ANTICIPATED FLOW OF WORK: One major project, with several presentations of other projects along the way, on topics that are asked to be “responses” to material being presented and to the readings. These responses might involve postings on the Classes website site so others can make formal comments following the classroom discussion. The major project will be the focus of the course from week 10 onward, with several presentations of concepts in focus groups and to the overall class. Focus groups will serve as review panels and engage peers in the topic of comparing and contrasting metapatterns and their applications to the ongoing research of each student.

Week by week topics:

Week 1. Introduction to metapatterns, from physics to psychology. Could there be a science, or a study, of everything? If so, would the phenomena being studied involve pattern itself? We will explore this question right at the start. Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week.

Week 2. Patterns from the smallest things of physics to the complexities of culture. I will go through the fundamental levels proposed in my forthcoming book for Columbia University Press (Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be). These levels establish various principles and dynamics of systems: physical, biological, and cultural (including mental). The levels are: 1. Fundamental quanta; 2. Protons, and neutrons (together called nucleons); 3. Atomic nuclei; 4. Atoms; 5. Molecules; 6. Prokaryotic cells (simple cells without cell nuclei) and the origin of life; 7. Eukaryotic cells (more complex cells with nuclei and other complex, functional components); 8. Multicellular organisms, including plants, animals, fungi; 9. Animal societies, such as bird flocks, ant colonies, and chimpanzee bands; 10. Human tribal metagroups and the origin of culture; 11. Agrovillages, at the time of the Neolithic Revolution; 12. Geopolitical states, starting with ancient civilizations. Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week.

Week 3. Biological and cultural evolution. We examine the metapattern of generalized evolution as a system of core dynamics that are common to both biological and cultural evolution (2 evolutionary “realms” that contain patterns produced a certain way). Here this generalized system will be called evolutionary dynamics, conceptualized as three interwoven strands: propagation, variation, and selection. Cultural evolution appears to consist of a coupling, enabled by language, between the older, cognitive evolutionary dynamics (first in animals) and the newer, social evolutionary dynamics (in human extended groups). Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 4. Given the material so far, we can distinguish 3 scales of metapatterns: within-level, across-level, and across-realm. We start with the metapatterns of shape: spheres, tubes, and sheets and explore them across physics, biology, culture (including mental shapes). Spheres: maximum volume, minimum surface, containment; grapes, domes. Sheets: transfer surface for matter, energy, or information; gills, solar collectors. Tubes: surface transfer, connection, support; leaf veins, highways, chains of command; “relationship” in the mental models we build of the world. Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 5. Borders of systems across scales. Borders: protection, openings for controlled exchange; cell membranes, national borders. We take a special look at the
“container metaphor” of cognitive linguistics (George Lakoff and co-authors) to think about how we use partitioning in thinking and organizing our cultural world. Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 6. Binary systems: the minimal and thus efficient system; two sexes, two-party politics, bifurcating decision processes. This is a really rich, important topic in the scholarship of everything! Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 7. Centers: key components of system stability; DNA, social insect centers, political constitutions and government; concepts in religion (gods). Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 8. Layers or Holarchy: levels of webs, in which successive systems are parts of

larger systems; biological nesting from biomolecules to ecosystems, human

social nesting, engineering designs, computer software. Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 9. We begin looking the metapatterns of time. Arrows: stability or gradient-like change over time; biological homeostasis, growth, self-maintaining social structures. Breaks: relatively sudden changes in system behavior; cell division, insect metamorphosis, coming-of-age ceremonies, political elections. Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 10. Continue with the metapatterns of time. Cycles: recurrent patterns in systems over time; protein degradation and synthesis, life cycles, power cycles of electricity generating plants, feedback cycles, educational grade levels (cyclic design within an arrow of overall educational progress). Readings and responses will be assigned for the following week. Several students will present their ideas and work.

Week 11. During these final weeks the seminar is a fully-dedicated working seminar, in which students lead discussions based on what they are reading and thinking about, perhaps building on what they have previously presented and/or written for the Classes website for consideration by others. Everyone is now up to speed with the fundamentals: basic levels of dynamics, including physical, biological, and cultural (including mental) as pattern-generating realms, and types of metapatterns that occur in those realms and across basic levels. Students present work.

Week 12. Students present work. (as in Week 11, continued)

Week 13. Student present work. Everyone submits papers for a round of peer review by others.

Week 14. Submission of reviews of papers and general discussions about connections among the papers (at least 2 papers will be reviewed by every student)

Week 15. Final presentations (if required for some), final discussion, submission of final papers.


Course attendance and participation: 30%

Work done in timely manner: 10%

Short “response”-type presentations and Classes postings, both from self and in reply to others: 20%

Final project, including pre-paper presentations, reviews of papers in various stages by others, extended abstract, and final paper: 45%

Required, core readings:

Main book: Volk, Tyler. 1995. Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind, Columbia University Press, 298p.

Main website:

Articles by the instructor that we will use (will be supplied):

Volk, Tyler. 2016. Quarks to Culture (in progress for Columbia University Press; selections from)

Volk, Tyler. 2008. What is a sphere: Metapatterns and scale-transcending functional principles, General Semantics Bulletin, 74/75, 69-72. (2007/2008; publication date 2009).

Volk, Tyler, and Bloom, J.W. 2007. The use of metapatterns for research into complex systems of teaching, learning, and schooling, Part I: Metapatterns in nature and culture, Complicity: The International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4, 25-43. (Available online from the journal or at

Bloom, J.W. and Volk, T. The use of metapatterns for research into complex systems of teaching, learning, and schooling, Part II: Applications, Complicity: The International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4, 45-68, 2007. Available online from the journal.

Volk, Tyler; Bloom, J.W., and J. Richards. 2007. Toward a science of metapatterns: Building upon Bateson’s foundation, Kybernetes: The International Journal of Cybernetics, Systems, and Management Sciences, 36, 1070-1080. (Available at

Volk, Tyler. 2004. Rhymes and reasons (A science of everything), Science and Spirit, 15, 5 (Sept.-Oct.), 44-50.

Other articles we might use (will be supplied if we do). This list is to give you a general idea of the kind of material we will want to digest and incorporate into our seminar:

Alexander, Christopher. 2001. The fifteen properties of life, Whole Earth, Winter, 70-73.

Arthur, W. Brian. 2009. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, Free Press. (selections from this; plus a book review of this book in Science)

Beinhocker, Eric D. 2006. The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, Harvard Business School Press. (selections from)

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York: George Braziller, 1968. There is a 2015 new release (selections from).

Bronowski, J. 1970. New Concepts in the Evolution of Complexity: Stratified Stability and Unbounded Plans, Zygon, 5, 18-35.

Bunge, Mario. Emergency and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003 (selections from).

Burkart , J. M., et al. “The evolutionary origin of human hyper-cooperation.” Nature Communications 5 (2014): Article number 4747. doi:10.1038/ncomms5747.

Buskes, Chris. “Darwinism Extended: A Survey of How the Idea of Cultural Evolution Evolved.” Philosophia 41 (2013): 661–691. (doi: 10.1007/s11406-013-9415-8)

Calvin, William H. “The Six Essentials? Minimal Requirements for the Darwinian Bootstrapping of Quality.” Journal of Memetics 1, 1 (1997; online).

Coward, Fiona, and Clive Gamble. “Big brains, small worlds: material culture and the evolution of mind.” Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B 363 (2008) 1969-1979. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0004)

Diener, Alexander C., and Joshua Hagan. Borders: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012 (selections from).

Ehrlich, Paul R, and Anne H. Ehrlich 2008. The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, Island Press. (selections from)

Gontier, Nathalie. “Universal symbiogenesis: An alternative to universal selectionist

accounts of evolution.” Symbiosis 44 (2007): 167–181.

Grosberg, Richard K., and Richard R. Strathmann. “The Evolution of Multicellularity: A Minor Major Transition?” Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 38 (2007): 621-654.

Hauser, Marc D., Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch. “The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?” Science 298 (2002): 1569-1579.

Hazen, Robert M. “The emergence of patterning in life's origin and evolution.” International Journal of Developmental Biology 53 (2009): 683-692.

Hill, Kim R., et al. “Hunter-Gatherer Inter-Band Interaction Rates: Implications for Cumulative Culture.” PLOS ONE 9 (2014): 9 pages, e102806 (open access)

Hodder, Ian. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012 (selections from).

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner, 2001 (selections from).

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press. (selections from).

Lewens, Tim, "Cultural evolution", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

Mesoudi, Alex. “How Cultural Evolutionary Theory Can Inform Social Psychology and Vice Versa.” Psychological Review 116 (2009): 929-952.

Mesoudi et al. (2006) Toward a unified science of cultural evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 329-383. (selections from; available online from NYU Libraries.).

Morowitz, Harold J. The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (selections from).

Pinker, Steven. “The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107, 2010: 8993–8999.

Pross, Addy. “Toward a general theory of evolution: Extending Darwinian theory to inanimate matter.” Journal of Systems Chemistry 2 (2011):1-14.

Salk, Jonas. Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983 (selections from).

Salk, Jonas. “The next evolutionary step in the ascent of man in the cosmos.” Leonardo 41, no.3 (1985): 281-286.

Wilson, David Sloan, Steven C. Hayes, Anthony Biglan, and Dennis D. Embry. “Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37 (2014): 395-460 (which includes “Open Peer Commentary” and “Authors’ Response”). (doi:10.1017/S0140525X13001593)