Never mind,no meta

November 3, 1995

Fruitful theorising typically unites diverse phenomena in a single, simple description. Tyler Volk's assumption, in cataloguing an impressive range of natural and social exhibits, seems to be that spotting apparent associations is a prelude to deeper understanding. The frustration of his lengthy, and intermittently interesting book, is that he never explains clearly why this assumption might hold.

The metapatterns he seeks are simple classes of shape or form in space, or rhythms in time, which recur across a wide range of scales and types of things. His book is a semischolarly compendium of examples of ten archetypal patterns: spheres, sheets and tubes, borders, binaries, centres, layers, calendars, arrows, breaks and cycles. Each gets a chapter of examples, described in a would-be poetic style which occasionally irritates but usually conveys his obvious delight in the range of associations he can conjure up, and the unities they imply.

The chapter on sheets and tubes, for example, begins with leaves, sails and butterfly wings, and moves on to include deep ocean layers, children's stick-figure drawings, tadpoles and snakes, to name but a few. The ten patterns, to be sure, are among the most important in structuring our experience of the world - our perception of what surrounds us and our stock of metaphors for describing it. But there is little else here beyond a repeated insistence that contemplating these patterns, meditating on the relations they disclose, will yield rich rewards.

Those rewards seem to revolve around a kind of mild-mannered nature mysticism of the kind which may grip one lying in sunlit grass gazing up at a blue sky. This is harmless enough, although the reader is left puzzled why Volk goes to such trouble to tell us about it. There are small hints that Volk is a successful research scientist, who has made contributions to the study of global carbon cycles. But, surprisingly given the general cast of his book, he seems clear enough in believing that spotting patterns in this way is neither necessary nor sufficient for scientific theorising.

As he says, scientists have abandoned trying to explain the big all, but the gain "in powerful and practical understanding of a wealth of details is in my view well worth the trade." In the opening chapter, he points out how the seductions of the sphere were overturned at the dawn of modern science with Kepler's deeply painful realisation that planetary orbits are elliptical, therefore imperfect. So it is plain that the categories Volk is describing need not be an aid to thought.

But his approach has little in common with the scientists trying to offer theoretical accounts of morphogenesis in biology, or of the generation of order in complex systems. Brian Goodwin or Stuart Kauffman may turn out to be wrong, but they are both a good deal more interesting than this. So is Gregory Bateson, whom Volk claims as an inspiration, especially the Bateson of Mind and Nature. I suspect though, that the flakier side of Buckminster Fuller, who also makes occasional appearances, is a stronger influence. To be blunt. Mind and Nature is, I still think, a profound book; Metapatterns is not.

Jon Turney is Wellcome fellow in science communication, University College, London.

Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind

Author - Tyler Volk
ISBN - 0 231 06750 X
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £21.50
Pages - 296

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