The Emergence of the New – Difference and Diversity

From the standpoint of evolutionary theory, sexuality can be understood as a machinery that creates differences. This is a biologically tested and proven method of creating the new. The advantages are numerous. A population that reproduces sexually can develop more rapidly than is the case with asexual organisms. Its descendants have a greater diversity of phenotypes, and in the short-term, this diversity promises greater chances of adapting to changed environmental conditions. In the long term, it is an insurance against the unforeseeable since it increases the number of options and thereby the chances of survival.

Human societies have invented cultural machineries for creating differences. The experience and assertion that some-thing is new, says sociologist Niklas Luhmann from the perspective of systems theory, mark the decision to use previously redundant possibilities to create structures. They are nothing other than an aspect of the system’s self-description. That’s why this change in the self-description underscores discontinuity to deconstruct traditions and to be able to reorganize connectiv-ity.The change appears on the meta level in the “difference that makes a difference.” The new thus always implies a relation to the existing system; it maintains a relationship to the old.

The cultural machinery that creates differences functions by consciously or unconsciously drawing boundaries between the old and the new. Depending on how these distinctions are set, the new can appear as something whose contours are already known or as a radical break with the given. The less foreseeable the new is, the more it overtaxes perceptual and descriptive competencies. The new appears in two variants. First, it presents itself as a recombination of already existing and thus known elements—as a more or less continuous further development of the existing that pushes forward on the temporal axis into the future. The second variant is discontinuity—the break that brusquely underscores the contrasts to the existing and the ways that the new is different in thinking, seeing, doing, and living.

In the myths of origin—those ideas of the world and the forces reigning in it that almost all early societies developed— these two initial strands appear in the emergence of the new. Either the world and humanity begin with an act of creation (whoever the creator may be and whatever quality this act may have), or the myth of origin takes recourse to iterative processes that generate and regenerate themselves without a clear beginning. Today we are in the process of generating a third myth of origin—that of the scientiflc-technological civilization that constantly produces innovations out of itself. These come from unexpected scientiflc-technological breakthroughs or emerge as answers to societal demands for new solutions to problems. This scientiflc-technological myth of origin posits that the new beginning is constantly repeated and yet is different each time. The origin is the process of innovation itself, a process that has prerequisites but that, thanks to scientiflc-technological curios-ity, continues to create out of itself.

Despite the seemingly arbitrary setting of boundaries and distinction, the definition of the new is never random. The perception and the need to describe the new demand cutoffs and distinctions so that quantum jumps and marked transitions can be recognized. In this way, the new can be distinguished from what already exists and from what arises elsewhere. The different strands of conceiving the beginning are carried forward in the processes of continuity and discontinuity, which together constitute the interweaving of the texture of life. Although there is no compelling reason why evolution must increase complexity, this is what we observe in biology.5 The increase in complexity depends on a small number of large transitions in how genetic information is passed on between generations. Some of these transitions are unique, like the transition from the prokaryotes to the eukaryotes (now also called archaea and bacteria) and the emergence of the genetic code. Others, like the origin of multicellularity and animal societies, arise several times and independently of each other. There is no doubt that the evolutionary transition from ape to man correlates with an increase in cognitive faculties, which were again increased with the acquisition of speech competence. We already find among the primates a connection between the size of the brain and the complexity of the social system. The origin of language is still one of the most fascinating topics of research.

Similarly, the cultural machinery of innovation produced a number of marked transitions. They led to an increase in complexity, combined with an increase in social abilities to cope with the consequences—that is, to process them and turn them to productive use. Again and again, the flash of creativity manifesting itself individually or in small groups in art or science formed the basis for starting and crystallization points for innovations. In retrospect, the societal or economic conditions that led to heightened creativity can be reconstructed, but only very general statements about the emergence of creativity can be made.

With the beginning of the modern age, the production of the new was delegated primarily to one institution. Modern science appeared beside technology, which had long been inde-pendent of it. Since its institutionalization in the seventeenth century, science has specialized in the production of new knowledge and in discoveries. Combining different pieces of existing knowledge produces new knowledge the same way that putting together existing technological components leads to new technological inventions and ultimately to technological systems. Phenomena have long since been produced that do not appear in nature (most recently, synthetic genes). What nature organically shows us can be done is imitated with increasing success and inexorably helps open up invisible areas on the molecular level. What can be converted into information becomes information and can be accordingly processed. The convergent technologies based on successful connections among the bio-logical, informational, nano-, and cognitive sciences open up a broad field in which brain and matter, body and environment can interact in a controlled fashion. These and other transformations that spring from science and technology touch on humanity’s self-understanding as much as they change our social life together. The ensuing public debates oscillate between technical utopias and social dystopias. The first celebrate new possibilities of application and of applied knowledge and promise an arsenal of technological flxes for problems currently insoluble. The second point to the destabilizing potential that threatens human life together and that lament the loss of freedom and the delegation of responsibility to an electronically controlled world.

In the short period of the last three or four hundred years, a given, divinely created world transformed into a possible and enabling world whose discovery, invention, and recombination are owed to new ways of looking at things, technologies, and natural-scientiflc and technical mechanisms of explanation, access, and control. The myths still conveyed a certain idea of the world and its powers that promised security. They provided an image of the only possible world in which every sign and every unforeseen event could be interpreted to correspond with the overarching order and confirmed the corresponding view of the world. With the scientific interpretation of the world, the space of possibilities began expanding, and the possible world began multiplying. Here is where we find the development of the ambivalence so characteristic of modernity, which is expressed not only toward science and technology.

A concept of security and of a rationality promising security that is limited to a Cartesian viewpoint cannot keep pace with the multiplication and expansion of possibilities. Stephen Toulmin distinguishes between two forms of rationality. One is the Cartesian, which claims for itself a monopoly on knowledge and asserts that it knows the sole access through reason. The counterposition is represented by the enlightened skeptic Montaigne, who couples his belief in reason with skepticism, which is to be applied to both the questions and the answers. These two sides of rationality are two forms of reflexivity that stand in a field of tension in all modern societies. The point is thus not the confrontation between the Enlightenment and funda-mentalism—between the religious and the secular under-standing of the world—but a contradiction inherent in the Enlightenment itself. An exclusive monopoly on interpretation is claimed in the name of the natural sciences, against which stand other interpretative claims in the names of other complementary but also contradictory forms of knowledge.6 If the first, cool variant of reason still bets on a mostly deterministic reality solely reacting to “facts,” then the skeptical variant opens a space for the imagination and for a subjectively experienced reality that emotions and aesthetics help shape.

The “scientiflc method” that marks the natural-scientiflc monopoly on interpretation is, in reality, a bundle of extremely disparate methods, experimental and nonexperimental approaches that change and develop further over history. It provides precise, usually mathematically formalized possibilities of depiction and of controllable intervention and makes it possible to liberate the newly discovered or newly generated from the suspicion of being false or deviant. To speak with Luhmann, this is how the “true/false” code entered science. In a long-lasting process of emergence and reflning, the struggle was over the “facts,” which alone stood for reality, as described and explained by the natural sciences. The aim was to “cleanse” the facts to be able to put them on a solid foundation of proof that is stripped of their original context and thus generally valid. Only then could they be separated from “values”—from the wishes, feelings, and capacity to aspire that repeatedly threatened to contaminate the facts again.

Since the new is, on principle, open and includes every-thing that stimulates curiosity (which was increasingly conditioned and socialized and whose methods were refined), the scientiflc procedure seeks to continue posing questions. It does not primarily serve to solve problems but to develop them further. Grasping a problem—posing a question in a manner that makes it possible to tap new dimensions that take the problem further—is often considered the fruitful beginning of a new research program. The horizon of knowledge is as open as the horizon of the future. In this phase, the capacity to scientifically aspire takes its full effect. This is science in the making, the still open, preliminary process of research.

This principled attention and openness toward a realm of the possible, destined to be reduced to become actualized, aims to change the prior possible into the later factual. This also explains why scientiflc knowledge has the status of being provisional knowledge. Rational procedures that serve to test the various possibilities and that themselves are considered scientifically secured create certainties, but they remain reliable knowledge only for an indefinite period. The cultural dynamics of modern science are based on this movement forward. Opening a wide variety of possibilities begins their—temporary—selec-tion for probable or actual givens. Even these operations are never brought to a final conclusion. The dissolution of the visible world into its invisible components, which are made visible by the use of instruments and image-giving technologies, opens up another growing space of knowledge. Or as Luhmann says, “Dissolution and recombination are conducted as a unity, and this unity, as much as the comparison, is a condition for the appearance of new knowledge, i.e., for acquiring knowledge. It is thereby necessary to want what is at the same time unwanted: the increasing probability of uncontrollable recombinations.


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