Bernd Rosslenbroich

Act Autonomously to Create Playfully. – Interview with Evolutionary Biologist Bernd Rosslenbroich

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Bernd Rosslenbroich is the head of the Institution for Evolutionary Biology at the private university, Witten/Herdecke. In his book “On the Origin of Autonomy”, Rosslenbroich considers the big changes where evolution is not only the adaption of environmental conditions, but an interaction and exchange between organism and environment.

This point of view promised to be an especially fascinating talk, because Rosslenbroich considers playful procedures to be an important component for flexibility  and autonomy. To him it is consistent and obvious that higher developed organisms begin to play: “An evolutionary research that concentrates on adaption can hardly explain such a circumstance as evolution because playing doesn’t have any evolutionary value. At this point we can only observe the games humans play and find that they play excessively and children play markedly more so. If that thought is being continued, a certain creativity is made visible. Flexible acts are being practised and not a precise behaviour, a variety of behavioral possibilities are being rehearsed.

Flexibility itself is being learned and that’s creativity. This characterises the human eminently. We have degrees of freedom that we train while playing. That’s why the game is very valuable in our society and especially for our children. “What characterizes children and their play is mainly curiosity and the urge to try new things. A natural process that perhaps grown-ups would call an experiment or trial and error. Because in the end the experiment is a playful way to explore or create something new.”

Accordingly, Rosslenbroich understands experimentation as taking up and pursuing the biological possibilities to improve the ability to perform culturally. Still we shouldn’t mix culture and biology in an unacceptable way, and “draw it down into a cheap biologism.” But yet our biological organization gives the humans their requirements. “Here I mean the variety of the behavioral possibilities, including the movement abilities to then capture it culturally, to transform it and to carry it on into something independent.”

It’s those two pages: biology and culture that are related. In this context another aspect is quite important to Rosslenbroich: “the coherence between brain and body is much stronger than we think. The brain doesn’t only direct the body, but their cohesion creates our behavioural possibilities. If the highly flexible gets summarized, the game gains meaning, especially the cohesion of brain, game, and body. (…) If we want to plan intellectual games then we need these premises which cannot only be learned intellectually but also due to movement. Figuratively that’s why we say that we have to ‘play something through’. If we take this topic of development seriously, we have to say that mental creativity emerges due to movement games.”  

The biologist also thinks that within evolution, autonomy increases steadily. Like other scientists, he rejects mere deterministic attempts of explanation: “for a long time I had the suspicion that genes could be handled much more flexibly. The neurological determinism would be determined in our neurons because of the molecular processes is interpreted and not true. (…) A determinism is also being constructed, we are adapted to the situation of the Ice Age. Because of what? Evolution has gone on since then, we are people capable of culture, why should we be limited to something backward? All those determinisms can be dissolved with the idea of autonomy”, he explained. He sees the connection between autonomy and adaptation as follows: “autonomy here means, that organisms can develop more and more independence and can control themselves better and better. So development is sort of a dialogue between organism and environment and an alternation between autonomy and passive adaptation. Every organism therefore forms a different degree of autonomy. Normally, a distinct autonomy can be ascertained within flexible and intelligent organisms because they have a stronger exchange with their environment. Therefore, they develop a much more intense perception.”

We don’t have difficulties recognizing parallels between the statements of the biologist and the artistic creative process, because it’s exactly those perceptions that make the difference in (playful) creative processes. Admittedly Rosslenbroich would never expand his perceptions under scientific standards onto the organisational context. But he can also see some parallels: he knows strict hierarchies and power games as classic suppression instruments of autonomy in scientific organizational structures. In his time as a researcher in the United States, he experienced collaboration in scientific institutions completely differently, it was a “cooperation on the same level, while in Germany there exists still more of a hierarchy, that can block many things.” A positive way also for the economy could look like this: “I imagine various individuals in a company that possess autonomy, the individuals now stand there with their own personal autonomy, but are also included in company affairs. The question occurs if employees are able to live a certain amount of autonomy or if they have to fit into the regulations of the institution completely. Also you can’t only be autonomous. If that would happen everybody would do whatever they wanted and that doesn’t work either. A little adaptation is necessary. That’s exactly what we see in biology. Living only works between autonomy and adaptation. It’s all about balance. Living can only have a relative autonomy. Now, is a firm able to use the relative autonomy of its employees or does it expect the complete adjustment? Of course, there are several individual differences, but surely it would be mostly suggestive if the different autonomies could be acted out to a certain extent. A certain respect for the autonomy of the other is important too. Psychology nowadays knows that people suffer under heteronomy that is too strong and can even get sick. I assume, that this will even increase, because people more and more develop personal autonomy. The modern world of work will have to deal with that, but not as a burden, but as a potential.”

What Rosslenbroich says about the organism and for the individual could, one supposes, therefore apply for whole groups as well: The more complex challenges are, and the more dynamic an environment that develops, the more autonomy is desirable. Without  room for maneuvering, on the other hand, the individual and the entire organization are under pressure. “If I imagine a firm, that from one year to another only appreciates the increasing sales figures and therefore doesn’t have any playful relation to these numbers they would probably not figure out that it won’t continue like that forever. In biology we see that a steady increase leads to a tumor. So, if one focuses on sales figures only, one will lose the sight of the results. Developing a playful relationship and being able to let loose, to even observe it from a higher perspective, one could maybe even be more successful in the long term. To a biologist it sounds very weird, if it’s talked about as a steady increase and that holds for the whole economy. I would really like to get that explained from an economist once, why our economy is meant for steady increase only. Steady increase leads to a tumor, to a collision. And we are already heading towards a collision, if one looks at the ecological catastrophe, that is actually happening at the moment and is very severe. Climate change and environmental pollution should be considered in the financials as well, otherwise it’s heading to a collision. To get a playful relation towards the increase and to believe in something else would be a nice concept for once.”

Please access the full interview here (German only).

Interview: Dirk Dobiéy
Blog Post: Adina Asbeck
Picture Source: Bernd Rosslenbroich

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