Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

    Keywords: Theory

Imagist: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, also known as [ext] Recapitulation Theory is an early evolutionary theory from biology. Although the absolute form of the theory has been discredited, it introduces an interesting concept in relation to go.

The basic idea of recapitulation theory is that the development of an organism from its conception to adulthood (ontogeny) mirrors the evolutionary development of the species to as a whole (phylogeny). For example, in the womb, a fetus might start out as a single cell, then grow, going through stages where it has characteristics of a first a fish, then an amphibian, a reptile, a primitive mammal and finally, by the time it is born, become a human baby. Similarly, according to the evolutionary theory, the human species starts out as single celled organisms, developed into fish, then amphibians, then reptiles, and eventually became the mammals we are today.

So what does this have to do with go? Well, just as the development of a human fetus was once believed to mirror the development of the human species, the mental growth of a single go player might mirror the mental growth of go players as a whole. It makes sense that the concepts of go which are easiest to understand would be discovered first, while more difficult concepts would be discovered later.

I have found little information on the conceptual development of go. Most sources on go's history focus on the players of an era rather than its innovations. Jared's pages have some information, such as the earliest use of the nirensei. However, even from a vague knowledge of the conceptual history of go, one can find some examples. Even a beginner can understand the concept of territory, and territory is all that early players considered, while the more obscure ideas of thickness and influence were not thoroughly explored until the shinfuseki era.

The implications of this are that the easiest way to learn go is in the order in which it was developed. If this is true, beginners should focus on tactical and territorial play like that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Intermediate players should focus on full-board thinking that emphasizes speed and influence, just as in the shinfuseki era and the following few generations. Advanced players should play in the belligerent fighting style that characterizes the modern dominance of Korea in the international go scene.

I can also find evidence of this in my own play. Right now I would guess that I am developmentally somewhere around 1935; I'm just starting to try out influence, but still too inexperienced to use it comfortably. I have tried to change to a more violent style, but I have found that intense fighting requires a basis in an understanding of influence that I don't have.

Maybe players who are farther along the road to enlightenment will find this humorous, but it's at least an interesting idea to consider.


Bill: Maybe there was a phase before the emphasis on territory where the emphasis was more on fighting. I have not seen much before the 17th century, but there are examples of fighting breaking out in the center early in the game. Remember that go was played with setup stones on the four corner star points, and that setup did not encourage territorial play. I think that maybe the emphasis on territory came about with the Japanese opening on the 3-4 points. Maybe beginners should fight like hell. I think that's better than timidly going for territory and never learning what you are doing wrong.

QWerner: According to Konrad Lorentz, the knowledge belong to humans the same as the gens. But in contrast to the gens, knowledge is more flexible. A junger person can theach an older person. (The junger person can be the father of the older one). So may be it could help to understand influence ect.better/easier by studing modern fighting style.

xela: Yes, I find these ideas very interesting. Since I bought my own GoGoD, I've been spending a lot of time looking at "old" games. Of course, I don't understand a lot of what I see, but some impressions:

In China in the 16th century and earlier, the emphasis is almost entirely on trying to kill the opponent's stones! Despite the starting position with stones on all four 4-4 points, there is little use of influence as I recognise it, and the board tends to break up into lots of little fights. My play got worse for a little while when I started looking at these games (I suddenly found myself playing unreasonable cuts), but maybe it has done me good in the long term.

I think Dosaku knew about influence, and there are certainly games in which he makes a lot of territory in the centre: but this seems to happen late in the game as a result of middle-game fighting, rather than as a consistent plan carried out from the opening. It looks to me like a magic trick: I think he's losing, and then suddenly 30 points materialise in the centre.

In the early nineteenth century, I don't see a consistent pattern. I was surprised at how different, for example, the styles of Shusaku and Jowa are. I guess Shusaku tends to get more attention in English language writing, so maybe we see that as "normal".

I don't think the idea of building a large framework as we see it now really existed before the 1870s. For example, the space in front of a shimari wasn't seen as important, and there are plenty of games in which people play in other directions first and ignore what we now see as obviously big points. I mean this sort of thing:

19x19 diagram  

You would expect a to be the biggest point on the board, yes?

I haven't got up to the time of Go Seigen yet, but I will follow your ideas with great interest, and hope to learn more!

Dieter: I do not believe that territory is the earliest concept in Go, while thickness and influence are obscurer concepts only used in 20th century Go. I'm not going to rewrite my ideas on Go Theory here, but the natural concept of living stones must have come first, territory being a derived concept, just like strength (which I like better than thickness, a convoluted term) and influence. I have no evidence for this belief, only the strong feeling that this beautiful, simple, ancient game cannot have been born around the notion of territory but something much more basic, closer to the simple rules.

Paradoxically, the concepts a (Western) beginner understands most easily, are not the ones which are taught to him first. During the Japanese hegemony, the development of the game has been so thorough and deep, that they've intellectually risen a level. The beauty of omission in their culture has gone in favour of territory as a central concept. So I do believe that your foetus comparison works: what becomes central in the game's culture is taught first to the beginner. Unfortunately, when bringing the game to virgin ground, no fertile soil existed for these concepts to mature and Western players therefore struggle endlessly with the essence of the game. Which is why I believe it is far better to teach beginners right from the basics, as is outlined in my theory page, largely based on Minue's pages. It is only when they have grasped the essence of life, and how a game evolves about the life of stones, that they can rise to concepts like territory and strength, then influence.

Yes, I fully second your paradigm, only I believe that the idea that territory was developed first, is wrong.

Bill: On rec.games.go a while ago I developed the idea that the concept of territory (understood as including prisoners) could emerge from no pass go with prisoner return. (That concept of territory does not include the points necessary for life, and, hence, covers a group tax.) Who knows what the original form of go was, but the fact that the oldest known form was territory scoring with a group tax is in line with the suggestion that there was an earlier form that counted prisoners.

Anyway, the basic idea of go, upon which all else rests, seems to be that of capture, and upon that is built immunity from capture, and upon that, territory. That is one reason that I now look favorably upon the capture game for teaching beginners. Interestingly, immunity from capture and territory are derivable from it, too, in its no pass form.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny last edited by on May 30, 2023 - 20:38
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