26 January 2012

Who's there?

[With the claim that the self is like a waterfall, Julian] Baggini is trying to save the self from neuroscience, which is admirable considering that neuroscience continues to show how convoluted our brains are. I am not sure if he is successful – argument by metaphor can only go so far, empirical data wins at the end of the day.
-- so writes Sam McNerney. But Baggini's point may be sounder than McNerney allows. Nor is it particularly new. In A New Biology for a New Century (2004), Carl Woese writes:
Imagine a child playing in a woodland stream, poking a stick into an eddy in the flowing current, thereby disrupting it. But the eddy quickly reforms. The child disperses it again. Again it reforms, and the fascinating game goes on. There you have it! Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow.
It may be objected that a conscious self is an altogether different kind of thing from a non-conscious biological organism, but why?  Doesn't it make more sense to suggest that consciousness is, among other things, something like a light bulb on a dimmer switch: continuous from off through dim to bright?

John Keats wrote that he lived a life of allegory. However you take it, we are something like what Robert Sapolsky almost calls obligate metaphorists.

P.S. 30 Jan: See Self as Symbol by Tom Siegfried and Emblems of Awareness by Laura Sanders.

Setting aside any judgement on Rupert Sheldrake,  Mary Midgley is right when she writes: 'We need a new mind-body paradigm, a map that acknowledges the many kinds of things there are in the world and the continuity of evolution.'

25 January 2012

The eyes of Anomalocaris

...this magnificent animal, probably the first in the line of apex predators of these shallow seas, had a compound eye that, in many ways, resembled the eye of today’s dragonfly. Anomalocaris had perhaps as many as 16,000 hexagonal facets (individual units of the eye called ommatidia) in each eye and probably good vision.
--Ivan R Schwab

15 January 2012

On being and not being astonished

...Studying patients has taught us where memories might be stored, but not what physically constitutes a memory. The answer lies in the multitude of tiny modifiable connections between neuronal cells, the information-processing units of the brain. These cells, with their wispy tree-like protrusions, hang like stars in miniature galaxies and pulse with electrical charge. Thus, your memories are patterns inscribed in the connections between the millions of neurons in your brain. Each memory has its unique pattern of activity, logged in the vast cellular network every time a memory is formed...
-- from What are memories made of? by Hugo Spiers
...Perhaps it is not surprising that we do not live more surprised. After all, we are used to unlikelihood. Being born into it, raised in it, we become acclimated to the altitude, like natives in the Andes. Moreover, we all know that the astonishment is transient, and sooner or later our particles will go back to being random...
-- from On Probability and Possibility by Lewis Thomas

11 January 2012

'We have become, in a painful, unwished-for way, nature itself.'

The text of my book went to the copy editors a little while ago so it is basically done and dusted (bibliography, permissions for quotation and images, minor corrections notwithstanding). It will be published in October.

Looking over the final chapter yet one more time (and promped in part by an interview with Emma Marris at Chinadialogue), I turned thence to 'Natural Man' by Lewis Thomas, first published in The Lives of a Cell in 1974.   I think this essay, from which I quote in my final chapter (and which can be found online here) may be one of the wisest of recent decades.

image from Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs by Charles Darwin (1842)

9 January 2012

'Strange places fish live'

In bottoms, in trees, in hot water, inside females, in Hadal depths, in mouths, in deep sea vents, in shells, in the dark, in anemones, underground and in places that are not known more...

Soap, fertilizer, glycerin for blowing up soldiers, margarine

A. Remington Kellogg...was among the first to commission “vivisections” on porpoises even though, in his own words, “a live porpoise can be handled about as readily as a satchel of dynamite.” This did not deter the intrepid scientists who “fell to the unlovely task of restraining the furiously squealing animal in order first to expose the skull and then to saw into it to expose the brain.” When these operations were performed, Kellogg was witness to “a strangely large brain, one with elaborate patterns of convolution such as were generally thought to be more or less unique to human beings.”
-- from a review by Michael Greenberg of The Sounding of the Whale by D. Graham Burnett

8 January 2012

'Plankton chronicles'

A series of two minute films in high def. Good images and commentary.


Each species is like a book, the product of literally billions of years of editing and re-editing through the process of evolution, and each species has its own unique story to tell. These stories are all nonfiction, and more important, stories of survival, of navigating billions of years of persistence. These stories include the cures to many (if not all) human diseases. They include instructions for converting sunlight into stored chemical energy with near-perfect efficiency. But the most important stories are the ones we have not yet imagined.
-- Richard L. Pyle

7 January 2012


The consumption of animals such as whales, dolphins and manatees is on the rise in poor nations. Declines in coastal fish catches have led people to look for other sources of meat...
Cetaceans are making their way to dinner plates as other protein sources are dwindling in coastal areas of west Africa, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines and Burma. From 1970 to 2009, at least 92 species of cetaceans were eaten by humans.
- report, paper.

1 January 2012

You, robot

2012 is the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the second world war code-breaker who dreamed up the test in 1950 while pondering the notion of a thinking machine, so expect a flurry of competitions in his honour. Bear in mind, though, that the Turing test is a poor gauge for today's AIs. For one thing, the test's demand that a program capture the nuances of human speech makes it too hard. At the same time, it is too narrow: with bots influencing the stock market, landing planes and poised to start driving cars, why focus only on linguistic smarts? One alternative is a suite of mini Turing tests each designed to evaluate machine intelligence in a specific arena. For example, a newly created visual Turing test assesses a bot's ability to understand the spatial relationships between objects in an image against that of a human. Others want to stop using humans as the benchmark. Using a universal, mathematical definition of intelligence, it could soon be possible to score people and computers on a scale untainted by human bias. Such universal tests should even be able to spot a bot that is far smarter than a human.
-- Paul Marks