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Mar
27th
Wed
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The generic human need to make and listen to music, for instance, might be explained at the level of evolutionary psychology, but the emergence of the classical symphony certainly cannot. In fact, the insistence on finding explanations of cultural difference in terms of biological evolution exactly misses the point of the great evolutionary innovation represented by Homo sapiens, the massive development of non-genetic learning.
Bernard Williams, English moral philosopher, described by The Times as the “most brilliant and most important British moral philosopher of his time.” (1929-2003), Truth and Truthfulness, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 28.
Apr
2nd
Mon
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George Dyson: Unravelling the digital code

“We now live in a world (…) increasingly run by self-replicating strings of code. Everything we love and use today is, in a lot of ways, self-reproducing exactly as Turing, von Neumann, and Barricelli prescribed. It’s a very symbiotic relationship: the same way life found a way to use the self-replicating qualities of these polynucleotide molecules to the great benefit of life as a whole, there’s no reason life won’t use the self-replicating abilities of digital code, and that’s what’s happening. (…)

In 1945 we actually did create a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own, that we only see in terms of what those numbers can do for us. (…) And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality. (…)

But it was Turing who developed the one-dimensional model, and von Neumann who developed the two-dimensional implementation, for this increasingly three-dimensional digital universe in which everything we do is immersed. And so, the next breakthrough in understanding will also I think come from some oddball. It won’t be one of our great, known scientists. It’ll be some 22-year-old kid somewhere who makes more sense of this. (…)

We’re seeing a fraction of one percent of it, and there’s this other 99.99 percent that people just aren’t looking at. (…)

I think they [Turing & von Neumann] would be immediately fascinated by the way biological code and digital code are now intertwined. Von Neumann’s consuming passion at the end was self-reproducing automata. And Alan Turing was interested in the question of how molecules could self-organize to produce organisms. (…) They would be amazed by the direct connection between the code running on computers and the code running in biology—that all these biotech companies are directly reading and writing nucleotide sequences in and out of electronic memory, with almost no human intervention. That’s more or less completely mechanized now, so there’s direct translation, and once you translate to nucleotides, it’s a small step, a difficult step, but, an inevitable step to translate directly to proteins. And that’s Craig Venter’s world, and it’s a very, very different world when we get there.” “
George Dyson, author and historian of technology whose publications broadly cover the evolution of technology in relation to the physical environment and the direction of society, ☞ Science historian George Dyson: Unravelling the digital codeEdge, Mar 26, 2012 
Jan
12th
Thu
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Our Selves, Other Cells. Baby’s cells can live a lifetime in mother’s heart and mind

“Is it any solace to sentimental mothers that their babies will always be part of them?

I’m not talking about emotional bonds, which we can only hope will endure. I mean that for any woman that has ever been pregnant, some of her baby’s cells may circulate in her bloodstream for as long as she lives. Those cells often take residence in her lungs, spinal cord, skin, thyroid gland, liver, intestine, cervix, gallbladder, spleen, lymph nodes, and blood vessels. And, yes, the baby’s cells can also live a lifetime in her heart and mind. (…)

How many people have left their DNA in us? Any baby we’ve ever conceived, even ones we’ve miscarried unknowingly. Sons leave their Y chromosome genes in their mothers. The fetal cells from each pregnancy, flowing in a mother’s bloodstream, can be passed on to her successive kids. If we have an older sibling, that older sibling’s cells may be in us. The baby in a large family may harbor the genes of many brothers and sisters. My mother’s cells are in my body, and so are my daughter’s cells, and half my daughter’s DNA comes from her dad. Some of those cells may be in my brain. This is squirm-worthy.

But there’s something beautiful about this too. Long post postpartum, we mothers continue to carry our children, at least in a sense. Our babies become part of us, just as we are a part of them. The barriers have broken down; the lines are no longer fixed. Moms must be many in one.” “
Dec
27th
Tue
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We are all a complete mixture; yet at the same time, we are all related. Each gene can trace its own journey to a different common ancestor. This is a quite extraordinary legacy that we all have inherited from the people who lived before us. Our genes did not just appear when we were born. They have been carried to us by millions of individual lives over thousands of generations.
Bryan Sykes, a former Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford and a current Fellow of Wolfson College, The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, 2001
Nov
2nd
Wed
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The Glory of Big Data: We enter an era in which digital data merges with biology

“The amount of data available to us is increasingly vast. In 2010 we played, swam, wallowed, and drowned in 1.2 zettabytes of the stuff, and in 2011 the volume is predicted to continue along its exponential growth curve to 1.8 zettabytes. (A zettabyte is a trillion gigabytes; that’s a 1 with 21 zeros trailing behind it.) (…)

Big Data is about to get much, much bigger, as we enter an era in which digital data merges with biology. This synthesis of codes takes the abstract world of digits and brings it back into the physical world. We of course know quite a bit about how life is expressed—in the four letters of DNA, in more than 20 amino acids, in thousands of proteins. (…)

In this new era—the transition from digital code to digital-plus-life code—the capacity to generate data exceeds our capacity to store and process it. In fact, life code is accumulating at a rate 50 percent faster than Moore’s Law, it at least doubles every 12 months. Without extraordinary advances in data storage, transmission and analysis, within the next five years we may simply be unable to keep up. (…)

Programmable cell platforms are like computer chips. They could eventually be designed to help create or do anything, if you figure out the right code for what you wish to make. (…)

Life programming may also solve the problem of how to store gargantuan data sets. All digital data can be coded into life-forms, and all life-forms can be coded as digital data. In theory, this means you could eventually store, and copy, all the words and images from every issue of the New York Times in the gene code of a few bacteria.” “
Juan Enriquez, the founding director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School and a fellow at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, The Glory of Big Data, PopSci, Oct 31, 2011
Sep
8th
Thu
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Subtle rearrangements along its tiny, ancient [DNA] spiral will produce the majesty of a strolling sauropod 20 meters high, and also the delicate gem of an iridescent green dragonfly, and the frozen immaculacy of a white orchid petal, and of course the intricacies of the human mind. All from such a tiny semi-crystal.
Kevin Kelly, writer, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, What Technology Wants, New York: Viking, The Penguin Group, 2010 See also: ☞ Kevin Kelly on Technology, or the Evolution of Evolution
May
27th
Fri
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Samuel Barondes: Lives = Stories

“Our lives are lived as stories
Though their intrapsychic actors
May play from scripts whose scripting comes
From key genetic factors;
Our lives are understandable
In terms of mental rules
Though they respond, like puppets,
To brain protein molecules.” “
Samuel Barondes, Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; Author, Better than Prozac, answering the question ‘What is your formula? Your equation, algorithm? in Formulae for the 21st century, Edge, Oct 13, 2007
Apr
2nd
Sat
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Of course genes can’t pull the levers of our behavior directly. But they affect the wiring and workings of the brain, and the brain is the seat of our drives, temperaments and patterns of thought. Each of us is dealt a unique hand of tastes and aptitudes, like curiosity, ambition, empathy, a thirst for novelty or for security, a comfort level with the social or the mechanical or the abstract. Some opportunities we come across click with our constitutions and set us along a path in life.
Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and author of popular science writings
Feb
15th
Tue
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Disassemble the cells of a sponge (by passing them through a sieve, for instance), then dump them into a solution, and they will find their way back together and build themselves into a sponge again. You can do this to them over and over, and they will doggedly reassemble because, like you and me and every other living thing, they have one overwhelming impulse: to continue to be.
Feb
8th
Tue
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Mary Midgley on the selfish metaphor: conceits of evolution

As biologist and complexity theorist Brian Goodwin suggested in 1991: “Humans are “every bit as co-operative as we are competitive; as altruistic as we are selfish… These are not romantic yearnings and Utopian ideals, they arise from a rethinking of our nature that is emerging from the sciences of complexity”. (…)

From the merest glance at a wider context, it becomes clear that competition cannot be the ultimate human reality, still less (as philosopher Daniel Dennett argued) the central creative force behind the universe. Entities complex enough to compete cannot exist at all without much internal cooperation. To create cells, organelles must combine; to create armies, soldiers must organise. Even the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out on the 30th anniversary of publication of his iconic book, The Selfish Gene, that genes are actually cooperative rather than egoistic. (…)

Charles Darwin actually hated much of it, flatly rejecting the crude, direct application of natural selection to social policies. In The Descent Of Man he insisted that humans are a deeply social species whose values cannot be derived from selfish calculation. (…)

Now the old metaphors of evolution need to give way to new ones founded on integrative thinking - reasoning based on systems thinking. This way, the work of evolution can be seen as intelligible and constructive, not as a gamble driven randomly by the forces of competition. And if non-competitive imagery is needed, systems biologist Denis Noble has a good go at it in The Music Of Life, where he points out how natural development, not being a car, needs no single “driver” to direct it. Symphonies, he remarks, are not caused only by a single dominant instrument nor, indeed, solely by their composer. And developing organisms do not even need a composer: they grow, as wholes, out of vast and ancient systems which are themselves parts of nature.” “
Mary Midgley, The selfish metaphor: Conceits of evolution, New Scientist, 31 January 2011
Nov
23rd
Tue
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There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing—for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. There is something like an ancient wisdom, encoded and tucked away in our DNA, that knows its point of origin as surely as a salmonid knows its creek. Intellectually, we may not want to return there, but the genes know, and long for their origins—their home in the salty depths. But if the seas are our immediate source, the penultimate source is certainly the heavens… The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.
Jerry Waxman, professor of astronomy and environmental science at SRJC (tnx isitpossible)
Oct
12th
Tue
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Richard Dawkins on expanding our concept of the individual

“To return to the analogy of the Necker Cube, the mental flip that I want to encourage can be characterized as follows. We look at life and begin by seeing a collection of interacting individual organisms. We know that they contain smaller units, and we know that they are, in turn, parts of larger composite units, but we fix our gaze on the whole organisms. Then suddenly the image flips. The individual bodies are still there; they have not moved, but they seem to have gone transparent. We see through them to the replicating fragments of DNA within, and we see the wider world as an arena in which these genetic fragments play out their tournaments of manipulative skill. Genes manipulate the world and shape it to assist their replication. It happens that they have ‘chosen’ to do so largely by moulding matter into large multicellular chunks which we call organisms, but this might not have been so. Fundamentally, what is going on is that replicating molecules ensure their survival by means of phenotypic effects on the world. It is only incidentally true that those phenotypic effects happen to be packaged up into units called individual organisms.

We do not at present appreciate the organism for the remarkable phenomenon that it is. We are accustomed to asking, of any widespread biological phenomenon, ‘What is its survival value?’ But we do not say, ‘What is the survival value of packaging life up into discrete units called organisms?’ We accept it as a given feature of the way life is. As I have already noted, the organism becomes the automatic subject of our questions about the survival value of other things: ‘In what way does this behaviour pattern benefit the individual doing it? In what way does this morphological structure benefit the individual it is attached to?’

It has become a kind of ‘central theorem’ of modern ethology that organisms are expected to behave in such a way as to benefit their own inclusive fitness, rather than to benefit anyone, or anything, else. We do not ask in what way the behaviour of the left hind leg benefits the left hind leg. Nor, nowadays, do most of us ask how the behaviour of a group of organisms, or the structure of an ecosystem, benefits that group or ecosystem. We treat groups and ecosystems as collections of warring, or uneasily cohabiting, organisms; and we treat legs, kidneys, and cells as cooperating components of a single organism. I am not necessarily objecting to this focus of attention on individual organisms, merely calling attention to it as something that we take for granted. Perhaps we should stop taking it for granted and start wondering about the individual organism, as something that needs explaining in its own right, just as we found sexual reproduction to be something that needs explaining in its own right.”

Oct
3rd
Sun
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Stanislaw Lem on genetic code as the language in which organisms speak to each other

“There exist, speaking in the most general way, two kinds of language known to us. There are ordinary languages, which man makes use of – and the languages not made by man. In such language organisms speak to organisms. I have in mind the so called genetic code. This code is not a variety of natural language, because it not only contains information about the structure of the organism, but also is able, by itself, to transform that information into the very organism. The code, then, is acultural… Now to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an ‘acultural language’ is something more or less like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-itself’. One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing.” “
Stanislaw Lem, in “His Master’s Voice” by Daniel Rourke (tnx 3quarksdaily)
Aug
29th
Sun
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Antonio Damasio on consciousness

“All the natural history required to understand consciousness is now readily available in evolutionary biology and psychology.
Gene networks organize themselves to produce complex organisms whose brains permit behavior; further evolution enriches the complexity of those brains so that they can create sensory and motor maps that represent the environments they interact with; additional evolutionary complexity allows parts of the brain to talk to each other (figuratively speaking) and generate maps of the organism interacting with its environment. Within the frame of those interactions, the conversation among the maps spontaneously and continuously tells the “story” of our organism responding to and being modified by the environment. (The story is first told without words and is later translated into language when language becomes available, both in biological evolution and in every one of us.)

This natural knowledge amounts to the emergence of a basic self, and its presence changes the status of the brain’s sensorimotor maps from nonconscious mental patterns to that of conscious mental images. Constructed knowledge is a solution to the problem of consciousness. It does not require a homunculus in the control room of the mind and is not scientifically harder to imagine than the long march from genes to culture.” “
Jun
27th
Sat
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We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.
Richard Dawkins, British ethologist and evolutionary biologist