LIFE

THE ADJACENT POSSIBLE

[11.9.03]

An autonomous agent is something that can both reproduce itself and do at least one thermodynamic work cycle. It turns out that this is true of all free-living cells, excepting weird special cases. They all do work cycles, just like the bacterium spinning its flagellum as it swims up the glucose gradient. The cells in your body are busy doing work cycles all the time.

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Introduction

Stuart Kauffman is a theoretical biologist who studies the origin of life and the origins of molecular organization. Thirty- five years ago, he developed the Kauffman models, which are random networks exhibiting a kind of self-organization that he terms "order for free." Kauffman is not easy. His models are rigorous, mathematical, and, to many of his colleagues, somewhat difficult to understand. A key to his worldview is the notion that convergent rather than divergent flow plays the deciding role in the evolution of life. He believes that the complex systems best able to adapt are those poised on the border between chaos and disorder.

Kauffman asks a question that goes beyond those asked by other evolutionary theorists: if selection is operating all the time, how do we build a theory that combines self-organization (order for free) and selection? The answer lies in a "new" biology, somewhat similar to that proposed by Brian Goodwin, in which natural selection is married to structuralism.

Lately, Kauffman says that he has been "hamstrung by the fact that I don't see how you can see ahead of time what the variables will be. You begin science by stating the configuration space. You know the variables, you know the laws, you know the forces, and the whole question is, how does the thing work in that space? If you can't see ahead of time what the variables are, the microscopic variables for example for the biosphere, how do you get started on the job of an integrated theory? I don't know how to do that. I understand what the paleontologists do, but they're dealing with the past. How do we get started on something where we could talk about the future of a biosphere?"

"There is a chance that there are general laws. I've thought about four of them. One of them says that autonomous agents have to live the most complex game that they can. The second has to do with the construction of ecosystems. The third has to do with Per Bak's self-organized criticality in ecosystems. And the fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it. There's a lot of neat science to be done to unpack that, and I'm thinking about it."

—JB

STUART A. KAUFFMAN, a theoretical biologist, is emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, a MacArthur Fellow and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Dr. Kauffman was the founding general partner and chief scientific officer of The Bios Group, a company (acquired in 2003 by NuTech Solutions) that applies the science of complexity to business management problems. He is the author of The Origins of Order, Investigations, and At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization.

Stuart Kauffman's Edge Bio Page


THE GENOME CHANGES EVERYTHING

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79463916

"The substance of what I'm interested in is that it's the genes that are related to behavior, and how they work. The big insight is that genes are the agents of nurture as well as nature. Experience is a huge part of a developing human brain, the human mind, and a human organism. We need to develop in a social world and get things in from the outside. It's enormously important to the development of human nature. You can't describe human nature without it.

THE GENOME CHANGES EVERYTHING

[6.16.03]

The substance of what I'm interested in is that it's the genes that are related to behavior, and how they work. The big insight is that genes are the agents of nurture as well as nature. Experience is a huge part of a developing human brain, the human mind, and a human organism. We need to develop in a social world and get things in from the outside. It's enormously important to the development of human nature. You can't describe human nature without it. But that process is itself genetic, in the sense that there are genes in there designed to get the experience out of the world and into the organism. In the human case you're going to have genes that set up systems for learning that are not going to be present in other animals, language being the classic example. Language is something that in every sense is a genetic instinct. There's no question that human beings, unless they're unlucky and have a genetic mutation, inherit a capacity for learning language. That capacity is simply not inherited in anything like the same degree by a chimpanzee or a dolphin or any other creature. But you don't inherit the language; you inherit the capacity for learning the language from the environment.

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Introduction

"For the first time in four billion years," says Matt Ridley, "a species on this planet has read its own recipe, or is in the process of reading its own recipe. That seems to me to be an epochal moment, because we're going to get depths of insight into the nature of human nature that we never could have imagined, and that will dwarf anything that philosophers and indeed scientists have managed to produce in the last two millennia."

Ridley is an original thinker with deep insights who is in the top ranks of people writing about science. He also happens to be an English aristocrat who lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in a stately home on beautiful grounds. He embodies the best of that English tradition in that he uses his prestige, influence and his resources in the interests of science. Such patronage, and I use the term in the good sense, includes founding, and serving as chairman of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s science park and visitor centre devoted to life science. The centre is highly regarded for its serious research in genetics.

—JB

MATT RIDLEY'S 23 pairs of chromosomes, together with a doctorate form Oxford University, equipped him for a career as a science journalist with The Economist and the Daily Telegraph. His books include Nature Via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human; Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature; Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters; Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation; and editor of The Best American Science Writing 2002.

Matt Ridley's Edge Bio page

He is chairman of the International Centre for Life, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s science park and visitor centre devoted to life science. He has ingeniously combined his chromosomes with those of his wife, the neuroscientist Dr Anya Hurlbert, to produce two entirely new human beings. His books have been shortlisted for six literary awards. He has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist. He is also a visiting professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.


Matt Ridley presents his latest book: Nature Via Nurture

Human nature is indeed a combination of Darwin's universals, Galton's heredity, James's instincts, De Vries's genes, Pavlov's reflexes, Watson's associations, Kraepelin's history, Freud's formative experience, Boas's culture, Durkheim's division of labor, Piaget's development, and Lorenz's imprinting. You can find all these things going on in the human mind. No account of human nature would be complete without them all .... But—and here is where I begin to tread new ground—it is entirely misleading to place these phenomena on a spectrum from nature to nurture, from genetic to environmental. Instead, to understand each and every one of them, you need to understand genes. It is genes that allow the human mind to learn, to remember, to imitate, to imprint, to absorb culture, and to express instincts. Genes are not puppet masters or blueprints. Nor are they just the carriers of heredity. They are active during life; they switch each other on and off; they respond to the environment. They may direct the construction of the body and brain in the womb, but then they set about dismantling and rebuilding what they have made almost at once—in response to experience. They are both cause and consequence of our actions. Somehow the adherents of the "nurture" side of the argument have scared themselves silly at the power and inevitability of genes and missed the greatest lesson of all: the genes are on their side.


A BOZO OF A BABOON

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79464542

"For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important—balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system.

A BOZO OF A BABOON

[6.2.03]

For the humans who would like to know what it takes to be an alpha man—if I were 25 and asked that question I would certainly say competitive prowess is important—balls, translated into the more abstractly demanding social realm of humans. What's clear to me now at 45 is, screw the alpha male stuff. Go for an alternative strategy. Go for the social affiliation, build relationships with females, don't waste your time trying to figure out how to be the most adept socially cagy male-male competitor. Amazingly enough that's not what pays off in that system. Go for the affiliative stuff and bypass the male crap. I could not have said that when I was 25.

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Introduction

While an undergraduate at Harvard, Robert Sapolsky asked himself: "Am I a neurobiologist? Am I a zoologist?" He has spent the past 25 years reconciling his interest in being a lab scientist using "a very reductive approach to figure out how the brain works" with his work in figuring out primate physiology and social behavior in East Africa.

These areas come together in his thesis that "moral development is very heavily built around...the frontal cortex". According to Sapolsky, this is "the part of the brain that keeps us from belching loudly during the wedding ceremony, or telling somebody exactly what we think of the meal they made, or being a serial murderer. It's the part of the brain that controls impulsivity, that accepts the postponement of gratification, that does constraint and anticipation, and that makes you work hard because you will get into an amazing nursing home one day if you just keep pushing hard enough. It's all about this very human realm of holding off for later". 

His ideas run counter to what he terms "a dogma of neural development... that by the time you're a couple of years old, you have your maximal number of neurons, and all of them are wired up and functioning". He maintains that "we make new neurons throughout life, and parts of the brain don't come fully on line until later. And, amazingly, the last area to do so is the frontal cortex, not until around age 30 or so. It's the last part of the brain to develop, and thus it's the part whose development is most subject to experience, environment, reinforcement, and the social world around you. That is incredibly interesting."

So what does this have to do with "a wonderful guy I named Benjamin. A total Bozo of a baboon"? Read on....

—JB

ROBERT SAPOLSKY is a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University and of neurology at Stanford's School of Medicine. He is also a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya. While his primary research, on stress and neurological disease, is in the laboratory, for twenty-three years he has made annual trips to the Serengeti of East Africa to study a population of wild baboons and the relationship between personality and patterns of stress-related disease in these animals. His latest book, A Primate's Memoir, grew out of the years spent in Africa. He is also the author of Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death, and two books for nonscientists, The Trouble With Testosterone and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping.

Robert Sapolsky's Edge Bio Page


A UNITED BIOLOGY

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79466105

"We're beginning to get some revolutionary new ideas about how social behavior originated, and also how to construct a superorganism. If we can define a set of assembly rules for superorganisms then we have a model system for how to construct an organism. How do you put an ant colony together? You start with a queen ant, which digs a hole in the ground, starts laying eggs, and goes through a series of operations that raise the first brood.

A UNITED BIOLOGY

[5.26.03]

We're beginning to get some revolutionary new ideas about how social behavior originated, and also how to construct a superorganism. If we can define a set of assembly rules for superorganisms then we have a model system for how to construct an organism. How do you put an ant colony together? You start with a queen ant, which digs a hole in the ground, starts laying eggs, and goes through a series of operations that raise the first brood. The first brood then goes through a series of operations to breed more workers, and before long you've got soldier ants, worker ants, and foragers, and you've got a teeming colony. That's because they follow a series of genetically prescribed rules of interaction, behavior, and physical development. If we can fully understand how a superorganism is put together, we'll come much closer to general principles of how an organism is put together. There are two different levels—the cells put together to make an organism, organisms put together to make a superorganism. Right now I'm examining what we know to see if there are rules of how superorganisms are put together.

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Introduction by Steven Pinker

Fifty years ago the molecular structure of DNA was discovered and a new academic specialty came into existence. Though it was called "molecular biology," it was very different from the field that traditionally was called biology and that most people think of when they hear the word. Today the split is so pervasive that many universities have separate departments for molecular biology and traditional kind, which the molecular types denigrate as "birdsy-woodsy" biology.

Today no one personifies traditional biology more than E. O. Wilson. For more than 45 years he has fought to unify it, revitalize it, and keep it in the public eye. The public may think of "ecology" as a romantic movement to save charismatic mammals, but it was Wilson's pioneering studies of island biogeography that helped to make it a rigorous science. Most people today consider it obvious that humans have a nature as well as a history, and that the study of our species cannot be conducted in ignorance of evolutionary biology. But it was far from obvious when Wilson first advocated that idea in 1975, at considerable personal cost. Nor should it be shocking to think that all human knowledge is connected in a single web of explanation, but it took Wilson to give this idea a name—consilience—and to become its public advocate. Few people realize that the central activities of biology—classifying species and preserving specimens—have been endangered by the molecular juggernaut; Wilson is the most visible activist dedicated to saving them. Wilson has also called attention to the deep human need to be surrounded by other living things and has made it a key argument for preserving the diversity of life in the face of today's massive human-caused extinctions. And on top of all this, Wilson's most specialized research activity—the study of ants—has made the subject so familiar to the public that two full-length animated movies have relied on ant facts for their humor.

Wilson has a restless intellect and never fails to come up with interesting new ideas. This interview promises still more revelations on the nature of living things from the man who has personified the science that studies them.

—Steven Pinker

EDWARD O.WILSON is Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (one of which he shares with Bert Hölldobler), Wilson has won many scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

His books include The Future of Life; Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge; Diversity of Life; Ants; On Human Nature; Naturalist; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition; (with Bert Hölldobler) Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration; and The Insect Societies.

E.O. Wilson's Edge Bio page

Steven Pinker's Edge Bio Page

REMEMBERING DOLLY

[2.13.03]

Dolly
1996-2003

In the year Dolly was born, 1996, scientists and technologists celebrated the centenary of JJ Thompson's discovery of the electron. If civilisation survives until 2096, what anniversary will then attract more attention: the electron's bicentenary? Or Dolly's centenary? —Martin Rees

GENOMIC IMPRINTING

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79449622

"The area to which I've given the greatest attention is a new phenomenon in molecular biology called genomic imprinting, which is a situation in which a DNA sequence can have conditional behavior depending on whether it is maternally inherited—coming from an egg—or paternally inherited—coming through a sperm.

GENOMIC IMPRINTING

[10.22.02]

"The area to which I've given the greatest attention is a new phenomenon in molecular biology called genomic imprinting, which is a situation in which a DNA sequence can have conditional behavior depending on whether it is maternally inherited—coming from an egg—or paternally inherited—coming through a sperm. The phenomenon is called imprinting because the basic idea is that there is some imprint that is put on the DNA in the mother's ovary or in the father's testes which marks that DNA as being maternal or paternal, and influences its pattern of expression—what the gene does in the next generation in both male and female offspring."

Introduction

David Haig is an evolutionary geneticist/theorist interested in conflicts and conflict resolution within the genome, with a particular interest in genomic imprinting and relations between parents and offspring. The area to which I've given the greatest attention," he says, "is a new phenomenon in molecular biology called genomic imprinting, which is a situation in which a DNA sequence can have conditional behavior depending on whether it is maternally inherited—coming from an egg—or paternally inherited—coming through a sperm." Haig's work intersects with that of the evolutionary psychologists whose ideas have been presented on Edge. "A true psychology," Haig says, "has got to be an evolutionary psychology... We are evolved beings and therefore our psychology will have to be understood in terms of natural selection, among other factors."

— JB

DAVID HAIG is Associate Professor of Biology in Harvard's Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and author of Genomic Imprinting and Kinship.

David Haig's Edge Bio Page

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