LIFE

WHAT IS LIFE? A 21st CENTURY PERSPECTIVE

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/82197660

"I was asked earlier whether the goal is to dissect what Schrödinger had spoken and written, or to present the new summary, and I always like to be forward-looking, so I won't give you a history lesson except for very briefly. I will present our findings on first on reading the genetic code, and then learning to synthesize and write the genetic code, and as many of you know, we synthesized an entire genome, booted it up to create an entirely new synthetic cell where every protein in the cell was based on the synthetic DNA code."

J. CRAIG VENTER: THE BIOLOGICAL-DIGITAL CONVERTER, OR, BIOLOGY AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT @ THE EDGE DINNER IN TURIN

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/80815144

"We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it's the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code."

J. CRAIG VENTER: THE BIOLOGICAL-DIGITAL CONVERTER, OR, BIOLOGY AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT @ THE EDGE DINNER IN TURIN

[7.10.12]

(click to expand)

Ginevra Elkann e Carlo Antonelli
hanno il piacere di invitarla all'
Edge Dinner 
in onore di John BrockmanJ. Craig Venter e Brian Eno 
martedì 10 luglio
ore 19.30 aperitivo
ore 20.30 cena
Ristorante Del Cambio – Piazza Carignano, 2  – Torino



[34:16 minutes]


Introduction
by John Brockman

It was a perfect trifecta of invitations. 

1. An invitation from Craig Venter to join him in Dublin for "one of the landmark events of 20th Century science" in which he had been asked, to celebrate and reinterpret for the 21st Century Erwin Schrödinger's seminal lecture, entitled "What is Life?"delivered in 1943 at Trinity College, Dublin. The then Prime Minister, Éamon de Valera, attended the lecture along with his cabinet.

Venter, at the forefront of recent advances in genetics and synthetic biology, was asked to reconsider the fundamental question posed by Schrödinger 70 years ago. Would I join him for the lecture in Examination Hall, Trinity College, and Dublin on Thursday, July 12th? Having been on the road with Venter in Europe and elsewhere, I didn't hesitate. "Maybe", I replied.

2. "I'm a deity in Torino", said a bemused Brian Eno. The artist-musician was talking about expectations for his new exhibition, an installation of clouds of music at the Royal Palace in Venaria Reale,  just outside Turin, one of Italy's magnificent public places.  "When I gave the public lecture," Eno said, "thousands of people wanted to get in.Eno is one of the most interesting intellectuals I know, is and always worth my time, so spending a couple of days with him in Italy,  was an attractive proposition. We had recently collaborated on an Edge dinner at his London studio in Notting Hill. Since then, I learned some more about Eno's background in music and art when I happened to watch a documentary about U2's early days in Germany. In it, Bono explains that he, and many musicians in his world, started as artists, and Eno was their teacher. 

3. "Yes, you should go to Torino", said the curator and Edge collaborator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of London's Serpentine Gallery. "It is very glamorous. And Edge has a big following there. Whatever Ginevra has in mind, it will be elegant". He was talking about Ginevra Elkann, a film producer, as well as President of Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, the modern museum that houses part of her grandparent's permanent collection which was designed for the Agnelli family by the architect Renzo Piano. Perched on the roof of the gigantic building that once housed the Fiat plant in Turin, the museum is surrounded by a race track for testing the automobiles manufactured for Fiat and Ferrari by Elkann's late grandfather, Gianni Agnelli, the biggest industrialist in Italian history. The museum, in addition to its permanent collection, is primarily devoted to exhibits of personal collections of interesting people from the artist Damian Hirst, to the dealer Bruno Bischofberger, to Jean Pigozzi, the owner of the largest collection of African art and a long-time Edgie.

It was at the DLD Conference in Munich last January that I met Elkann and Carlo Antonelli, editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Wired. "Come to Torino," they said. We'll host an Edge evening, an Edge dinner. "Everyone" will come, not just from Torino, but from Rome and from Milan as well.

So, I told Venter I would go to Dublin to hear his talk if he would come to Turin with me and do a trial run at an Edge dinner two days prior. Eno agreed to stay on for the event. Elkann and Antonelli created a marvelous ambience of people and place that made for a memorable event, particularly due to Venter's provocative talk on new developments in synthetic genomics research, which set the stage for his historic lecture in Dublin later in the week.

—JB


THE FALSE ALLURE OF GROUP SELECTION

An EDGE Original Essay
[6.18.12]

[photo credit: Max Gerber]

I am often asked whether I agree with the new group selectionists, and the questioners are always surprised when I say I do not. After all, group selection sounds like a reasonable extension of evolutionary theory and a plausible explanation of the social nature of humans. Also, the group selectionists tend to declare victory, and write as if their theory has already superseded a narrow, reductionist dogma that selection acts only at the level of genes. In this essay, I'll explain why I think that this reasonableness is an illusion. The more carefully you think about group selection, the less sense it makes, and the more poorly it fits the facts of human psychology and history.

THE REALITY CLUB:  Stewart BrandDaniel EverettDavid C. Queller, Daniel C. DennettHerbert GintisHarvey Whitehouse & Ryan McKayPeter J. RichersonJerry CoyneMichael HochbergRobert Boyd & Sarah MathewMax Krasnow & Andrew Delton,Nicolas BaumardJonathan HaidtDavid Sloan WilsonMichael E. PriceJoseph HenrichRandolph M. NesseRichard DawkinsHelena CroninJohn Tooby.  

STEVEN PINKER REPLIES 

Group selection has become a scientific dust bunny, a hairy blob in which anything having to do with "groups" clings to anything having to do with "selection." The problem with scientific dust bunnies is not just that they sow confusion; … the apparent plausibility of one restricted version of "group selection" often bleeds outwards to a motley collection of other, long-discredited versions. The problem is that it also obfuscates evolutionary theory by blurring genes, individuals, and groups as equivalent levels in a hierarchy of selectional units; ... this is not how natural selection, analyzed as a mechanistic process, really works. Most importantly, it has placed blinkers on psychological understanding by seducing many people into simply equating morality and culture with group selection, oblivious to alternatives that are theoretically deeper and empirically more realistic.

STEVEN PINKER is a Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology; Harvard University. Author, The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined, The Language Instinct, and How the Mind WorksSteven Pinker's Edge Bio Page


THE FALSE ALLURE OF GROUP SELECTION

Human beings live in groups, are affected by the fortunes of their groups, and sometimes make sacrifices that benefit their groups. Does this mean that the human brain has been shaped by natural selection to promote the welfare of the group in competition with other groups, even when it damages the welfare of the person and his or her kin? If so, does the theory of natural selection have to be revamped to designate "groups" as units of selection, analogous to the role played in the theory by genes?

Several scientists whom I greatly respect have said so in prominent places. And they have gone on to use the theory of group selection to make eye-opening claims about the human condition.[1] They have claimed that human morailty, particularly our willingness to engage in acts of altruism, can be explained as an adaptation to group-against-group competition. As E. O. Wilson explains, "In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals. But, groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals." They have proposed that group selection can explain the mystery of religion, because a shared belief in supernatural beings can foster group cohesion. They suggest that evolution has equipped humans to solve tragedies of the commons (also known as collective action dilemmas and public goods games), in which actions that benefit the individual may harm the community; familiar examples include overfishing, highway congestion, tax evasion, and carbon emissions. And they have drawn normative moral and political conclusions from these scientific beliefs, such as that we should recognize the wisdom behind conservative values, like religiosity, patriotism, and puritanism, and that we should valorize a communitarian loyalty and sacrifice for the good of the group over an every-man-for-himself individualism.

ON "ITERATED PRISONER'S DILEMMA CONTAINS STRATEGIES THAT DOMINATE ANY EVOLUTIONARY OPPONENT"

[6.18.12]

"Robert Axelrod's 1980 tournaments of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies have been condensed into the slogan, Don't be too clever, don't be unfair. Press and Dyson have shown that cleverness and unfairness triumph after all." — William Poundstone, from his Commentary

Introduction

In January I had the occasion to spend sometime in Munich with Freeman Dyson who informed me about a paper on "The Prisoner's Dilemma" he had co-authored with William H. Press, and he then briefly sketched out some of its ramifications. He indicated that they had come up with something new, a way to win the game. It's simple, he said. The winning strategy: go to lunch. And, he added, the only way to trump this strategy is to come up with a new theory of mind. I tried to go deeper but, he said, "I don't really understand game theory, I just did the math. This is really Bill Press's work."

The highly technical paper, "Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent" by William H. Press and Freeman J. Dyson has now been published in PNAS (May 22, 2012), which was followed by a PNAS Commentary by Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin of the Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, entitled "Extortion and cooperation in the Prisoner’s Dilemma" (June 18, 2012). Here's the Abstract of the paper:

"The two-player Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game is a model for both sentient and evolutionary behaviors, especially including the emergence of cooperation. It is generally assumed that there exists no simple ultimatum strategy whereby one player can enforce a unilateral claim to an unfair share of rewards. Here, we show that such strategies unexpectedly do exist. In particular, a player X who is witting of these strategies can (i) deterministically set her opponent Y’s score, independently of his strategy or response, or (ii) enforce an extortionate linear relation between her and his scores. Against such a player, an evolutionary player’s best response is to accede to the extortion. Only a player with a theory of mind about his opponent can do better, in which case Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is an Ultimatum Game."

Edge asked William Poundstone, author of  the book The Prisoner's Dilemma, to explain the paper in non-technical terms. In his Commentary below, he writes:

"Robert Axelrod's 1980 tournaments of iterated prisoner's dilemma strategies have been condensed into the slogan, Don't be too clever, don't be unfair. Press and Dyson have shown that cleverness and unfairness triumph after all."

Also below are responses by William Press to Poundstone and by Freeman Dyson to Stewart and Plotkin.

To kick off a Reality Club conversation, mathematician Karl Sigmund at University of Vienna, and biological mathematician Martin Nowak of Harvard, two pioneers of evolutionary game theory, comment below.

 JB

THE REALITY CLUB: Karl Sigmund & Martin Nowak


TALES FROM THE WORLD BEFORE YESTERDAY

[12.31.12]

 

INTRODUCTION

Over the years I've had the privilege to work with some of the more interesting thinkers of our time, individuals who, through their research in biology, physics, psychology, computer science, provide us with the evidence-based results that are the basis of the most reliable method of our knowledge about who and what we are. In this regard, nothing beats sitting down with Jared Diamond after one of his many (41 to date) trips to New Guinea to listen to this master story-teller hold forth on the windows to our past, whether the topic is rare birds, "primitive peoples", birth practices, the lives of the old, war, or the characteristics of all human societies until the rise of state societies with laws and government, beginning around 5,500 years ago.

A few months ago I visited him at his home in Bel Air, California, just a few doors up the road from the Bel Air Hotel. We sat for an hour while he recounted some of his experiences in New Guinea. Fortunately, I had my video camera with me. What follows are three videotaped stories, which I have taken the liberty of presenting with the following titles:

• "If You Camp Under Dead Trees, And Each Dead Tree Has A One In 1,000 Chance Of Falling On You And Killing You"

• "One Of The Stupider, More Dangerous Things That I Did In My Life"

• "How I Discovered The Long-Lost Bowerbird, Initially Without Realizing It"

— JB

JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book, published today, is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? His other books include Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, which is the winner of Britain's 1998 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize. 

Jared Diamond's Edge Bio Page

The significance of the guy holding out his arm, dipping at the wrist, is that that's a gesture that magicians use to imitate the cassowary. The cassowary is New Guinea's biggest bird. It's flightless. It's like a small ostrich. Weighs up to 100 pounds. And it has razor-sharp legs that can disembowel a man. The sign of the cassowary, if you hold out your arm like this, that's the cassowary rolling its head and dipping its head when it's ready to charge. So magicians will imitate a cassowary in order to show their power. Because the cassowary's big and powerful. Magicians identify with the cassowary. They intimidate people.


 

TALES FROM THE WORLD BEFORE YESTERDAY

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/81862835

The significance of the guy holding out his arm, dipping at the wrist, is that that's a gesture that magicians use to imitate the cassowary. The cassowary is New Guinea's biggest bird. It's flightless. It's like a small ostrich. Weighs up to 100 pounds. And it has razor-sharp legs that can disembowel a man. The sign of the cassowary, if you hold out your arm like this, that's the cassowary rolling its head and dipping its head when it's ready to charge. So magicians will imitate a cassowary in order to show their power. Because the cassowary's big and powerful.

TESTOSTERONE ON MY MIND AND IN MY BRAIN

[4.30.12]

This is a hormone that has fascinated me. It's a small molecule that seems to be doing remarkable things. The variation we see in this hormone comes from a number of different sources. One of those sources is genes; many different genes can influence how much testosterone each of us produces, and I just wanted to share with you my fascination with this hormone, because it's helping us take the science of sex differences one step further, to try to understand not whether there are sex differences, but what are the roots of those sex differences? Where are they springing from? And along the way we’re also hoping that this is going to teach us something about those neuro-developmental conditions like autism, like delayed language development, which seem to disproportionately affect boys more than girls, and potentially help us understand the causes of those conditions.

Introduction by John Brockman

"I thoroughly enjoyed the evening last week," emailed Brian Eno. "A lot of interesting people got connected together and everyone told me they enjoyed themselves."

He was referring the first-ever London Edge Reality Club meeting, featuring a presentation by Cambridge research psychologist Simon-Baron Cohen which Eno hosted at his studio in Notting Hill before an assembled group that included artists, curators, museum directors, writers, playwrights, scientists in fields such as biology, math, psychology, zoology, the editors and correspondents of Nature, The Economist, Wired, The Guardian. ... [CONTINUED]

SIMON BARON-COHEN, Psychologist,  is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; Author, The Science of Evil; The Essential Difference.

Simon Baron-Cohen's Edge Bio Page

 

TESTOSTERONE ON MY MIND AND IN MY BRAIN

Topic: 

  • LIFE
https://vimeo.com/82232360

"This is a hormone that has fascinated me. It's a small molecule that seems to be doing remarkable things. The variation we see in this hormone comes from a number of different sources. One of those sources is genes; many different genes can influence how much testosterone each of us produces, and I just wanted to share with you my fascination with this hormone, because it's helping us take the science of sex differences one step further, to try to understand not whether there are sex differences, but what are the roots of those sex differences? Where are they springing from?

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