The Third Culture
Beyond the Scientific Revolution
by John Brockman
BOOKS BY JOHN BROCKMAN
"The Emerging Third Culture"
The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives,
redefining who and what we are.
PART ONE: THE EVOLUTIONARY IDEA
GEORGE C. WILLIAMS
"A Package of Information"
The gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it's not the message. Maintaining this distinction between the medium and the message is absolutely indispensable to clarity of thought about evolution.
STEPHEN JAY GOULD
"The Pattern of Life's History"
There is no progress in evolution. The fact of evolutionary change through time doesn't represent progress as we know it. Progress isn't inevitable. Much of evolution is downward in terms of morphological complexity, rather than upward.
We're not marching toward some greater thing.
"A Survival Machine"
It rapidly became clear to me that the most imaginative way of looking at evolution, and the most inspiring way of teaching it, was to say that it's all about the genes. It's the genes that, for their own good, are manipulating the bodies they ride about in. The individual organism is a survival machine for its genes.
"Biology Is Just a Dance"
The "new" biology is biology in the form of an exact science of complex systems concerned with dynamics and emergent order. Then everything in biology changes. Instead of the metaphors of conflict, competition, selfish genes, climbing peaks in fitness landscapes, what you get is evolution as a dance. It has no goal. As Stephen Jay Gould says, it has no purpose, no progress, no sense of direction. It's a dance through morphospace, the space of the forms of organisms.
"Why Is There So Much Genetic Diversity?"
We have the beginnings of an answer as to why, in some places, one snail species is so variable, but we have no real idea why in any species anywhere at any time no two individuals are identical. That's an essential question of evolution. All others flow from that.
"A Battle of Words"
Species are real entities, spatiotemporally bounded, and they're information entities. Other kinds of entities do things. Ecological populations, for example, have niches; they function. Species don't function that way. They don't do things; they are, instead, information repositories. A species is not like an organism at all, but it's nonetheless a kind of entity that plays an important role in the evolutionary process.
"Gaia Is a Tough Bitch"
How did the eukaryotic cell appear? Probably it was an invasion of predators, at the outset. It may have started when one sort of squirming bacterium invaded another seeking food, of course. But certain invasions evolved into truces; associations once ferocious became benign. When swimming bacterial would-be invaders took up residence inside their sluggish hosts, this joining of forces created a new whole that was, in effect, far greater than the sum of its parts: faster swimmers capable of moving huge quantities of genes evolved. Some of these newcomers were uniquely competent in the evolutionary struggle. Further bacterial
associations were added on, as the modern cell evolved.
PART TWO: A COLLECTION OF KLUDGES
The brain is...a great jury-rigged combination of many gadgets to do different things, with additional gadgets to correct their deficiencies, and yet more accessories to intercept their various bugs and undesirable interactions in short, a great mess of assorted mechanisms
that barely manage to get the job done.
"Information Is Surprises"
Information is surprises. We all expect the world to work out in certain ways, but when it does, we're bored. What makes something worth knowing is organized around the concept of expectation failure. Scripts are interesting not when they
work but when they fail.
DANIEL C. DENNETT
The idea of consciousness as a virtual machine is a nice intuition pump. It takes a while to set up, because a lot of the jargon of artificial intelligence and computer science is unfamiliar to philosophers or other people. But if you have the patience to set some of these ideas up, then you can say, "Hey! Try thinking about the idea that what we have in our heads is software. It's a virtual machine, in the same way that a word processor is a virtual machine." Suddenly, bells
start ringing, and people start seeing things from a slightly different perspective.
"The Thick Moment"
What is it like to be ourselves? How can a piece of matter which is a human being be the basis for the experience each one of us recognizes as what it's like to be us? How can a human body and a human brain also be a human mind?
"The Emergent Self"
Why do emergent selves, virtual identities, pop up all over the place, creating worlds, whether at the mind/body level, the cellular level, or the transorganism level? This phenomenon is something so productive that it doesn't cease creating entirely new realms: life, mind, and societies. Yet these emergent selves are based on processes so shifty, so ungrounded, that we have an apparent paradox between the solidity of what appears to show up and its groundlessness. That, to me, is the key and eternal question.
"Language Is a Human Instinct"
I call language an "instinct," an admittedly quaint term for what other cognitive scientists have called a mental organ, a faculty, or a module. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently.
"Consciousness Involves Noncomputable Ingredients"
My present view is that the brain isn't exactly a quantum computer. Quantum actions are important in the way the brain works, but the noncomputational actions occur at the bridge from the quantum to the classical level, and that bridge is beyond our present understanding of quantum mechanics.
PART THREE: QUESTIONS OF ORIGINS
"An Ensemble of Universes"
Cosmology is exciting to the public because it's clearly fundamental, and this is a rather special time in the subject. For the first time, it's become a part of main-stream science, and we can address questions about the origin of the universe.
"A Universe in Your Backyard"
One of the most amazing features of the inflationary-universe model is that it allows the universe to evolve from something that's initially incredibly small. Something on the order of twenty pounds of matter is all it seems to take to start off a universe. . . . It becomes very tempting to ask whether, in principle, it's possible to create a universe in the laboratory or a universe in your backyard by man-made processes.
"A Theory of the Whole Universe"
What is space and what is time? This is what the problem of quantum gravity is about. In general relativity, Einstein gave us not only a theory of gravity but a theory of what space and time are a theory that overthrew the previous Newtonian conception of space and time. The problem of quantum gravity is how to combine the understanding of space and time we have from relativity theory with the quantum theory, which also tells us something essential and deep about nature.
"The Synthetic Path"
My personal belief is that biologists tend to be uncompromising and reductionistic because they're still feeling somewhat insecure with their basic dogma, whereas physicists have three hundred years of secure foundation for their subject, so they can afford to be a bit more freewheeling in their speculation about these complex systems.
PART FOUR: WHAT WAS DARWIN'S ALGORITHM?
To refer to the subject on which some of us now work as "complexity" seems to me to distort the nature of what we do, because the simplicity of the underlying rules is a critical feature of the whole enterprise. Therefore what I like to say is that the subject consists of the study of simplicity, complexity of various kinds, and complex adaptive systems, with some consideration of complex nonadaptive systems as well.
"Order for Free"
What kinds of complex systems can evolve by accumulation of successive useful variations? Does selection by itself achieve complex systems able to adapt? Are there lawful properties characterizing such complex systems? The overall answer may be that complex systems constructed so that they're on the boundary between order and chaos are those best able to adapt by mutation and selection.
CHRISTOPHER G. LANGTON
"A Dynamical Pattern"
Physics has largely been the science of necessity, uncovering the fundamental laws of nature and what must be true given those laws. Biology, on the other hand, is the science of the possible, investigating processes that are possible, given those fundamental laws, but not necessary. Biology is consequently much harder than physics but also infinitely richer in its potential, not just for understanding life and its history but for understanding the universe and its future. The past belongs to physics, but the future belongs to biology.
J. DOYNE FARMER
"The Second Law of Organization"
Many of us believe that self-organization is a general property certainly of the universe, and even more generally of mathematical systems that might be called "complex adaptive systems." Complex adaptive systems have the property that if you run them by just letting the mathematical variable of "time" go forward they'll naturally progress from chaotic, disorganized, undifferentiated, independent states to organized, highly differentiated, and highly interdependent states.
PART FIVE: SOMETHING THAT GOES BEYOND OURSELVES
W. DANIEL HILLIS
"Close to the Singularity"
We're analogous to the single-celled organisms when they were turning into multicellular organisms. We're the amoebas, and we can't quite figure out what the hell this thing is that we're creating. We're right at that point of transition, and there's something coming along after us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Excerpted from The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, 1995) . Copyrightę 1995 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.