EDGE


EDGE 39 — April 30, 1998



THE THIRD CULTURE

"COMPETING FOR CONSCIOUSNESS: HOW SUBCONSCIOUS THOUGHTS COOK ON THE BACK BURNER"
A Talk by William H. Calvin

The musical analogies also tell us that a hexagonal mosaic is like a plainchant choir, singing in the lockstep of a Gregorian chant. As the triangular arrays recruit followers on the edges, additional hexagons are added to the mosaic. Perhaps choosing between an apple and a banana for a snack is a matter of how big their choirs are.....Now imagine dueling choirs, abutting hexagonal mosaics singing different tunes, trying to recruit members at the expense of the other. Along the battlefront, there are hexagons that have both tunes superimposed, just as in a symphonic work. If the combination resonates well with the local neural network, we might speak of harmony, just as we do for the major and minor scales.

EDGE UNIVERSITY

Harvard Report Card: Professor Marc D. Hauser

I find that in certain areas, there is, in the words of Richard Dawkins, a wanton eagerness to misunderstand some topics. For example, the interface between biology and culture, although discussed with great clarity by Pinker, Dennett and Dawkins, continues to be a stumbling block for students. By engaging the students in debates, as well as formal critiques, we might learn a great deal about why our teaching methods fail at some level.

THE REALITY CLUB

Verena Huber-Dyson responds to Brian Rotman

There is nothing mystical about the working mathematician's ability to perceive relations and perform operations on abstract structures in the mind, a mind that is as physical as limbs guided by a plan to scale a rock face.

EDGE IN THE NEWS

We all have what we need now to do some science ourselves, ranging from computers to digital imaging to direct access via e-mail to scientists and their institutions....And that has led to the emergence of something new in our society.

Los Angeles Times, SCIENCE WATCH; A Brief History of How the Once-Maligned Nerd Became Cool (3/30/98) By Lee Dye


(8,239 words)


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster



THE THIRD CULTURE


"COMPETING FOR CONSCIOUSNESS: HOW SUBCONSCIOUS THOUGHTS COOK ON THE BACK BURNER"
A Talk by William H. Calvin

According to theoretical neuroscientist Bill Calvin, treating consciousness solely as awareness or attention greatly underestimates it, ignoring the temporary levels of organization associated with higher intellectual function. "The tasks that require consciousness," he says, "tend to be the ones that demand a lot of resources. Routine tasks can be handled on the back burner but dealing with ambiguity, groping around offline, generating creative choices, and performing precision movements may temporarily require substantial allocations of neocortex."

Recently, Calvin has proposed "a specific mechanism (consciousness as the current winner of Darwinian copying competitions in association cortex) that seems capable of encompassing the higher intellectual function aspects of consciousness as well as some of the attentional aspects. It includes features such as a coding space appropriate for analogies and a supervisory Darwinian process that can bias the operation of other Darwinian processes."

"Competing for Consciousness", derived in part from Calvin's 1996 book The Cerebral Code, is presented simultaneously on EDGE and as a plenary talk for the Tucson III consciousness forum.

JB

WILLIAM H. CALVIN is a theoretical neurophysiologist on the faculty of the University of Washington School of Medicine who writes about the brain and evolution; author of The Throwing Madonna, The Cerebral Symphony, The River That Runs Uphill, The Cerebral Code, and How Brains Think.



"COMPETING FOR CONSCIOUSNESS: HOW SUBCONSCIOUS THOUGHTS COOK ON THE BACK BURNER"

Francis Crick likes to observe that people once worried about the boundary between the living and the nonliving. Today, the boundary seems meaningless; we instead talk about all the varied aspects of molecular biology. Today's brain researchers think it likely that much of the present scientific and philosophical concern about consciousness will soon become equally obsolete, that we will simply come to talk of the various physiological processes involved with attention and creative problem-solving. Dan Dennett called consciousness "the last surviving mystery." A mystery, Dennett said, "is a phenomenon that people don't know how to think about — yet." Here I will attempt to clarify the appropriate levels of explanation and then propose a candidate mechanism, a Darwin Machine 1 that seems, because its circuitry is found in many parts of neocortex, capable of encompassing the higher intellectual function aspects of consciousness as well as some of the attentional aspects.

Consciousness is the tip of the iceberg, in the sense that many other things are going on in the brain at the same time, hidden from view. There are subconscious trains of thought that vie for "attention." Though the obvious analogy is to the television viewer who surfs the channels (and our nighttime dreams often seem like switching between soap operas in progress), there need not be a central place where choices are viewed. The "best" channel need only temporarily win out over the others in the battle for access to output pathways such as speech and other body movements. Soon, another channel comes to dominate and we speak of "our attention shifting" — but there need not be an agent which makes the decision or performs the action. There is nothing in this overview that demands a central place: the "center of consciousness" could, instead, shift from moment to moment: from language to nonlanguage areas, from frontal to parietal lobe, from left to right hemisphere, and maybe even from cortical to subcortical structures — anywhere, I suspect, with the potential for generating novel patterns of movement. Routine tasks can be handled on the back burner but dealing with ambiguity, groping around, generating creative choices, and performing precision movements may temporarily require substantial allocations of neocortex.

Rather than place, I think that we need to concern ourselves with levels - levels of mechanism from the subsynaptic to the metaphorical - and how new levels can be temporarily formed as we think about what to say next. What's missing from most discussions of consciousness is, surprisingly, the whole concept that there are levels of mechanism, or levels of explanation. Douglas Hofstadter 2 gives a nice example of levels when he points out that the cause of a traffic jam is not to be found within a single car or its elements. Traffic jams are an example of self-organization, more easily recognized when stop-and-go achieves an extreme form of quasi-stability — the crystallization known as gridlock. An occasional traffic jam may be due to component failure, but faulty spark plugs aren't a very illuminating level of analysis-- not when compared to merging traffic, comfortable car spacing, driver reaction times, traffic signal settings, and the failure of drivers to accelerate for hills.

The more elementary levels of explanation are largely irrelevant to traffic jams. Such decoupling was emphasized by the physicist Heinz Pagels 3, who noted:

"Causal decoupling" between the levels of the world implies that to understand the material basis of certain rules I must go to the next level down; but the rules can be applied with confidence without any reference to the more basic level. Interestingly, the division of natural sciences reflects this causal decoupling. Nuclear physics, atomic physics, chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics are each independent disciplines valid in their own right, a consequence of the causal decoupling between them.... Such a series of "causal decouplings" may be extraordinarily complex, intricate beyond our current imaginings. Yet finally what we may arrive at is a theory of the mind and consciousness — a mind so decoupled from its material support systems that it seems to be independent of them — and "forgot" how we got to it.... The biological phenomenon of a self-reflexive consciousness is simply the last of a long and complex series of "causal decouplings" from the world of matter.

Closely related is the notion of emergent properties: traffic jams and crystals emerge from combinations, and we expect emergence to play a large role in the transient levels of organization involved with higher intellectual function (language, planning, games, etc.). In our search for a level corresponding to consciousness, it is well to recall that levels arise from what Jacob Bronowski called stratified stability:

Nature works by steps. The atoms form molecules, the molecules form bases, the bases direct the formation of amino acids, the amino acids form proteins, and proteins work in cells. The cells make up first of all the simple animals, and then the sophisticated ones, climbing step by step. The stable units that compose one level or stratum are the raw material for random encounters which produce higher configurations, some of which will chance to be stable.... Evolution is the climbing of a ladder from simple to complex by steps, each of which is stable in itself.

The tumult of random combinations occasionally produces a new form of organization. Some forms, such as the hexagonal cells that appear in the cooking porridge if you forget to stir it, are ephemeral (as, indeed, are the contents of our consciousness). Other forms may have a "ratchet" that prevents backsliding once some new order is achieved. Crystals are the best known of these quasi-stable forms.

If we take consciousness, as Karl Popper did, to be important for "solution of problems of the non-routine kind," then shaping up quality courses of action in thought is a key aspect of consciousness, one that goes well beyond mere awareness or shifting attention.

We no longer have to take it on faith that there are mechanisms capable of recursively bootstrapping random novelties into something of quality. For the last 160 years, there has been an existence proof, the Darwinian process. 6 The way in which quality is achieved using this process has long occupied the best minds in evolutionary biology. And the slow evolution of species, on the time scale of millennia, is no longer the only example: the immune response is now known to be another Darwinian process, operating on the time scale of days to weeks as a better and better antibody is shaped up in response to the challenge of a novel antigen. For decades, computer science has used a solution-finding procedure, called the genetic algorithm 6, that mimics an expanded version of the Darwinian process on a time scale limited only by computer size and speed.

It would be surprising if the brain did not make some use of this fundamental principle for bootstrapping quality. Can this same well-known process operate quickly enough in the brain, on the time scale of thought and action? Can it account for much of what we call "consciousness"? I undertook to answer such questions in one of my 1996 books, The Cerebral Code, which analyzes the recurrent excitatory circuitry of mammalian neocortex. I showed that this widespread wiring principle was capable of running the classical Darwinian process:

a pattern (spatiotemporal firing pattern of a Hebbian cell-assembly, in this case) that copies with occasional variation, where populations of the variants compete for a limited work space, their relative success biased by a multifaced environment (both memorized and real-time, in this case), and with further variations centered on the more successful of the current generation (Darwin's inheritance principle). This full-fledged Darwinian process is what is associated with the recursive shaping up of quality; it should not be confused with mere selective survival of a single pattern and other "sparse sets" that utilize only a few of the "six essentials". 7

The cortical circuitry that makes a full-fledged Darwinian process possible is not an obscure feature known only to a few neuroanatomists: it is easily the most prominent wiring principle seen in neocortex, that of the patterned recurrent excitatory connections between neighboring pyramidal neurons. It has just taken a while to realize one of the implications of it, an emergent property of the circuit not possessed by any of the individual elements: synchronized triangular arrays of pyramidal neurons, with nodes about 0.5 mm apart, is what you expect to observe.

Each pyramidal neuron has an axon that branches nearly 10,000 times. Some travel through the white matter but most of the branches never leave the cortical layers, terminating in a synapse within a millimeter or so. The axon travels sideways to excite other cortical neurons, mostly other pyramidal neurons. The deep-layer (V and VI) pyramidal neurons have such sideways axons that remain within the cortical layers, some terminating nearby and others more distantly.

It's the wiring seen 8 in the branching of the axon of the superficial-layer pyramidal neurons (layers II and III), however, that is so striking. Their terminations are patterned: their axons are like express trains that skip a long series of intermediate stops, concentrating their synaptic outputs in zones about 0.5 mm apart. Like an express train, these axon skip the intermediate stops. That's what makes synchronized triangular arrays likely to form on occasion.

One consequence of the express-train axon is that cells 0.5 mm apart will tend to talk to one another: they will recurrently excite. While a chasing-their-tail loop is one possibility if synaptic strengths are quite high, even weak synaptic strengths have an important consequence: entrainment. Since 1665, when the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens noticed that pendulum clocks on the same shelf synchronized their ticks within a half hour, much additional work has been done on entrainment. A dramatic example from the Philippines was reported in Science by Hugh Smith in 1935:

Imagine a tree thirty-five to forty feet high, apparently with a firefly on every leaf, and all the fireflies flashing in perfect unison at a rate of about three times in two seconds, the tree being in complete darkness between flashes. Imagine a tenth of a mile of river front with an unbroken line of mangrove trees with fireflies on every leaf flashing in synchronization, the insects on the trees at the ends of the line acting in perfect unison with those between. Then, if one's imagination is sufficiently vivid, he may form some conception of this amazing spectacle.

Even small tendencies to advance the next flash when stimulated with light will suffice to create a "rush hour." Furthermore, you usually do not see waves propagating through such a population, except perhaps when the flashing is just beginning or ending.

Relaxation oscillators like neurons and fireflies will get in sync much more quickly than harmonic oscillators, and even weak interconnections will suffice. 9 So, if several neurons 0.5 mm apart are firing for some reason (perhaps they both respond to the color yellow), there is a good chance that they will get in sync some of the time. What we have is a mechanism for forming a triangular array of synchronized cells, one that can extend its reach to wherever there are cells already firing, or close to firing. Most potential arrays will, of course, be silent; I tend to imagine fewer than a dozen actively firing, but the silent ones are likely also important.

What we now have is a hexagonal mosaic, formed of the active and silent triangular arrays. A hexagon is simply the largest cortical area that contains one, and only one, of the participating triangular arrays. The adjacent hexagons are nearly identical in their firing patterns.

It's a minimal Hebbian cell-assembly, potentially capable of recording the various features of an object or the details of a movement program. And a hexagon's spatiotemporal firing pattern is potentially a cerebral code, what represents an object or idea. Such a pattern is like a little tune (map each of the several hundred minicolumns to a note on a musical scale). There will be a different tune characterizing Apple than the tune for Banana.

The musical analogies also tell us that a hexagonal mosaic is like a plainchant choir, singing in the lockstep of a Gregorian chant. As the triangular arrays recruit followers on the edges, additional hexagons are added to the mosaic. Perhaps choosing between an apple and a banana for a snack is a matter of how big their choirs are.

Now imagine dueling choirs, abutting hexagonal mosaics singing different tunes, trying to recruit members at the expense of the other. Along the battlefront, there are hexagons that have both tunes superimposed, just as in a symphonic work. If the combination resonates well with the local neural network, we might speak of harmony, just as we do for the major and minor scales. Borderline superpositions (as well as more extensive ones that can be created by long corticocortical bundles) illustrate a powerful recombination principle, a way of doing associative memories that can represent relationships with the same 0.5 mm hexagonal code space as used for objects.

Another lesson of levels is that mechanisms that suffice at one level may prove to be shaky foundations, that other ways of doing the same thing are more extensible. Hexagonal codes are a much better foundation for superstructures (such as coding for analogies) than are the better-known associative memory mechanisms at the level of synaptic mechanisms for classical conditioning

This isn't the place for showing the many implications of a cerebral coding scheme based on the spatiotemporal firing pattern within one of the recurrent-excitation-defined hexagons, a book-length project that I tackled in The Cerebral Code. But with the notion of hexagonal mosaics that transiently compete for space in association cortex, you can now appreciate how a Darwinian process could operate in association cortex via the spatiotemporal patterns copying themselves sideways:

Like the classical examples of a full-fledged Darwinian process, there is a pattern that is copied (indeed, what is reliably copied defined the hexagonal shaped spatiotemporal pattern), variations occur (dropouts, off-focus nodes, superpositions), populations of the variant patterns compete for a work space, their relative success is biased by a multifaceted environment (current sensory as well as resonances with memorized patterns), and the more successful of the current patterns tend to produce more of the next round of variants (Darwin's inheritance principle is implemented because bigger mosaics have more perimeter, and the perimeter is where dropouts and off-focus nodes can escape the standardization enforced by six surrounding nodes all firing at the same time).

Though our recording methods currently lack sufficient resolution to see how often the various cortical areas actually utilize this Darwinian mode of operation (it could, for example, be restricted to a tune-up period early in life and seldom used thereafter), the time scale question is somewhat clearer

Unlike the generation times spanning days to decades of the usual Darwinian examples, cortex operates on a time scale of milliseconds to seconds, though its operations are biased by memories that span far longer time scales. Within seconds to minutes, neocortex ought to be capable of implementing all of the classical means of accelerating the rate of evolution (systematic recombination, parcellation, rapid "climate change," and refilling empty niches).

Because of its distributed nature and corticocortical connections between regions, cortex isn't limited to the standard Darwinian productions. It might well utilize some additional features, such as a supervisory Darwinian process that can bias the operation of other Darwinian processes

Yet it need not be some grand supervisor with even more intelligence. Until something fancier is clearly indicated, the default assumption ought to be that any regulatory process is essentially stupid, perhaps only chaotic phenomena on a grander or slower scale.

Indeed, there are some situations that might qualify for such two-level interactive evolution, such as the orbital frontal cortex role in monitoring progress on an agenda, a meta-sequence that seems to tick along on a different time scale than individual thoughts and sentences. There's no requirement that darwinian variations have to be random; a slow darwinian process could bias the general direction of the variants of a faster darwinian process that deals with lower-level matters, such as perception and movement on the time scale of seconds. There could be a cascade or web of such darwinian processes.

The neocortical Darwin Machine theory seems to me to be at the right level of explanation; it's not down in the synapse or cytoskeleton but up at the level of dynamics involving tens of thousands of neurons, generating the spatiotemporal patterns that are the precursors of movement — of behavior in the world outside the brain. Moreover, the theory is consistent with a lot of phenomena from a century of brain research, and it's testable (with some improvement in the spatial and temporal resolution of brain imaging or microelectrode arrays)

Composite cerebral codes, formed by superpositions and shaped up by darwinian copying competitions, could explain much of our mental lives. The codes themselves are suitably arbitrary, just as a century of argument about symbols has emphasized. Copying competitions suggest why we humans can get away with many more novel behaviors than other animals (we have offline evolution of nonstandard movement plans). It suggests how we can engage in analogical reasoning (relationships themselves can have codes that can compete). Because cerebral codes can be formed from pieces, you can imagine a unicorn and form a memory of it (bumps and ruts can reactivate the spatiotemporal code for unicorn). Best of all, a darwinian process provides a machine for metaphor: you can code relationships between relationships and shape them up into something of quality.

Resonances are better known these days as attractors; I imagine each hexagon's neural network as supporting a number of characteristic spatiotemporal patterns, just as spinal cord circuitry supports a number of gaits, the particular spatiotemporal pattern that you get depending on how you precondition the circuitry via the facilitation from other imposed patterns. And that may have something to say about the "stream of consciousness."

Manipulating the landscape of a basin of attraction is reminiscent of William James's train of thought, that series of mental states that preceded your current one, each one fading into the background but overlain on its predecessors — and all capable of contributing to what connections you're likely to make right now

Just imagine those various fading attractors as like that Japanese technique of finely slicing some raw fish, then tilting the block sideways (fallen dominos are another analogy, if you are sashimi impaired). The bottom layer may be hardest to reach but it goes back furthest. Stage-setting with multiple layers of fading schemas may be handy for promoting creativity, getting the right layers of attractors in about the right order and so adjusting their relative strengths. (The Sashimi Theory of Creativity would, of course, be a suitably raw successor to all those half-baked right-brain schemes)

But such histories can also be distracting, and we often try to let them fade, try to avoid reexciting them with further thinking. There are various mind-clearing techniques; Donald Michael 10 suggests that forming large quasi-stable hexagonal territories might be what meditation with a mantra is all about, preempting the everyday concerns that would otherwise partition the work space and plate out new short-term attractors. By replacing it all with the mantra's nonsense pattern, and holding it long enough for neocortical LTP to fade, the meditator gets a fresh start (for things other than the mantra!)

An ordinary mantra won't, of course, wipe the work space clean: to prematurely erase those fading attractors, you'll need a fancier mantra that disrupts instead. Short of fogging with seizures, as in electroshock therapy, I don't know of any such eraser schemas — though one can imagine mental viruses 11 that might preempt entry into those fading basins of attraction, more analogous to an obscuring coat of paint than to a true eraser.

Once they finish with things as basic as perceptual transformations and memory phenomena, theories of brain function must explain abstractions and associations as diverse as categories, abstracts, schemas, scripts, syntax, and metaphor. If we are to venture past the elementary notion of consciousness as mere awareness or shifting attention, we are going to need to account for all of higher intellectual function (language with syntax, structured planning ahead, logical chains of reasoning, games with arbitrary rules, music). That's the kind of coverage needed for a useful theory of consciousness (and this neocortical Darwin Machine enables predictions to be made, all across this spectrum). It may not have to explain all of two centuries of neurology, one century of psychology, and a half-century of neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience — but it can't be truly inconsistent with any of it. A theory of consciousness needs a lot of explanatory power, while still being specific enough to make experimental predictions

Let me turn now to how complex patterns might self-organize, using such Darwinian competitions to embed suitable resonances in the neural feltwork as we gain experience.

Our passion for discovering patterns seems to have a lot to do with our notions of consciousness. If we are to have meaningful, connected experiences — ones that we can comprehend and reason about — we must be able to discern patterns to our actions, perceptions, and conceptions. Underlying our vast network of interrelated literal meanings (all of those words about objects and actions) are those imaginative structures of understanding such as schema and metaphor, such as the mental imagery that allows us to extrapolate a path, or zoom in on one part of the whole, or zoom out until the trees merge into a forest.

Early childhood contains a number of pattern-finding challenges, and children seem extraordinarily acquisitive of ever-more-complex patterns hidden in the sounds and events that surround them. In our first year of life, we discovered phonemes within words. A year later, we were busy discovering schemas and syntax within sentences, and then we went on to discover narrative principles among more extended discourses. The hexagonal superpositions, so like the different voices of a symphonic performance, show us a way that new associations can be represented in the brain — and the Darwinian aspect suggests how quality could be shaped up via the usual variation, competition, and inheritance

When we think seriously as adults, we think even more abstractly. We conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts or models. We can even discover patterns in speculative scenarios, as when we create a forwards-leaping chain of inferences (especially handy for speculating about consciousness!). As Paul Valéry once said, thought is all about "that which does not exist, that which is not before me, that which was, that which will be, that which is possible, that which is impossible."

Passive awareness (and its neural correlates) may be much simpler than the creative constructs implied by the James-Piaget-Popper levels of consciousness; a pop-through recognition of a familiar object may not need to utilize a cloning competition with alternatives in the manner of an ambiguous percept or a novel movement. Hexagonal mosaics surely aren't everything going on in the brain; indeed, they are probably just one mode of operation of some expanses of neocortex, and regulated by other brain regions such as hippocampus and thalamus. But here-this-minute, gone-the-next mosaics seem quite suitable for explaining many aspects of mind, aspects that have been difficult to imagine emerging from quantum mechanics, chemistry, neurotransmitters, single neurons, simple circuits, or even the smaller neocortical modules such as minicolumns. In some regions, at some times, hexagonal competitions might be the main thing happening.

There emerges from this view of our brain, with its relentless rearrangement from moment to moment, some glimpses of the neural foundations on which we construct our utterances and think our thoughts, some possibilities for implementing our kind of language and rational thought. Dueling choirs are at a level of explanation that looks as if it might be appropriate; we'll have to see just how far we can go with their Darwinian aspects as an explanation for talking-to-yourself consciousness.

NOTES

1. Calvin 1987, 1996
2. 1985
3. 1988
4. 1973
5. Calvin 1996b, 1997
6. Holland 1992
7. Calvin 1997
8. e.g., Lund et al 1993
9. Somers and Kopell 1992
10. personal communication 1995
11. Dawkins 1993

For references, see William H. Calvin, "Competing for Consciousness: A Darwinian Mechanism at an Appropriate Level of Explanation." Journal of Consciousness Studies (to appear, 1998). See also The William Calvin Home Page.


EDGE UNIVERSITY


Harvard Report Card: Professor Marc D. Hauser



From: Marc D. Hauser
Submitted: 4.24.98

re: EDGE at Harvard

Dear John,

The semester is virtually over. I would like to share my thoughts on how the EDGE material fared in our course at Harvard. The material was advertised to the students at the beginning of the term. After approximately 3 weeks, the students started receiving the first installment of EDGE. We encouraged the students to read the material, bring up questions in discussion sections, and to send questions to me if they were so moved. I made no promises that the questions would be answered by the authors of EDGE material, but said that I would certainly encourage responses. About half way through the term, I sent out a questionnaire, asking students for an opinion about EDGE material. The questionnaire and some of the answers are appended below. Based on these answers, as well as a more informal assessment, I would like to offer the following thoughts.

I don't believe the EDGE met with much success, but I don't think this is due to the material discussed. Rather, our course is quite well structured and there is a fairly hefty amount of reading. Many students felt that there was not enough time to read EDGE and think hard about the questions asked. On the other hand, many students were quite keen on the issues and often raised relevant questions after class. Several students, coming in as philosophy majors, have decided, based on some of the material in EDGE, to 'convert', integrating philosophical problems with scientific methods.

Several students have mentioned that they find the debates on EDGE fascinating, and wish that there were more forums for discussion. That said, I can think of several ways to improve upon the use of EDGE in the future. First, I am not absolutely convinced that the EDGE is best suited for such a large, introductory course. It certainly generates excitement for the area and the ideas. This is unquestionably a good thing. I will most likely teach this course again in the fall term, and am beginning to think about ways in which it can be better integrated into discussion sections. In particular, it might be possible to offer a mini-seminar within the framework of the course, where EDGE issues are aired. This could be designed for those students wanting more discussion. At present, our sections are packed, and thus time is precious. Second, the EDGE material may be more appropriate for a seminar group.

In this light, I am currently signed up to teach a course on the Evolution of Mind and the EDGE material would be ideal. In fact, I can see making the material mandatory reading. I would assign EDGE material and then have the students come in with questions for class discussion, and then ask them to do a 1 page critique of an argument raised. It might be interesting to use such critiques to assess how well REALITY CLUB fares in conveying complicated ideas in a simple way.

I find that in certain areas, there is, in the words of Richard Dawkins, a wanton eagerness to misunderstand some topics. For example, the interface between biology and culture, although discussed with great clarity by Pinker, Dennett and Dawkins, continues to be a stumbling block for students. By engaging the students in debates, as well as formal critiques, we might learn a great deal about why our teaching methods fail at some level.

Last year, I ran a seminar on the biology of morality and the final exam was a moot court where the topic of debate was inter-specific brain transplants. By forcing the students to engage in a formal debate I found that they more readily learned about the crucial issues, learned to defend their turf, and most importantly, learned about the weaknesses in their thinking. Needless to say, this forum works best in a class where the freedom to express ideas has been cultivated prior to the debate. In this particular class, such freedom readily emerged. The endproduct was a fantastic debate, with well crafted arguments.

In sum, then, I think that the EDGE can provide a useful device for teaching, but it is material that must be integrated in a more systematic fashion than I planned.

Marc


EDGE-B29 student opinion

Here is what I sent out to the students:

Subject: B-29 letter from Marc Hauser

I would like to get some feedback from those of you who have been reading the EDGE material. Since this is a first attempt, it is imperative that we figure out ways to make the material more useful. Thus, for those of you who have a few minutes, I would very much appreciate receiving your thoughts on the following:

1. Have you found the discussions of interest? Please rate on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 = VERY USEFUL and 5 = USELESS

2. Do you feel as though you are interested in the debates and would be interested in sending questions to the debaters? If yes, what factors would make the forum more open to question? Do you currently feel constrained in asking questions?

3. Would you like to have time to discuss the material in sections or in some other forum? If yes, what kind of forum might be useful to you?

And of course, if you have any other thoughts on the material and how to improve its usefulness, I would be happy to hear about it. We are reaching the mid-point of the course, and so there is time to improve.

Thanks for your help.

Marc


Here is what I got back:

1. very useful

2. The discussions are of interest. However, they seem to be somewhat arcane and it would be foolish for one to argue over subjects which one didn't completely understand. There's also the fact that not every newsletter is going to contain information of interest to everyone.

3. If another forum is chosen, the EDGE should still remain an optional reading, which it is in practice now (whether that is intended or not). It's a lengthy reading assignment. Some other forums that might be of use are sections and occasionally, lecture.


1. very useful

2. yes, not much, no

3. yes, in section


1. Very useful. Sometimes in the shuffle of texts and exams we loose sight of the "big" questions.

2. I am very interested in the debates, but do feel constrained in asking questions.

3. Perhaps forming a discussion group that could meet at a designated day and time after each posting. I would certainly be interested in hearing other students' reactions to EDGE material, and I think the subject matter could generate some intense discussions.

MARC D. HAUSER, is an evolutionary psychologist, and an associate professor at Harvard University where he is a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program. His research focuses on problems of acoustic perception, the generation of beliefs, the neurobiology of acoustic and visual signal processing, and the evolution of communication. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, and What The Serpent Said: How Animals Think And What They Think About (forthcoming).


THE REALITY CLUB

Verena Huber-Dyson responds to Brian Rotman


From: Verena Huber-Dyson
Submitted: 4.16.98

Re: Brian Rotman's Comments

I am distressed by Rotman's accusation (April 11) of "romanticising mathematics as a mysterious and ineffable species....", which is, in fact, based on a misunderstanding. It was by no means my intention to call symbolisation "artificial". My mistake was to appeal tacitly to the rock climbing metaphor introduced earlier. The term 'artificial aid'—which I had deliberately enclosed in quotes—belongs to the technical language and refers to nuts and bolts, pitons and other hardware employed to extend the grasp, reach and security of the climber's bodily tools, toes, hands, knuckles... As far it was meant in my context I still consider the analogy appropriate and won't belabour it now. There is nothing mystical about the working mathematician's ability to perceive relations and perform operations on abstract structures in the mind, a mind that is as physical as limbs guided by a plan to scale a rock face. I had earlier referred to Brower's technical writings on logic, which are deep, compelling and clear without the use of the symbolism of mathematical Logic developed since then.

I still feel that laymen ought to be warned against a rash identification of mathematics with symbolic manipulation.

In the first place symbolism is meant to serve the purpose of communication, storage of insights and efficiency. That it cross-fertilises concepts in the process of evolution is of course clear, accepted and appreciated. Incidentally the idea of mathematics, in particular mathematical logic, as the pursuit 'Gedankenexperimente' (glad to see that term accepted) was developed by the German logician Paul Lorenz in mid century.

If I ever get around to is I shall be interested to look at Rotman's books.

Greetings from Verena.

VERENA HUBER-DYSON is a mathematician has published research in group theory, and taught in various mathematics departments such as UC Berkeley and University of Illinois at Chicago.She is now emeritus professor from the philosophy department of the University of Calgary where she taught logic and philosophy of the sciences and of mathematics which led to a book on Gödel's theorems published in 1991.


EDGE IN THE NEWS


Los Angeles Times
SCIENCE WATCH; A Brief History of How the Once-Maligned Nerd Became Cool, (3/30/98) By Lee Dye


Scientists and technologists—often deplored, sometimes feared, frequently on the fringes of society—have become hip.

They grace the covers of news magazines, their frequently arcane research is the stuff of bestsellers, and one of the members of their clan has become the richest man in America.

Even the motion picture industry has caught on. Historically, movies have tended to portray scientists as a tad mad. But such films as "Contact" show that scientists can be, well, almost like normal people. Of course, that film was based on a novel written by a scientist, the late Carl Sagan.

This evolution in the perception of scientists has come about largely because science and technology play an increasingly important role in all our lives.

Instant global communications and television coverage have shrunk the world. A kid with a desktop computer can create new images and new tools—maybe even break into computer systems that keep track of everything from our bank accounts to national security projects. There seems to be an electronic gadget to meet every need.

We all have what we need now to do some science ourselves, ranging from computers to digital imaging to direct access via e-mail to scientists and their institutions.

And that has led to the emergence of something new in our society.

Borrowing a phrase coined by science historian C.P. Snow, literary agent and science author John Brockman calls it the "third culture".

"In the past, culture has been defined as art and music. When we have those, we have culture. When we don't, we don't.

But Brockman argues that technology has brought science into our lives in such a dramatic way that a third culture has emerged.

In 1981, Brockman founded the Reality Club, an assortment of movers and shakers from the world of science who traditionally meet in Chinese restaurants and artists' lofts around New York City to ponder the great imponderables of the day. In the most common expression of the third culture, a year ago Brockman started a Web site () to give scientists a forum in which to share their thoughts and their questions with the world at large.

He says the site addresses the motto of the Reality Club: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

"Much of the discussion on the site centers on the emergence of this new, global culture. Some of the material is written specifically for the site, but some of it, including an essay by Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, first appeared elsewhere.

"This new third culture is an offspring of science," writes Kelly in a piece originally published in the Feb. 13 issue of Science. "It's a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Call it nerd culture.

"The computer revolution brought science into our lives as never before, and for the Nintendo generation, technology became their culture.

And somewhere along the way, Kelly argues, a "funny thing happened: Nerds became cool.

"But nerds are not interested in science per se, Kelly argues. The third culture is interested in results, particularly innovation.

"Its thrust is not pursuing truth, but pursuing novelty," Kelly writes. " 'New,' 'improved,' 'different' are key attributes for this technological culture.

"Yet oddly enough, some of the scientific arenas that are most in vogue these days have little to do with novelty or even a tangible payback to society. No one really needs to know the nature of a black hole, for instance, but astronomy is one of the hottest buttons in science.

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Nerds may be hip, but they are the toolmakers. They are beholden to science because science fuels their revolution. But it is the tools that fascinate them the most, not the science.

Technology may be the pathway to the third culture, but some scientists are hip these days despite the fact that they may never have written software or created a new gadget. They are hip because they are addressing questions that spring from the roots of intellectual curiosity.

Stephen Hawking, whose writings about astrophysics triggered much of the current interest in science, is an intellectual innovator, not a creator of computer games and novelties.

Yet Hawking could fill an auditorium in seconds with people eager to learn what he has to say about the dynamics of the cosmos.

Ironically, his crippling disease has left him capable of speaking only through a computer driven technological innovation. Does that make him a product or a guru of the third culture?

Scientists have frequently been on a roller coaster when it comes to public perception. Their image plummeted with fears growing out of the nuclear age and rose with humans landing on the moon. But it may remain at a high level for many years to come. It is rooted in a broad segment of society that is, in varying degrees, directly engaged in science. Despite the powerful new astronomical observatories springing up around the world, for example, most comets are still discovered by amateurs with backyard telescopes.

And the meteoric rise of Microsoft was driven by Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard and created the most powerful software company in the world.

Yet despite all that, my hunch is that more kids could name a dozen movie stars or sports heroes than a couple of scientists.

That is partly because many still feel intimidated by science, and scientific success frequently goes unnoticed."

Since 1937, the United States has anointed a national poet laureate but never a science laureate," Kelly points out.

Maybe the time is ripe to change that, now that scientists are hip.If that ever happens, we may not need to worry about those science scores anymore.

Kids will see just how cool it can be to be a nerd.

[PHOTOS: Mamas, your babies could do worse than grow up to be Carl Sagan; Stephen Hawking ; Bill Gates.]

Copyright (c) 1998 Times Mirror Company



Copyright ©1998 by Edge Foundation, Inc.

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