Thursday, December 31, 2009

Gwyneth Cravens, Power To Save The World (2007)

Three years ago, I heard a presentation by the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute about the history and then-current status of the nuclear energy industry in the United States. I had not previously given much thought to nuclear energy and my attitudes and biases with respect to nuclear energy were largely shaped by media reporting of the Three Mile Island Pennsylvania reactor meltdown in the 1970s and the Chernobyl, Soviet Union reactor meltdown in 1986. I also remember how difficult it was for Pacific Gas & Electric to get regulatory approval to startup the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near Lompoc, California. Scary stuff that is problematic both financially and politically.

Fast forward twenty years later to a time of growing attention to carbon emissions and the reported link to a rise in global temperatures, the presentation about the nuclear energy industry's safe operating history (outside of the Chernobyl accident), the redundancy built into plant design in the name of safety, the reduction in regulatory barriers to nuclear power plant licensing and the standardization of nuclear facility designs, greater knowledge of the limited risks associated with waste storage, and nuclear power's low operating costs makes nuclear power a serious solution to reducing carbon emissions . The drawback to expanded nuclear power development remains its substantial up-front capital costs and the industry's ability to attract sufficient investment capital to expand much beyond its current 19-20% share of the contribution to electricity production in the United States. On an operating cost basis, nuclear power is more competitive than most other types of electricity production; when the capital costs are amortized and added to the equation, nuclear power is slightly more expensive. The other drawback is that it takes a long time to construct a new nuclear power facility after you have invested years in applying for a license; it is not an immediate solution if you are looking to shut down a coal-fired power plant tomorrow.

I vowed to learn more when I could find the time, and I searched for a book that would objectively address the subject of nuclear energy, because as my own experience told, beliefs (not facts) were shaped by emotional discussions about nuclear power, radiation exposure, and fear. I looked at several titles on the subject and found Gwyneth Cravens' Power to Save the World , the cover of which described Cravens as a skeptic who set about to find the truth about nuclear energy. Early on, Cravens cites polling data that lists the three sources of information that the public finds least reliable on the subject of nuclear energy --- politicians, the media, and the utility industry --- and instead she turns in her search for facts and truth to the scientists, engineers and researchers who have spent their careers addressing all of the issues that surround nuclear power. Her guide and guru is Dr. Rip Anderson, long affiliated with Sandia National Laboratories outside of Albuquerque where Cravens was raised as a child.

When I began reading her book, I thought I was departing from the winding road that holds the previous posts in this blog together. I am interested, after all, in many other things including contemporary public policy, history, art, music, and economics. This was a planned excursion to contemporary public policy and the subject of climate change and carbon. Not so fast. This is also a book about the very small --- matter at an atomic level --- and deals with the subject of uncertainty, probabilities and risk that is at the core of several earlier posts. From our knowledge of atoms, electrons, protons, and atomic nuclei, and Anderson's non-biased probabalistic risk assessment approach to nuclear safety and public health, the book builds toward the public policy conclusion that nuclear energy is one of the solutions to arresting rising global temperatures and is a safer, healthier mode of generating electricity than fossil fuel generation. Anyone who is interested in the subject of climate change, carbon policy, and clean energy should be reading this book. Our elected representatives who are deciding public policy should be reading this book.

We supposedly have a comprehensive national energy policy law reflected in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and several other statutes, but it is questionable just how comprehensive our public policy really is given that we all but abandoned nuclear energy for forty years now and have never devoted significant resources to renewable energy supplies. Europe and Japan have leapfrogged over the United States in their share of energy production from nuclear power facilities during that time period and have moved to the head of the technological class. Amazingly, the U.S. nuclear industry has steadily maintained its 19-20% share of electricity production over the intervening decades, not from building new facilities, but from making the existing facilities more efficient. Ultimately, there is a limit to the gains to be achieved from that strategy and if nuclear is going to retain its current share the United States will have to build new reactors. As of December 31, 2009, there were 18 applications pending at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build 28 new reactors. There are a few other announcements of investment intentions for new reactors as reflected in early site permit applications, and only last week a letter of intent was announced by Areva to consider a new nuclear facility in California's Central Valley near Fresno. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute's website, the US Department of Energy estimates that 3 new reactors will have to be brought online every two years beginning in 2016 in order for nuclear energy to maintain its 19-20% share as electricity demand increases by 21% over the next two decades. So if all the pending applications are ultimately approved, nuclear may hold its own or enjoy a slight gain over its current share if the estimated demand for electricity is correct and the financial community is able to raise sufficient capital to build them by 2030. That is an optimistic scenario because it does not factor in the litigation that seems to ensue with every application and leads to delay in the development of this clean energy.

But a more thoughtful comprehensive energy strategy might not consider maintaining the nuclear status quo enough. Pending energy legislation aimed at promoting "clean energy" renewable power sources such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, and tidal are looking to increase their share, yet ironically the House climate change legislation (Waxman-Markey) is nearly silent on nuclear energy and does not consider nuclear to be a renewable energy resource, although from a depletion point of view the supply of uranium is vastly longer than fossil fuel resources. A separate piece of legislation (HR 2768) would declare nuclear energy a form of "clean energy." To pass clean energy legislation in the Senate, it appears that there will have to be a provision that enhances nuclear energy's contribution to our national electricity supply. Instead of focusing on increasing the share of renewable energy sources for the future supply of electricity, the public policy discussion and decision should be focusing on increasing clean energy's contribution (including nuclear) to the supply of electric power. Renewable energy sources, as defined in the Waxman-Markey legislation, have their limits too, and they will never be able to satisfy the planet's energy needs. In this respect, Waxman-Markey seems short-sited. This is the balanced conclusion of Cravens' Power to Save The World.

To understand the relative role of nuclear power as a "clean energy," Cravens' research comes to this conclusion: "An inclusive analysis of the life cycle of nuclear power--the extraction of uranium and its transformation into fuel, the construction of plants, the decommissioning of reactors, and the disposal of waste--shows that throughout the process, nuclear power emits about the same amount or carbon or is slightly less than is typically produced during the typical life cycle of wind turbines and solar panels. Radiation from nuclear plants, strictly regulated, is so insignificant that it is difficult to distinguish it from normal background radiation. Even when American plants have accidentally released radioactive materials, the actual exposure of humans has been miniscule compared with what we receive daily from natural sources."

After confronting all the challenges laid at the doorstep of nuclear energy and spelling out the facts uncovered by her questioning of researchers, engineers, and nuclear scientists, Cravens has two messages for the public and policymakers. The first is a simple equation: one nuclear fuel pellet weighing 0.0007 pounds can generate the same amount of electricity 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil, or 157 gallons of regular gas. The second is that the risk to health and safety from possible radiation exposure is very small; there are greater risks from chemical plants and refineries and driving automobiles, all of which are not regulated as strictly as nuclear power.

So this is a public policy book after all, but ultimately the policy begins with knowledge and understanding of the very small pieces of atomic matter that have created this issues that Cravens describes in this book. Cravens closes the book with a statement from Rip Anderson: "One day God could say to us: 'I gave you the brainiest men and women in human history to come up with an understanding of the atom and its nucleus. I gave you enough uranium and thorium to last you for thousands of years. I gave you an understanding of how when uranium decays it releases energy. You didn't need to invent anything else. You had everything you needed to provide energy for yourselves and your descendants without harming the environment. What else did you want?'"

Monday, November 30, 2009

Richard Powers, Generosity (2009)

Two years ago, I read a wonderfully conceived novel by Richard Powers entitled The Echo Maker. Introducing his readers to some of the marvels of neuroscience and our current understanding of the human brain as revealed by what we learn from brain injuries, Powers weaves science and storytelling in a thoughtful way. My only criticism of the novel was that it was about 30 or 40 pages too long, which is not a criticism of lengthy novels but a reflection of Powers' style to discuss non-fiction science through fictional dialogue: as fascinating as the material may be, it is not always the stuff of real conversation. Powers has been criticized for perhaps writing too much, and not leaving enough to the reader to figure out what is going on. When his next novel came along, however, I jumped at the chance to read more from the creative mind of Richard Powers.

In Generosity - An Enhancement, Powers visits the mind-body problem of feelings --- in this case the feeling of euphoria --- and whether there is a genetic basis for happiness or bliss that the medical research community might be able to exploit and transform our humanness. To tell this story, Powers calls upon a literary tool that he employed in the The Echo Maker -- a scientist who is capable of talking to the public through popular media. In The Echo Maker, it was Dr. Gerald Weber, a character modeled after neurologist Oliver Sacks who writes popular books based on his own medical experiences, including the book Awakenings that later earned an Academy Award as a film. In Generosity, Powers brings us Dr. Thomas Kurton, who comfortably appears on popular science television programs to explain his latest research --- cynically, to stimulate the next round of venture capital that is needed to fund his continuing research program that has yet to develop anything practical --- and who comfortably appears on a Chicago-based Oprah-like talk show touting the potential of genomics to enhance our life. There are other parallels between the two novels as well: there is a "patient," who is worth our studying, and there are people who are genuinely concerned for the welfare of the "patient." These characters paint the humanist landscape that is cast beside the scientific data and medical mysteries looking to be explained and solved.

While both Generosity and The Echo Maker touch on topics that have been addressed in previous posts about the brain, the hot topic here is the idea that there might be a gene controlling complex behavior. Framing the issue, Powers fictionalizes about a Nobel laureate who writes in "a much reproduced Guardian op-ed: 'We must once and for all outgrow our obsolete ideas about heredity. Genes don't code for traits. They synthesize proteins. And single proteins can do incredibly different things, depending on where and when they're produced . . .We have no gambling gene, no intelligence gene, no gene for language or walking upright.'" Later, Powers explains, "A single gene defect can knock out a complex behavior. But that does not mean complex behaviors derive from a single gene. One bad allele can cause depression. But a few good ones don't necessarily cause bliss." It is the nature vs nurture debate, and Powers concludes that the scientific consensus, "if any, is vague. Most talking heads ...concede that people's bedrock emotional skills vary as greatly as their skills in math. For proof, witness the chaos of this public argument [about whether there is a gene for bliss]."

And that brings me to another recent effort in the popular media to pronounce the role of genes in programming human behavior: the suggestion in a recent New York Times article by Nicholas Wade that there is a "god gene" that has programmed humans to believe in a god. Wade describes "a propensity to learn the religion of one’s community [that] became so firmly implanted in the human neural circuitry" as though it is a fixed biological component of human DNA. Wade is not alone in this suggestion, even on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. At the heart of this discussion is whether evolution operates on genes as advanced by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, or whether it operates alternatively or equally upon an entire organism, or on groups such as kin or whole communities as advanced by the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. Wade, to his credit, acknowledges this debate, but never seriously muzzles the popular impression that there may actually be a "god gene." Nor does Wade acknowledge more penetrating research, such as Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, which supports another explanation based on the human mind's adaptive embrace of animism and projection and that religion as commonly experienced across all human societies "is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies," what one commenter has called a "collection of fantasies about spirits." Not all of these spirits is capable of being called a "god."

About this most recent promotion of a genetic source for specific human behavior, Richard Powers could only say, "Witness the chaos of this public argument." As one letter to the editor that responded to Wade's polemic intoned:

"Many questions came to mind as I read “The Evolution of the God Gene.” What does it actually mean to postulate a god gene for religious belief? How does it work? What is the relationship between the organic gene and the human experience? Do we need one gene for a theist and another for an atheist, an agnostic or a polytheist?

"It is quite possible to accept evolution without resorting to an organic narrative to account for every specific human experience. Must there be a specific gene for playing poker or dancing the rumba? And if we believe in elves and witches, are corresponding genes required?"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bert Hölldobler & E.O. Wilson, The Superorganism (2008)

Human (September 27 post), Mirroring People (September 18 post), and The First Word (August 31 post) all stress the social nature of the human species as something unique to homo sapiens. Marco Iaccoboni, as we saw in Mirroring People, believes that not enough weight is given to our social nature and too much consideration is given to our individuality. But what of other species? We know that other primates are social, although not to the extent of the human species. But there are other species who are even more socially organized than the human species. Meet the social insects --- bees, wasps, ants, termites --- who have established a diverse array of social communities, some of which have suppressed nearly all individuality.

Holldobler and Wilson's The Superorganism does not specifically address the big three areas of human inquiry -- the very large, the very small, and the human mind -- that I described in the August 31st post, but the book is devoted to that other question I mentioned: what is life? The subject-matter of The Superorganism is not entirely divorced from the books in the preceding posts. One of the links between each of the books reviewed in earlier posts is the subject of information and communication. The largest chapter of this beautiful book exhaustively summarizes what we know about communication within the species of the social insects --- not at the level of electrons and quarks and bosons that Seth Lloyd focused on --- but at the level of chemical compounds and the sensory capabilities of these insects: pheromones secreted to lay a trail for colony ants to follow leaders from the nest to food sources and back; odors of hydrocarbons that confirm the queen is present in the colony that shut down the reproductive capabilities of female workers so that only the queen becomes the source of eggs; odors of hydrocarbons that enable ants to distinguish members of their own colony from outsiders. There is also the suggestion, not inconsistent with Christine Keneally's statement in The First Word that human language is believed to have emerged from human motor skills, that insect communication may have emerged from the insect's motor skills.

But information is not the big idea in Superorganism. Information and communication among individual insects and competing groups of insects is just a significant piece of the evidence that supports the big idea in this book: multilevel natural selection. Since Richard Dawkins originally published The Selfish Gene in 1976, a debate has raged whether natural selection operates on genes, as advanced by Dawkins, or whether it operates on the individual organism (phenotype) --- the carrier of a collection of genes, or whether it operates on groups such as related kin, or more broadly communities or colonies. The advocates for each view were said to promote gene selection, individual selection, kin selection, or group selection respectively. Charles Darwin, because he lacked an understanding of Mendellian genetics, DNA and RNA, essentially propounded a view of individual selection, although he acknowledged, as Holldobler and Wilson note, that the altruistic behavior of the insect colony appeared to be an exception. Holldobler and Wilson join an emerging view that declares, "It's all of the above," and hence the nom "multilevel selection." The early advocates for multilevel selection, David Sloan Wilson and and Elliot Sober, refer to it as "a unified theory of natural selection that operates on a nested hierarchy of units." While declaring that "all selection is multilevel," Holldobler and Wilson acknowledge that the ultimate unit of evolution is the gene (or a group of alleles of interacting genes). Even Dawkins concedes, however, that the fate of a gene can be tied to the fate of other genes within the same phenotype, so the lines over the unit of natural selection have blurred as the debate ensues.

The unique case of the social insects posed a question for Darwin because he was bothered by the question of how the worker group of ants and other social insects could evolve if they were sterile and left no offspring. Holldobler and Wilson explain the principle of eusociality --- the care of offspring of a reproductive group by a worker group --- and the gem in this 500 page book is the presentation of a model, supported by some evidence, how the most advanced eusocial insects such as bees and leafcutter ants evolved their cohesive social organization of altruistic individuals over millions of years. While difficult for the lay person such as myself to follow on the first presentation, the theory is advanced by this sentence: "Altruism and eusociality are thus evidently born from the appearance of a phenotypically flexible eusocial allele (or ensemble of such alleles) in a progressive provisioning mother and between-group selection acting on emergent group traits, socially binding in nature and sufficiently powerful to overbalance the dissolutive effects of individual direct (within group) selection." Translation: at the gene selection level, traits are favored to enhance the survival of eggs or larvae by promoting social relationships that become strong enough (ie. that eliminate or minimize conflict within the group) to offset threats from competing social groups (other colonies or species) or the environment. This development was evolutionarily enabled because the alleles within the genes of the individual insects were flexible enough to activate this solution for survival. Finally, "when ecological and genetic factors advance a society to near the upper extreme of the superorganism continuum, subsequent selection may result in the complete loss of costly physiological structures involved in within-group competition" and "the capacity for 'selfishness' [becomes] insignificant because the underlying organs (for example, ovaries) important for within-group competition degenerate or become completely lost." For these unique groups of insects, the authors find that the colony is essentially an organism (phenotype), which they call a "superorganism." Borrowing a term from Dawkins, the authors conclude that the eusocial insect colony effectively becomes a target of natural selection because it is a coherent 'extended phenotype' of genes within colony members.

Importantly, the eusocial insects who form "superorganisms" are a very tiny percentage of the entire landscape of all species. They comprise only 15 species of more than 2600 species of insects. There is one species of vertebrates --- naked mole rats --- who fit this classification. However powerful the evidence for the superorganism is and the multilevel selection model, the truth remains that the critical unit of evolution is the gene. As the fictional character quoted in Richard Powers' Generosity says (see November 30 post), "Genes don't code for traits." Genes do code for chemical stimuli and sensory organs. This is not lost on Holldobler and Wilson who write, "Decision by decision, the insect responds to those stimuli to which its sensory and nervous systems are programmed to respond. These stimuli compose the highly filtered sensory world of the caste to which it belongs." And the science of evolutionary development, which posits that genes may not be expressed until a later developmental stage of life, undoubtedly has a role in explaining how insects "learn" altruistic behavior. Holldobler and Wilson provide evidence for this model as well in explaining that there are some species of female worker ants with ovaries in the nest that are simply suppressed by specific chemical recognition that a fertile egg-laying queen is in the nest, and when the queen dies, a worker ant's reproductive capabilities can be reactivated for the survival of the group.

If the reader of this book is, like me, learning about the social insects for the first time, there is a sense of awe in just how much we know about ants, bees, wasps, and termites. The quantum of information provided by the authors in support of their model, particularly about the ants, can be overwhelming at time. The authors' discussion of genetic social evolution and sociogenesis is delivered early in chapters 2 and 3, and the evidence follows for seven more chapters over 430 pages. After reaching the end of the book, go back and read chapters 2 and 3 again and the enormous amount of detailed evidence will come together.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michael Gazzaniga, Human (2008)

In the September 18th post, I concluded that a grander treatment of the subject of mirror neurons should be forthcoming someday, a volume that more completely integrates the role of mirror neurons with the biological operations of the mind and body and discusses consciousness memory, and evolution. I did not expect that such a book was already on The Bookshelf and was the next book to come off the shelf. Human, by U.C. Santa Barbara neuroscientist and psychology professor, Michael Gazzaniga , is such a book. While not specifically about mirror neurons, this larger look at the landscape of language, memory, emotion, perception, primate evolution and behavior, infant behavior and development of the human brain gives due recognition to discovery and role of mirror neurons.

In the Mystery of Consciousness, University of California philosophy professor, John Searle, writes, "The mystery of consciousness will gradually be removed when we solve the biological problem of consciousness." That's a remarkable statement from the philosophical community, where for millenia its leading lights have been debating and struggling with non-biological metaphysical ideas about what form reality takes and how we know reality. For Searle, who rejects the mind-body dualism of Descartes, "The 'problem of consciousness' is the problem of explaining exactly how the neurobiological processes in the brain cause our subjective states of awareness or sentience. . . the problem of consciousness is a scientific research project like any other." And that is a task that Gazzaniga embarks upon in Human.

While Searle appears ready to jettison philosophy of the mind for the biology of the mind, it is my belief that understanding the human mind is primarily biology and chemistry and physics (neuronal activity after all is electro-chemical), but it is also empirical anthropology, paleontology, research about other species, sociology, and psychology too. The human brain is the most important feature that distinguishes humans from other species. Gazzaniga would agree, and Human is engaging on all disciplines. There is a growing body of research that recognizes this interdisciplinary approach including Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained , Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby , Steven Rose's The Future of the Brain , and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds. Each of these books explores one or more of the aspects of Gazzaniga's inquiry: what is unique about being human? which explores the answer inside the human mind.

Philosopher Searle and neuroscientist Antonio Damassio reject Cartesian dualism, but neuroscientist Gazzaniga says: we all act like dualists. "We are animate objects, which are the subject to the physical laws of animate objects, but we also have nonperceptual psychological properties not subject to physical laws." It is the latter that is one of the unique of attributes of being human: "we are the only animals that reason about unobservable forces ... we alone ... try to explain an effect as having been caused by something." That we may "act like" there is an unseen world separate from the physical world does not axiomatically lead to the conclusion that there is a dual world of the mental forms separate from a physical world of the senses. Pascal Boyer has provided one cogent explanation why the human mind is uniquely willing to recognize unseen agents, but he does not conclude that our psychological properties are not subject to physical laws. In the end, Gazzaniga does not appear to disagree. Gazzaniga is well-known for his split-brain research of patients suffering from severe epilepsy and the only treatment is to sever the corpus collosum that connects the right side of the brain from the left side. The right side of the brain is not a problem solver; it is good at perceiving, attentional skills, and emotions, but it is the cognitive left side of the brain that takes all the input coming into the brain and makes sense of it. The left side of the brain, says Gazzaniga, is the "interpreter" of our conscious experience, and in the course of acting as an "interpreter" this biological organ organizes information in a way to create a self-conscious self (an image of ourselves in our mind, separate from our physical self, or as Antonio Damassio calls it, our "movie within a movie"), another unique attribute of what makes us human. But this is the outcome of biological processes, not a feature of a separate world of the mind.

Enough of dualism or not! There are important nuggets of information in Human. The human brain is unique, not merely because of its size relative to our body weight or size, but because the way it is organized into modules and its connectivity. We learn of two genes that are regulators of brain size: microencephalin and ASPM. There is evidence of accelerated evolution of microencephalin in primates, and a variant of microencephalin appeared about 37,000 years ago about the same time that corresponds with culturally modern humans. A variant of ASPM appeared in humans about 5800 years ago, which coincides with the establishment of cities, agriculture, and written language. We don't know whether these genetic developments are in fact linked with cultural development and language, but it is certainly suggestive.

At the end of the book, we meet Merlin Donald who developed what is called mimesis theory: that the ability to imitate motor action is the foundation of language, human consciousness, and human culture. Language and gesture, the subject of the August 31 post on Christine Kennealy's The First Word, requires fine motor skills, which must be flexible enough to involve a voluntary control of muscles to mimic or rehearse an action undertaken by some other animate object, observe its consequences, store it in memory, and then change what must be changed. Donald calls this a "rehearsal loop," which he says is uniquely human. This requires feedback loops in the brain --- part of the brain's connectivity --- whereby the brain's ability to perceive (the right side) is connected the brain's cognitive capacity (in the left side) to connect to the action, and in order for the brain to imitate another animate object (such as another human), the brain must be self-aware. Is it this connectivity that is tied to the genetic developments in humans thousands of years ago?

Finally, we meet Jeff Hawkins, a creator of the Palm Pilot, who has co-authored a book called On Intelligence. Hawkins rejects the idea that the human brain is "computational." The brain does not compute the answers to problems; the neocortex is a memory system, which differs from a computer. The brain uses stored memory from past experience to make predictions -- which Hawkins asserts is the primary function of the neocortex and the foundation of human intelligence. Recall from the September 18 post on Marco Iacoboni's Mirroring People, that the part of the brain where mirror neurons are found is a part of the neocortex, which is responsible for planning and execution. The neocortex is the center or our attentive capacity, and we come to attention when we fail to accurately predict something. So it is here that motor coordination, drawing on memory, planning and execution all occur, with help from other, evolutionarily older parts of the brain tied to the senses. This is a key part of the brain responsible for attention and self-awareness, forming what Damassio characterizes as our "extended consciousness." Hawkins' model of the brain depends on feedback loops where information must flow back and forth comparing what is happening to what is predicted to happen. Information about what is happening flows in one direction; information about what memory tells you is expected to happen flows in another direction. This is not how a computer operates, which relies heavily on parallel processes, and arguably it suggests that robots will never replace us.

I said in a previous post that one of the big three areas for human inquiry is the human mind. Human delineates why this is true. Mirror neurons, fine motor skills that enable us to imitate, connectivity among modules in the brain and feedback loops, extended consciousness, language, and self-awareness are some of the important attributes of what make humans unique. To comprehend how the human mind works is really the key to understanding what makes us unique in the animal kingdom. Not all of the answers are here, but there is a lot in one book to fathom this huge question.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People (2008)

This important volume might have been titled The Feeling of What Happens (To Other People), but the neurology community would have immediately recognized a title borrowed from a crosstown Los Angeles rival, Antonio Damassio's The Feeling of What Happens (1999). In both Iacoboni and Damassio, you have two preeminent neuroscientists on the leading edge of brain research writing accessible books about their research for the public. Both connect their brain research to a philosophy of the mind that we used to study before science supplanted philosophy and unified our understanding of the mind and brain. In Iacoboni's case, the philosophical tradition is rooted in the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with a tip to William James. In Damassio's case, the spirit of James is clearly acknowledged, but Damassio finds his roots in Spinoza's rejection of Descartes' dualism of mind and body, as explained in Descartes Error (1994) and Looking for Spinoza (2004). There is something in common between these two besides William James. That the mind is an extension of the body is a view shared by both Spinoza and phenomenologists, and they share the view that Descartes was wrong or at least problematic.

Damassio's attention is directed at consciousness, feelings, emotions and cognition, a breathtaking subject-matter that many believe will ultimately be understood and explained through neurological research. Iacoboni's research fits within the landscape of this huge topic, but it is more focused, describing the research begun by colleagues in Parma, Italy in the 1980s on macaque monkeys that resulted in the discovery of mirror neurons. Interestingly, the word 'consciousness' is not mentioned once in Mirroring People, although Iacoboni's discussion of one's sense of self and sense of others does relate to consciousness. In contrast, Damassio acknowledges the role of mirror neurons in cognitive processes related to emotion and feelings.

So what are these mirror neurons, what are their significance, and what do they mean for our history of ideas? Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that fire in response to a perceived action of another. It just so happens that the same neuron fires in response to the self undertaking the same action. They are found in several parts of the brain, but importantly they are found in the premotor cortex -- a part of the neocortex responsible for planning and executing actions. The same cells fire in response to perception and action. This is true for humans and other primates.

Research indicates that mirror neurons are important to ascribing intentions to others even when they have not declared their intention. When we see or hear an action undertaken by an "other," we understand their intentions by simulating (or imitating) them in our brain. Different cells fire with respect to a different action (revealing a different perceived intention) on the same object. It is as if you could say, I know what you are thinking, or, I feel your pain. Mirror neurons are clearly important to cognitive and emotional states critical to our understanding of and relationships with others, such as empathy and mental conditions such as autism, as well as our own actions. The phrase "No man is an island" takes on greater meaning because of the discovery of mirron neurons. Interdependence is a biological fact. Subjectivity is said to be a characteristic of the individual mind, but for Iacoboni, intersubjectivity is something we ought to be seriously looking at.

Our understanding of mirror neurons is an important key to understanding and resolving the age-old debate as to whether nature or nurture is responsible for our behavior. It is clearly both, and the research undertaken by Iacoboni and others at UCLA seems to confirm this. Mirror neurons are present at birth, and we know this because the infant begins to imitate its parents and others from the beginning. The mirror neurons begin to fire for the first time and are continuously developed through interaction with others and our environment. This process appears to continue through our lives as we grow to become part of group, community or society, as mirror neuron research shows that these neurons fire more strongly when we hear or see something that is associated with the family, group, community or society that we affiliate with and interact most closely. Mirror neuron research strongly supports Evo Devo, evolutionary developmental biology. For example, in the case of humans. our gestation period in the womb is not long enough for the complete development of the brain, which continues to grow in the post-natal stage. If this were not the case, our head would be too large to pass through the brith canal. Human evolution has tied our survival to coming into the world in a state of helplessness, and only through post-natal development of the brain is our species' chances for survival enhanced. Strikingly, this development occurs almost immediately because of personal or social interaction with parents and others in the immediate family or community. Christine Kenneally's survey of language research, The First Word, reviewed below, demonstrates that language development fits this model as well.

So is our identity defined entirely by those around us, or is there a unique "self?" Self and other are "inextricably blended," says Iacoboni. The sense of self follows the sense of "us," which is the first "sense" of awareness an infant has immediately following its birth as a result of mother infant interactions. We are social animals first. The human's sense of self emerges in time. Interestingly, mirror neuron research has established that these neurons fire more strongly when we are perceiving ourselves as opposed to perceiving an other. Biologically, this might explain why humans view themselves more as independent individuals, rather than interdependent members of the same species.

Mirror neuron research, opines Iacoboni, suggests that the individual in western social and political philosophy is not as unique as we think, and further indicates that our western concept of free will might have to be revised. "Mirror neurons in our brains produce automatic imitative influences of which we are often unaware and that limit our autonomy by means of powerful social influences. We humans are social animals, yet our sociality makes us social agents with limited autonomy." This sounds threatening to the value system underlying western social, economic and political organization, but Iacoboni does not try to develop or elaborate on this thought any further. In contrast, Damassio's synthesis of the mind and body has its roots in Spinoza, who is probably more responsible for our western political system than any other philosopher of the Enlightenment. And for Spinoza, who rejected the separation of the physicality of emotions from the rational operations of the mind, free will found its expression in human choice. Iacoboni does not say that humans are without choice; he writes only in terms of "limited autonomy."

OK, so our choices are influenced, perhaps powerfully, by our social environment. But Iacoboni appears to suggest that if humans had wider, less insular social interaction and presumably more choices in belief systems to identify with, that we might come to appreciate how interdependent we are. He writes, "[T]rue cross-cultural encounters are actually made impossible by the influence of massive belief systems --- religious and political -- that deny continuously the fundamental neurobiology that links us together." There is not one monolithic belief system that controls us or renders free will a total illusion. Iacoboni refers to "belief systems" --- plural --- and, not surprisingly, there is conflict in these belief systems. Spinoza's life story is a story of choice among competing belief systems --- a true cross-cultural encounter that was not made impossible by the influence of a massive belief system. His life was an exercise of free will. And if we revise our notion of free will (which implicitly, if not explicitly recognizes that our choices are not free of all influence), what will we gain in terms of insight?

I see a larger volume on the human mind and mirror neurons in the future: a volume that more completely integrates the role of mirror neurons with the biological and psychological and emotional operations of the mind and body, discusses consciousness and memory, and the evolution and development of the brain. Iacoboni only briefly introduces the role of the limbic system in the brain that allows us to feel emotions, but he does not discuss the relationship of the mirror neurons in the brain to the central nervous system, nor does he explore the evolution of the brain (or mirror neurons for that matter), which is more fully explored by Damassio and also by Steven Rose in The Future of the Brain. These are not shortcomings of this important summary on the discovery of and subsequent research about the role of mirror neurons. More research will be needed before the next volume is written.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Christine Kenneally, The First Word (2007)

In my worldview, there are three very big subjects for human inquiry: 1) the realm of the very large --- the universe (and whether there is more than one, making the word universe a possible oxymoron), its origin and history; 2) the realm of the very small -- the smallest molecular (sub)units, and their behavior; and 3) the human mind --- how it works, consciousness, intentionality. Some might object and cite Schrodinger's interrogatory --- What is Life? --- as a big subject for human inquiry, and I do not disagree, but I submit that if humanity can get its consensus arms around my three big subjects, the subject of "life," will fall into place in large measure. The first two subjects are critical and fundamental to understanding how physical objects and living beings were first created, died or evolved; the third subject is really about "us" --- a characteristic that is specially defining of human beings.

The first two books I discussed below surveying the "new" science of information theory actually address all three of the very big subjects in one way or another. Christine Kenneally's survey of the current research examining the evolution of human language, The First Word, fits in the third big box - the human mind; yet as you read her survey of language and speech research, one can't help but think about the communications --- computational activity --- going on everywhere in the realm of the very large and the realm of the very small documented by the Lloyd and Seife (see August 23, 2009 and August 17, 2009 posts). The constituents of the entire physical world have been computing --- communicating --- for billions of years, so it should come as no surprise that our species communicates. The form of those communications varies from constituent to constituent -- by collision among atomic particles in the realm of the very small as Lloyd documents -- but how did the human species develop a very sophisticated form of communicating that includes not just speech and written language, but speech acts such as gestures, pointing, and other animated conduct? That is the question that Christine Kenneally investigates in The First Word.

I want to suggest to her that she look to Lloyd's treatment of information theory and complexity theory --- whether we call it communicating or computational activity, there must be emergent properties that cause communications to take on additional complexity in the course of evolutionary history, including gestures, sounds, word formation, symbolic representations, and finally meaning. Kenneally does not address this particular angle, but some of the research she reviews lays the foundation for this type of discussion about human language in light of the types of communications studied in non-human species. She does cite Luc Steels for the proposition that "human language ability is an emergent adaptive system that is created by a basic cognitive mechanism rather than by a genetically endowed language module."

Is human language an adaptation that required many evolutionary events? Or is human language something that is hardwired in our species? Noam Chomsky notwithstanding, the sum of the research reviewed by Kenneally supports only the former view. Not only has the human species evolved biologically to enable our unique type of communicating, but the form of human communications, language, and the meaning of words have evolved as well. Language is a social institution, and social institutions and culture evolve, albeit at a different and faster pace than biological evolution. We seem to be approaching Richard Dawkins' treatment of the evolution of memes here. And while The First Word does not have an answer or definitive conclusion to "the search for the origins of human language," Kenneally does endorse a very Dawkins-like worldview:

"Even if researchers can't pinpoint every evolutionary event that led to the language we have today, and even though we don't know exactly what all the bends in the historical road looked like, the principles for further illuminating the path of language evolution are now self-evident. Fundamentally, the appearance of design in biology and in language can be taken as a sign of evolution, not a designer. Additionally, where complex design does exist, it makes sense not to treat the whole as a monolith that simply developed from nothing to something in one or two quick steps. Finally, the most likely scenario is that both evolutionary novelty and derivation played a significant role in the evolution of a phenomenon as complex as language."

Anyone studying the human mind must investigate speech acts as part of their inquiry, and Kenneally's survey of the recent research on the evolution language is a good place to start. But language is only a piece of the mind's puzzle. How is it that human minds can read other minds without speaking? Speaking and hearing and reading and intentional gestures are not the only forms of communicating.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Charles Seife, Decoding The Universe (2006)

This book is subtitled How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes. The "new science" is over sixty years old by one measure --- 1948 was the year that Claude Shannon of Bell Labs, whom Charles Seife labels the "hero of information theory," recognized "that information could be measured and quantified and that it was intimately linked to thermodynamics." But in 1948, Shannon did not set out to explain black holes or how the mind processes information; he was trying to determine how much information could be carried across a telephone line or any other communication channel for that matter. Born from this inquiry was a recognition that information could be reduced to a yes or no, true or false, on or off outcome, and the smallest piece of information consisted of a binary digit (e.g., true or false) that those familiar with computer code recognize as 0, 1. The compressed nomenclature for a binary digit is a "bit."

Most communication is information rich, meaning that multiple pieces of information are represented by a stream or string of bits --- 01000111001. A 70,000 word book containing 350,000 letters, writes Seife, with each letter encoded in five bits, contains about 1.75 million bits of information, which represents less than 0.25% of the capacity of a compact disk --- the amount of space on a CD for about 10 seconds of a recorded song, which contains vastly more information than the written word.

Seife covers much of the same ground as Seth Lloyd's Programming the Universe, (see August 17, 2009 post). Where Lloyd is one of the actors in this "new science," Seife is one of those fine science writers for the general public who can turn scientific investigation into a great story. In Decoding the Universe, Lloyd arrives on the scene only at the very end of Seife's story --- the part where information theory does begin to explain black holes and the future of the cosmos. Sharing Lloyd's description of the universe as a massive information processor, Seife explains that while the universe may be infinite, information processing cannot go on forever --- and at some point information processing will stop and the gezillions of bits of information that life has stored and preserved will be dissipated (not destroyed) so it is useless and life in the visible universe (not just human life) will become extinct. Civilization is doomed (a long time from now); the laws of information have sealed our fate.

The storyline here is the renewal of quantum mechanics --- dressed for success as quantum information. Physicists have been pondering how to reconcile or unify --- mathematically and theoretically --- the very large and the very small. Quantum mechanics explains atomic behavior well in the realm of the very small; it does not explain gravity well in the realm of the very large, the domain of the theory of relativity. Some physicists have explored string theory for a solution to the problem of unifying the very small and the very large --- a quantum theory of gravity. But the mathematics underlying string theory have not yet led to a quantum theory of gravity and the theory has yet to be validated by experiment. Information theory and thermodynamics, which may explain the behavior of gravity and information in black hole, offers a promising alternative direction toward a quantum theory of gravity.

What does any of this mean for you and I? Is there any practical significance for information theory? The answer is clearly yes, and Seife points to the advancements in communications technologies that followed Shannon's 1948 paper. The Department of Defense is closely following developments in quantum computers utilizing quantum information for cryptographic applications. What mathematicians and physicists consider beautiful mathematical models can and does form the foundations for experimental testing (where we are capable of performing a test), and ultimately those experiments can become the basis for useful information --- not merely practical applications that may benefit humans and other living beings in their every day lives, but in addressing large questions about our place in the cosmos. So do not dismiss the elegant mathematics that is only understood by a few merely because they are representational of a theory. For those larger questions like --- is the universe infinite and is the arrow of time infinite? In the long run, we are all dead.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe (2006)

We contemplate the physical universe in terms of atomic particles, their energy, mass, charge, spin, and macroscopically, products that emerge from combinations of individual particles, such as compounds, liquids, gases, solids, atmosphere, water, organic material, crystals, living beings, atmosphere. Take a harder look. At the core of the physical universe is information. Information is physical. It is both visible and invisible. Invisible information is neither spirit, ethereal, or non-material; we can't see it because it is simply too small for our human sensory tools to see. Information is exchanged between particles at an atomic level by their collision, not unlike an exchange of information caused by photons colliding with the lens of an eye, subsequently triggering a movement of neurons and chemical reactions that triggers or creates a memory in the mind.

Until I read Programming the Universe, I was uncomfortable with the idea that the mind was a computer, as espoused by Steven Pinker and others. Perhaps I was just uncomfortable with the analogy. Not because of an attachment to Cartesian duality; more likely because of an emotional need to see the mind as something more than an input/output device. Whether we regard the mind as a computer or not, the fact is that the mind processes information, and Seth Lloyd demonstrates that processing -- computing -- information is what the universe -- not just life as we humans know it -- is all about. Our mind is just an evolved manifestation of the computational activity that is happening everywhere else around us.

University of California philosopher, John Searle, denies the physical nature of information, "except for information that is already in the mind of some conscious agent." (The Mystery of Consciousness (1997)) "Information," he says," does not name a real physical feature of the real world in the way that neuron firings, and for that matter consciousness, are real physical features of the world." While our mind has a way of creating the illusion that there is a non-physical attribute to our thoughts and that categories of data or information are somehow separate from our consciousness, I find it difficult to understand how Professor Searle succumbs to this illusion even "in part." Lloyd challenges this view.

The physicality of information is not what Lloyd's book is really about, although it is a significant insight. The book is about a scientific revolution in our understanding of information -- how the classical understanding of information that was essential for the development of computer science 60 years ago is now being gradually replaced by our understanding of quantum information -- in part thanks to quantum computers that can engage in computational activity that are beyond the capabilities of classical computers. There is a direct parallel here with classical physics and quantum mechanics, and understanding the relationship between a physical reality we can "see" and the physical reality we cannot see, but we can know. If this sounds like science fiction or even religion, it is not. If you are a dualist or a closet dualist, this book will make you think twice (if you are prepared to).

The universe computes by taking measurements. When something is measured, the universe "sees," "hears" -- type in any sensory reaction here, not necessarily limited to human senses and consciousness -- and the universe takes account of information. So atoms colliding in another galaxy and photons hitting the lens of an eye are no different.

Werner Heisenberg taught that the object of a measurement will destroy other complementary information, which becomes unmeasurable -- the uncertainty principle. Do we mean "destroy?" No, after all, Schrodinger's cat did not necessarily die in the quantum universe. Welcome to Entropy 101, a significant teaching of Lloyd's work and others who have mined the field of the theory of information and quantum information. The first and second laws of thermodynamics are active here. Information, like energy, cannot be destroyed (or increased) --- it is conserved (the first law) and entropy increases (the second law).

Whoever said that entropy is a measure of disorder did the world a disservice. The statement is literally true, but under the second law disorder does not increase -- just the opposite. In thermodynamics, entropy classically refers to the dispersal of energy over time and a balance between energy and work -- temperature, pressure and density tending to find a stasis. But, more generically, what is really meant by entropy is that, over time, the probability of equilibrium or stasis or more stable outcomes increases. As a measure of information, when entropy decreases, our measurements record less likely physical outcomes. As entropy increases, our measurements record more likely physical outcomes.

A complementary treatment of this subject is also found in Charles Seife's book --- written the same year that Lloyd's was published --- Decoding the Universe (2007). Seife is one of the best popular science writers, and here I found one of the most accessible discussions of black holes and what happens beyond the event horizon, where information appears to disappear (or does it?). Lloyd's additional contribution comes from connecting information theory to complexity theory -- emergence and self-organizing systems. For those who have followed the work at the Santa Fe Institute and scholars such as Stuart Kaufmann on the subject of dynamic living systems, this chapter will be rewarding.