Saturday, October 13, 2007

We have evolved to never stop evolving - (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer)

In the next chapter of Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer marries George Eliot and the notion of free will. Eliot lived in a time when many reveled in science's empiricism - its ability to hand down laws that determined our nature. Lehrer cites Pierre-Simon Laplace whose aim it was to create a "social physics," in which:
...everything was merely matter, and matter obeyed a short list of cosmic laws (like gravity and inertia), knowing the laws meant knowing everything about everything. All you had to dop was cranki the equiations and decipher the results. Man would finally see himself for "the automaton that he is." Free will, like God, would become an illusion, and we would see that our lives are really as predictable as the planetary orbits. As Laplace wrote, "We must...imagine the present state of the universe as the effect of it sprior state and as the cause of the state that will follow it. Freedom has no place here."

But Eliot rebelled against the notion that behavior was determined. She felt her experience belied it and she set out to create a body of fiction that:
give[s] us a vision of ourselves "more sure than shifting theory." While scientists were searching for our biological constrainst - they assumed we were prisoners of our hereditary enheritances - Eliot's art argues that the mind was "not cut in marble." She believed that the most essential element of human nature was its malleability, the way each of us can "will ourselves to change." No matter how many mechanisms science uncovered, our freedom would remain.

Eliot read the works of Darwin who saw purpose in our disorder and she wrote in her diary:
"So the world gets on step by step towards brave clearness and honest! But to me the Development theory [Darwin's theory of evolution] and all other explanations of processes by which things came to be produce a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the process." Because evolution has no purpose or plan - it is merely the sum of its accumulated mistakes - our biology remains impenetrable.

Lehrer uses this chapter to write about the ability of the brain to form new nerve cells, which may not sound that interesting until realizing that it had been thought until very recently that we are born with our full complement of neurons at birth. He also writes about the human genetic code and critiques the Human Geonome Project as a repeat of a futile attempt to create mechanistic laws that will explain the totality of the human state:
Every chromosome, gene, and base pair would be sequenced and understood. Our textual underpinnings would be stripped of their mystery, and our lack of freedom would finally be exposed. For the paltry sum of $2.7 billion, everything from cancer to schizophrenia would be eradicated.

That was the optimistic hypothesis. Nature, however, writes astonishingly complicated prose. If our DNA has a literary equivalent, it's Finnegan's Wake...
Isn't that marvelous? I do have a few quibbles with this chapter's omission of the selection part of Darwin's theory. It would have been less convenient to a discussion of random error as the scientific equivalent of free will, but it bugged me. However, I suppose Lehrer's ability to make choices is why his prose is so much more economical than, say, mine. He also discusses introns - the vast amount of genetic code that no use can yet be attributed to. Is junk really the only explanation anyone has for them? Has no one posited their function as extra yarn for nature to knit with? I.e. the code may be repeated more times than seems necessary now, but that leaves was more possibility for error and hence there are more opportunities for mutation and more chance for a developments useful in a world whose context we cannot yet imagine. Sorry for that little diversion, if I'm curious I guess I should look it up. Lehrer's science writing is mostly transparent and focused but I occasionally wonder if a general reader is going to get lost in something like: "their auditory cortex now resembled the typical ferret visual cortex, complete with spatial maps and neurons tuned to detect slants of light." A couple of words of context on what a spatial map and the visual cortex are could be useful there, unless my perspective is off on how well general science jargon is understood.

Aside from little quibbles like those, I am finding this book informative, clever and amusing. How Lehrer finally ties together Middlemarch and freedom is the pleasure of reading his prose rather than mine. Don't worry, I'm not going to write as much on every chapter as I've done on the first two, but I wanted to give a detailed view of what I'm enjoying about this book.

In the next chapter he concocts a rich dish of the French chef Escoffier and the processes of sensation and perception without making hash of it. More on that later.

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