This text represents a bloated hodgepodge of factoids and neo-phrenology. The problem is that molecular detail is rich, and higher level explanations...moreThis text represents a bloated hodgepodge of factoids and neo-phrenology. The problem is that molecular detail is rich, and higher level explanations are vapid. There is little substantive middle ground tying the two together. Concepts and tools to bridge that gap do exist. They include network theory (just how do neurons compute logic, and how does network structure constrain flows to lead to appropriate "information processing"?), complexity concepts such as emergence and agent based modeling (which demonstrate how large scale patterns can emerge from the interactions of agents following simple local rules), philosophical theories of part/whole relations, simulations, mathematical concepts such as fractals and chaos (as they relate to iterative patterns of development and sensitivity to both small parameter changes and developmental history) and most importantly, dynamics. It's as if Walter Freeman never existed. I read this whole thing and understand little more about how the mind works than when I started. (less)
It was difficult to get past Wolfram's outsized ego, but I was finally able to do so by alternately considering it sympathetic...moreFlawed but magnificent.
It was difficult to get past Wolfram's outsized ego, but I was finally able to do so by alternately considering it sympathetically (thinking of him as desperately seeking validation) and comically (his statements of priority and the importance of his work are so over the top it's really kind of entertaining). I also had some strong issues with Wolfram's discussion on natural selection, as well as his discussion of intelligence and life (he would have benefited from a reading of Maturana and Varela). And his principle of computational equivalence doesn't seem to recognize that something like a brain in effect channels computations toward unlikely computations that simpler but "computationally equivalent" systems do not. Despite these reservations, the book is a wonder, and seeing him deftly redefine such fundamental concepts as randomness and to effectively provide a proof of Godel's theorem in the span of a few short pages using substitution systems was to see a small miracle of human thought. His discussion regarding the limitations of current mathematics (that this field has in fact only explored a small portion of "math space") was fascinating as was his exercise in translating axiomatic systems into automata-like conceptions. Beyond specific insights and deep analysis, the sheer amount of methodological work involved in Wolfram's explorations is humbling. In short, while this book and Wolfram's vision would have benefited greatly from a restraint on his egotistical ramblings, I do think this is a very important contribution that that will likely spur creative research far into the future. (less)
On the positive side, this book represents such a broad take on the history, architecture, and functionality of the Internet that it's bound to fill i...moreOn the positive side, this book represents such a broad take on the history, architecture, and functionality of the Internet that it's bound to fill in a hole or two in one's knowledge. On the negative side, the information it provides is at such a basic level that it's hard to imagine it being very useful to anyone who has had even minimal exposure to the online world. (less)
Thompson's essay on "Life and Mind" is worth 10 stars. In it, he clearly articulates a number of fascinating connections between cognition and the pro...moreThompson's essay on "Life and Mind" is worth 10 stars. In it, he clearly articulates a number of fascinating connections between cognition and the process of living (ala Maturana and Varela). I got more out of this essay than Thompson's 500 page book on the same topic. I didn't find the rest of Emergence and Embodiment particularly engaging or edifying.(less)
I can't possibly write a review to do this book justice. It's a wonder of nature. Reading it was like attending a first-rate circus, where the main sh...moreI can't possibly write a review to do this book justice. It's a wonder of nature. Reading it was like attending a first-rate circus, where the main show is entertaining enough but then one is constantly marveling at the fact that human beings are even *capable* of such feats. The breadth and depth of the author's knowledge is a wonder, and the way he manages to tie such diverse themes together - mathematics, logic, mind, art, music, literature - is, well, humbling. I feel both much smarter having read this book, and like a monkey in comparison.
GEB is so rich in content it could well serve as the basis for an entire interdisciplinary undergraduate education (the "golden braid" that would tie disparate realms together). I would have loved to have learned this way, using the book as a basecamp for daring explorations into the various fields required to fully grok the work. I could imagine GEB acting as the glue that would provide a cohesive framework for a degree in cognitive science, computer science or complex systems.
In truth, GEB requires and justifies multiple readings. I only skimmed over the puzzles and exercises, but do believe it will be worth my while to go back, reread the book in detail and work through all of the problems. There is so much here, on so many levels; it's a beautiful tangled braid of the same type that Hofstadter believes underlies the emergence of mind. (less)
The Baldwin Effect is kind of a fascinating idea - that mind can direct evolution. This notion was supposedly laid to rest with the disgrace of Lamarc...moreThe Baldwin Effect is kind of a fascinating idea - that mind can direct evolution. This notion was supposedly laid to rest with the disgrace of Lamarck, but Baldwin (and others) may have found a loophole. We all know the apocryphal interpretation of giraffe neck evolution as presented by Lamarck - by striving to reach leaves on higher branches, early giraffes supposedly stretched their necks and these changes were then passed on to their offspring. The germ/soma distinction, as well as some conclusive experiments involving cutting the tails off many a poor rat (and finding that their offspring had no shorter tails) laid that mechanism to rest.
However, consider this: at some point in the past there were antelope-like precursors to giraffes. If none of those antelope creatures had ever decided to reach for the higher leaves, natural selection would have had nothing to operate on to select for longer necks. Much like Waddington's notion of "genetic assimilation" (another very cool idea, now accepted but beyond the scope of this review), it was the behavior (read: minds) of these giraffe precursors striving for the higher leaves that exposed the genetic variation already existing to the action of natural selection, thus opening up a new channel for evolutionary development.
That's a crude example of the process and this book contains many more sophisticated and interesting treatments, but I think it illustrates the main point - behavior can "lead the way" for genetic modification to follow. We can certainly think of definitive cases where this has been the case. Domestication of plants and animals comes to mind, as well as our own "domestication" since the invention of agriculture. That's not to mention the explicitly mind-directed evolution that is resulting from our conscious use of genetic engineering.
This book provides a good introduction to the Baldwin effect, though it's quite technical and some essays are more convincing than others. As usual, Terry Deacon's star shines and his two contributions are the best in the collection. Read anything by him for a methamphetamine jolt of cerebral wonder. (less)
This is DeLanda deciphering Deleuze and the result is almost intelligible, certainly more so than Deleuze's primary texts. The essay on materialist me...moreThis is DeLanda deciphering Deleuze and the result is almost intelligible, certainly more so than Deleuze's primary texts. The essay on materialist metaphysics and the one on intensive and extensive cartography were especially brain twisting. According to Delanda/Deleuze, reified generalities and Platonic essences are not real - reality is immanent in materiality. But then are possibilities real things? They are if they are latently possible in material things but just not currently "actuated" (This is quite different than Many Worlds type interpretations where any damn thing we can think as a possibility must be real somewhere). On a related note, are only solutions real (as per axioms and all their deductive theorems) or do the problems themselves that we try to axiomatize count as real things as well?
What a wonderful, wonderful little book. It started off a bit dry and not very engaging but a chapter or two in it started to build intellectual momen...moreWhat a wonderful, wonderful little book. It started off a bit dry and not very engaging but a chapter or two in it started to build intellectual momentum. Donella Meadows was, in a word (which I don't think I've ever actually used to describe a real person), wise. Her breadth and depth of understanding of a wide range of systems is incredible, her analogies and explanations are both accessible and spot on, and her entire outlook is quite simply, reasonable. It would be a better world if this were required reading for all. Overall, a gentle entry into what can be an intimidating field of thought (systems theory).(less)
How can a paltry 30,000 genes code for the production of a human being with its trillions of cells, each cell itself an exquisitely complex assembly o...moreHow can a paltry 30,000 genes code for the production of a human being with its trillions of cells, each cell itself an exquisitely complex assembly of interacting organelles, microstructures and molecules? It would seem there wouldn't be enough information contained in such a small number of instructions. Marcus does a masterful job explaining how this so called "gene deficit" is simply a result of thinking of genes the wrong way. The genome is not a blueprint or otherwise static list of instructions; it is a "recipe" for how individual agents (the genes) should interact using simple local rules. The complexity of the body and mind emerge from these interactions through time in dynamic relation with the environment. I have read no better explanation of how genes *really* work. Marcus explodes simplistic notions of deterministic genetic blueprints while painting a satisfying portrait of the true relationship between nature and nurture - as inseparable aspects of the same developmental process. His discussion about how genes build brains (and hence thought) is almost secondary. His main point is that the processes (and genes) that go into building brains and maintaining their function through life are fundamentally no different than those that go into building every other aspect of us. Where this book truly shines, brilliantly, is in elucidating that general developmental process.
At 180ish pages this book is condensed goodness - erudite, educational and entertaining. Loved it. Marcus is one of my favorite new scientists. (less)