Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cellphone or Banana?

"What are you writing about, Honey?"
"I'm writing about what separates man from beast."
"Really? Well... I'm going out to feed our live horses while you beat that dead one."

She has a point.

Just as I once learned that I was not, in fact, the inventor of the ham and cheese sandwich, I find once again that I am late to the party. The search for profound and essential differences between man and beast is not new.

Should that stop me from flailing about? Should that stop me from flopping around in the mud, gasping for air like a dying guppy? Where some see a dead horse, I see a piƱata.

If you want, grab a stick, step around the dead horse, and we'll see if we can't whack a little candy loose.

This subject has been a nightmare to write about. When searching the Web, the question, "what separates man from beast," will take you down endless philosophic avenues, mostly in the ghettos. I say that because the question has not been unambiguously answered, so the philosophy tends toward the mystical.
The question has range, but the answer has to be satisfying, right? Well, you have be the judge of that. The answer can't be blurted out without an explanation of how it was derived; no answer should ever be taken without an explanation.

It's only fair to you that I write this out in a linear fashion... but it's tough. There are so many things that want to be explored in depth, but then it would turn into a manuscript that would probably die a digital death. For this reason, many things that deserve better are not going to get it. The beauty of the interconnected tubes is that you can always ask for more info, right?

So, here it goes...

As best as I can tell, the main differentiating feature between man and beast is that we wipe our asses. We need accessories. We are higher maintenance, and therefore less pet-worthy.

The plain and simple fact is, attempting to identify an overarching, somehow profound feature the separates man and beast is folly. It's not the right question to ask; I could have just as well asked what the overarching differentiator between dogs and cats is. The right question to ask is why we hold cell phones, while chimps hold bananas.

If you started by listing the differences in natural abilities between man and beast, things will get out of hand very quick:
Can we fly? No.
Can we stick to walls and ceilings? No.
Can we live in a liquid water environment? No.
Can we discharge 500-volt pulses of electricity? No.
Can we spray material stronger than steel out our rear ends? No.
Can we rapidly burrow underground? No.
Can we rapidly change our coloring to become nearly invisible? No.
Can we consume objects twice the diameter of our heads? No.
Can we regenerate severed limbs? No.
Can we live inside a host? No.
Can we use sonar to locate moving objects? No.

So maybe the first question actually is why are there so many different types of animal life? Why are there so many species?

What's that? You don't think I'm being fair to us people?

Well, OK; let's pick something else. We can't compare features because we get trounced there. Does the Blue whale really need an 18-foot penis?

How about differences in complex behavior and expression?

Only man cries? No.
Only man rages? No.
Only man plays? No.
Mourns death? No.
Prepares for death? No.
Teaches others? No.
Kills for sport? No.
Raises armies? No.
Gets jealous? No.
Builds cities? No.
Cares for the sick? No.
Shares information? No.
Lives in communities? No.
Creates social castes? No.

I'm not being fair. We are but one species, so the above list can be viewed once again in the context of why so many species? With so many diverse species, many of our traits are bound to show up somewhere else. It's one of the fundamental problems in looking for differentiators between man and beast because there is almost always some counter-example.

Let's attack this from a different angle and come back to the species question later.

So much for linear progression.

Maybe we should be asking what man and beast have in common?

Hmm. Right now my mind is wandering among some irrelevant but interesting thoughts: lobsters are known to be cannibalistic. They have also been known to willfully give up a limb to a predator in the hope that the rest of itself will get away. Has there ever been a lobster that was too lazy to forage for food and just decided to shed a limb and eat it? What would that be called? Would it be auto-cannibalism?

To see what we have in common, I think we are going to have to get real small. We can zoom right past carbon, and even past amino acids, but what about DNA?

Even if you are a bacterium, we are all made up of the same DNA stuff, it's just arranged differently. Even there, we share many of the same proteins such as the AAA+ class of proteins that initiate cell division. The entire biosphere shares the same DNA structure.

If you are a chimp, then you share about 95% of the same DNA sequence you have with a human's DNA sequence. My guess is that quite a bit of that 5% difference can be accounted for in the physical differences between chimps and humans, and also in the meta-coding such as sperm and egg.

If you are thinking of trying genetic engineering at home, then please don't use what I say here, because I am about to take giant shortcuts to find out how big a 5% difference in DNA is. It goes something like this:

A strand of human DNA is about 3 billion nucleotides long. Pretending that it all transcribes to proteins (via RNA transcription), then the 3 billion nucleotides will triple up to form 1 billion codons, each coding for an amino acid used in a protein. If we pretend that instead of 20, there are only 10 types of amino acids that are used in proteins, then the 1-billion-long train of codons can be thought of as a 1-billion-digit number of the kind of numbers we are used to dealing with (base 10). Man and chimp are both coded for using a 1-billion-digit number with only 50 million digits being different between them. 50 million digits is a large number when you consider the number of atoms in the universe only takes 80 digits to write out, and 10 universes takes 81 digits.

If you squint real hard, you can almost see how DNA looks like a computer language - a computer language that emits a standard instruction set for all species. We will have to come back to that too, but for our purposes here, we already knew there would be differences in the genetic code between man and beast, so we really haven't learned anything. We are slicing it too fine. Even if there were only a one-digit difference between man and chimp, it really wouldn't explain what that digit does.

Let's try it the other way for just a second and use a very coarse approach. We'll throw caution to the wind and speculate that the big difference between man and beast has something to do with our brains. Then the question becomes, so what? We just add it to the list; not only don't we have eight arms or shoot ink out our asses, but our brains are different too. It doesn't explain why the cell phone.

It can't be that our brain is larger than the rest of the animals, because it is not. If the difference were a function of brain size, then why isn't a big dog with a big head much smarter than a little wiener dog with a little wiener head?

It would be nice if I could say right here, that the difference between brains is that the human brain has a neurodiscombobulator, where animals don't, then I could actually live with that answer, even though it still wouldn't explain why the cell phone.

The fact is, it doesn't have anything that is identifiable as uniquely human. We have failed to identify any quantitative difference that might explain the cell phone-banana gap. It must be a qualitative difference somewhere.

I always like stripping away assumptions when attacking the unknown. We come with a huge amount of default assumptions that we are not even aware of most of the time. This, by and large, is a good thing because our day would go nowhere if we had to make sure the ceiling wasn't going to fall on our heads before we entered a room, and then check that the chair we want to sit in will support our weight, and then pause to feel our heartbeat to make sure the ticker is still working. It's nice to keep moving forward toward a goal. There are times, though, that our default assumptions completely blind us to possibilities.

I've seen very intelligent people who gave up on the following riddle:

A father and his son were driving together in a car and got into a terrible crash. The father died on the spot, and the son was rushed to the hospital for immediate life-saving surgery. The surgeon came bursting through the doors of the operating room, took one look at the patient, and said, "I can't operate on this boy, he's my son!"

If you've heard this before, then maybe you remember possibly struggling with this riddle. If you've never heard it, and can't figure out how the doctor's statement can be true, don't feel bad. Your subconscious brain is feeding you the expected (default), but wrong answer. Just as with an optical illusion, or even gaps in memory, the subconscious brain tries to serve up sensible data without you even being aware.

Some people actually get mad when they are told the doctor is the boy's mother, and I suspect that is because they are mad at themselves for tricking themselves.

Instead of looking just at the brain for qualitative differences, let's start with the assumption that our brains are being supplied with better data and start our qualitative search there.

Since there is no evidence that we can influence, or are even aware of individual cells in our body, we'll exclude basic cellular metabolism from our consideration of what data the brain receives. The first layer to consider may even be below the limbic system, and that would be the involuntary regulating processes. Most of these processes are governed by a type of feedback known as hysteresis, whose action is to keep some term in a system orbiting a desired value. Sweating to lower body temperature (through evaporation) and shivering to raise it are examples of hysteretic regulation. Our rate of breathing changes in accordance with the body's need for oxygen.

Again, there doesn't appear to be much difference between man and beast here, but it is worth mentioning that people sometimes exploit, for their side effects, the automatic responses of their regulatory systems. Some people use rigorous exercise to lose weight, but there is a secret that the marketer's of diet plans don't want you to know: you can lose weight by drinking ice water. The body burns fuel to compensate for the temperature loss due to consuming ice water. You can eat pizza, which contains all the food groups and tastes great, and as long as you drank enough ice water, you are on a diet and will lose weight.

So score one for people! Humans' rock!

Now consider this: nature has created an automaton specifically designed, as best as I can tell, to bug the hell out of us. It runs on shit and garbage, moves rapidly in all 3 spatial dimensions, can rest on the ceiling, identify faces, evade hostile actions, and self-replicate on a large scale. Its offspring are little fucking maggots. Its efficiency is off the scale when compared to anything man has created. The instructions for its replication and autonomous existence are stored in a double-helix molecule that is so cleverly arranged, that it would be like reading every other word in this essay and having it be a completely different essay - times ten. I just wanted to say that in case you think I'm biased against the rest of the animals.


Pain is a very effective form of hysteretic feedback designed to get us to stop doing whatever it is that we are doing. Nerve endings are the sensors that sound the pain alarm and they are concentrated most heavily in the skin. Our skin is really an environmental suit that alerts the brain to the fact that the body has sprung a leak or is undergoing rapid compression or some other thing judged to harm the machine. Our skin doesn't participate in a corrective course of action; it just provides the feedback that some action is necessary to prevent damage. Maybe with the exception of bacteria, all animals sense pain and will react to it in some way that is highly reflexive. If you are the source of the pain some animal is experiencing, you may in turn experience the effects of a different reflex, and that is the fight reflex. Bite, sting, stink, scratch, scream, stab, or stern lectures are some of the things you may experience, depending on the species you are tormenting. The fight reflex is necessary because the flinch or flight reflex doesn't always work against things that are intent on doing harm. You can flinch away from a flame, but not a shark.

Collectively, all our sensors... I mean senses, provide us with the necessary feedback to interface with the external world to the best of our abilities. Natural selection is greatly influenced by sensory phenomena, and species whose abilities were enhanced by better senses gained selective advantage. Sensory organs also provide some of the most convincing evidence of evolution: there are caves in which virtually the entire animal population shows evidence of once having useful eyes. It also shows the fine grain roll that efficiency plays in natural selection. Would it really kill to leave the eyes alone? Maybe it would, if the energy required to grow them and service them is better spent elsewhere. Also, damage to the eyes from bumping into things may have been a source of infection, and that could easily guide selection.

Still, all in all, it does not appear there is a qualitative difference in the senses of man and beast. Quantitatively, our senses might actually be inferior to many mammals. From here on, though, we will start to see greater and greater separation as we ascend the hierarchy of how sensory data is processed.

There is a noticeable correlation in how we classify species to the level of data processing they perform. The lower species are great at surviving by thriving and dying. Their niche in the ecology usually has plenty of food readily available and an environment that ranges very little. When food doesn't basically fly into their mouths, or the weather becomes too hot/cold/dry/wet, those species will hibernate until conditions are right again or just lay eggs and die. They can get by just fine with their senses and reflexes.

At some point during evolution, some species were given a great and powerful feature to augment their senses, and that feature was memory. Memory literally adds the dimension of time to existence. With memory, sensory input can be retained as experience and later, rendered as knowledge. This held tremendous advantage for animals as they could recreate successful activities. When a decision is required in any goal-oriented activity, experience greatly increases the chance of a better choice being made. Experience leads to predictability, and predictability is king.

Experience is a funny thing unto itself. When we mention experience we are usually referring to first hand, or direct experience. There is another phenomenon that substitutes for experience; it's not experience-helper, but actual, honest faux experience. Can you guess what it is? Does anything instinctively come to mind? It's instinct!

Instinct is a real bastard to research. 97% of what you will find off Google is very superficial, and the other 4% is indecipherable neurobabble. Because of this, I am just going to make shit up here.

Instinct has to be one of the weirdest phenomena there is in biology. Since it is inherited, it must be coded for in DNA. It makes sense, right? But then I get confused, because I can't find anything in any literature that hints of the possibility that there is a DNA "recorder".

It seems highly unlikely that a complex behavior is something that gets randomly mutated. That would sort of imply that frogs could potentially develop a tries-to-fly-south-for-the-winter disorder. Some instincts are so specific and complex, that it is hard to reconcile them as something other than a learned and etched behavior. I can understand the maternal instinct, which many species possess; I can see that as being selected for very early in evolution. What I have a hard time with is the fact that a salmon goes through hell to somehow find its way back home to spawn, or that the Arctic tern migrates across the planet. Selection is a very slow process, and continents move, and rivers come and go. Somehow a mapping of the external, physical world, yes, an atlas, has made its way into DNA.

I told you I was just making shit up; I'm ready for the real info whenever you tell me what it is. For now, let's just call instinct preconfigured behavior and be done with it.

With memory, we are starting to get some separation in the species. Imprinting sensory experience to memory might be learning, but it is not knowledge. I think it is only knowledge when it is recalled and used in an action. A rat first learns a maze, and then runs a maze.

Many of the higher species actively teach their offspring by introducing them to essential experience. Additionally, these species often play as adolescents. Playing is practice, and practice is needed to strengthen the neural pathways in the brain. It would be nice to skip beginner and go straight to expert, but it doesn't work that way. Much of the brain is a substrate on which learned behavior is formed. With the exception of instinct, it does not come with behavior preconfigured, and this is a great thing for adaptability. Most of the higher species exist at a place in the ecology where food does not just fly into their mouths, and where they themselves are considered food. As always, there are exceptions to this. In general, though, members of the higher species are much more active than other species. They exist year round, and this often requires great adaptability and cleverness in seeking food and shelter. Sensory data is processed in much more complicated ways.

A more passive method of learning than direct experience is observation. Careful observation can substitute for direct experience but does not guarantee knowledge. A dog can watch another dog get hit by a car and then step in front of one itself. Somehow it failed to map what it saw to self. Focused attention seems to be an important part of passive learning, and that usually requires a goal. Treats are commonly used to get a person's attention.

People are easily trained by cats. Anyone who owns a cat has been trained by the cat to accommodate its needs. I don't think cats purposefully employ discomfort as a means to train us but discomfort, our discomfort, is ultimately what they found to work. Causes of discomfort include loud, persistent meowing, scratching the furniture, darting in front of us as we walk, knocking shit off the shelves, and lying down on the exact spot where we are reading. To avoid these discomforts we actually learn the early signals that a cat sends out to get our attention and we then make an educated guess as to its needs. If they rub up against our leg then maybe they want to be stroked. If they move toward their dish when we move then they might be hungry. If we respond correctly they will leave us alone, otherwise they will escalate from a gentle gesture to persistent and overt obnoxiousness. One question that bugs me is why do my cats first rub against my leg instead of going straight to obnoxious?

Why didn't Pavlov's dogs just ring the bell themselves?

Besides instinct, there is another built-in feature that brains come equipped with, and that is pattern recognition. It is believed that all animals with sight, including insects, have the ability to recognize faces from any species that does not try to disguise its face. Pattern recognition is something brains are good at. A bee has a brain the size of a speck but it not only controls 3D flight and all the social functions, but it also can recognize a variety of flowers from any angle.

Pattern matching maps sensory input to a symbol in the brain. Some patterns, such as the face pattern, seem to be hard-wired in the brain. Other patterns get laid in down in memory in some sort of hierarchical fashion as we learn. When we think of a tree, we use the default symbol for a tree. When we think of palm tree, we now use a more specific symbol that sort of inherits the attributes we associate with the generic symbol and augment it with more specific attributes - it becomes much clearer in our head. Some symbols, such as the one for Mom, are extremely specific and may even hold emotions among its attributes.

There were two things I said I would get back to: the question of species proliferation, and the observation that all species share the same DNA structure (mostly true). I usually get a little squeamish when I am asked to look at something holistically. I get into high alert mode and will bail at the first sign that the term holistic is being used as a substitute for faith. I don't mean religious faith necessarily, but any kind of dogmatic belief. I mention this, I think, for myself to make sure I'm not doing the same to you when I ask you to consider some curious observations about the biosphere. The biosphere is big and we are a part of it, so the expression 'can't see the forest through the trees' might be applicable here. A holistic view of the biosphere would have to include the dimension of time, and given the subject matter, the amount of time really spans back to the very beginning.

First, was there a single mother species that all life can trace back to? The assumption is yes, and this assumption is used to help locate a new species onto the taxonomy by checking the location of specific DNA markers. Its ancestor is the species with the least differences in these marker locations.

I mentioned earlier that there are 20 amino acids used in the metabolism among all species, and this is true, but it glosses over a few things. Each nucleotide can be one of four different chemicals, abbreviated A, C, G, and T. Since nucleotides group into 3's to form a codon, that means there are 43 = 64 possible states, or values a codon can assume. This discrepancy is reconciled by allowing several states to code for the same amino acid; 61 states code for 20 amino acids, and the other 3 states code for a special condition that tells a ribosome to stop chaining amino acids and cut the now-completed protein free. Some of the amino acids are mapped to only one codon state, while 1 amino acid is coded for by 6 different states. Most amino acids are coded for by at least 2 states.

There is nothing chemically that would favor one mapping over the other. Each of the 20 amino acids could just as easily been mapped to only one state and just leave the other states unused. It is speculated that the redundant coding is a way to reduce the odds of a harmful mutation. In fact, upon close examination, what has happened is the coding scheme has been arranged so that really only 2 of the nucleotide positions are important, and the third is very tolerant of a mutation. I want to know how, out of all the different ways the mapping could have been arranged, the initial species - the progenitor of life, managed to hit upon this most efficient mapping scheme to guard against an amino acid-changing mutation. It implies that, against fantastic odds, a molecule that was complex enough to protect and maintain itself, and replicate, finally happened... only to die off because it independently was created elsewhere with a more favorable mapping and was pressured out of existence. Because of the large number of possible mappings, this may have happened over and over, and mind you, for one to win out over the other, at least two competing mappings had to exist at the same time. Something smells very fishy - especially when you consider that a worst-case 33% increased chance of a mutation happening really shouldn't be all that bad since there are now 10 MILLION SPECIES! It would seem that the most is made from mutations.

Speaking of which, given this propensity to create huge numbers of species sporting a fantastic array of flamboyant characteristics, you would think that at some point it would have hit upon a very hardy combination of species that would be nearly impossible to pressure out of existence. Let's see if I can think of such a combination: hmmm... how about a beetle that eats dung and a dung-producing dung-beetle-eating something else. They could be made hardy and could cover the earth. How's that for efficiency? Why the variety? (There's a very interesting answer to that which takes another 2000 words)

But some aspects of the whole efficiency gig are a lie, right? I mean, why nature would make a species such as the salmon that has to go through living hell just to make it one more generation, is beyond me. Why not let them deposit their eggs like other fish? Or, how about the poor penguin: I watched March of the Penguins and I felt guilty just for being alive. To stand on an egg for 7 months without food, in sub-zero temperatures at the bottom of the world might make me contemplate extinction. They seem to do just fine in warm environments; the penguins in the New England Aquirium thrive, and it's hotter than hell in there.

The point is, the biosphere is a highly complex system at every level. It's so complex that we run into any number of questions that have a definite answer. In addition, it exists on a time scale outside the range of meaningful statistical sampling that we can employ from direct observation. There may be patterns that won't cycle for another 700,000 years. It's complex through and through. It's comparable to the complexity of the human brain.

Which brings this to a point: there may be an identifiable, qualitative difference in man's brain which indeed may explain how he came to be holding a cell phone. The problem is, this same quality may also be responsible for why it is so miserably difficult for us to crawl out of the holes we dig for ourselves. The reason I dragged up the issue of the holistic biosphere, is it would be nice to have a datum where we can gauge whether or not we are pressuring ourselves out of existence. By all appearances, the biosphere is experiencing an infection. We may in fact be a blight in the biosphere, and since it is so good at long term survival, we might consider looking over our shoulders and we might consider being a little less blighty.

There is a fractal nature to the biosphere. Life is made from building blocks that are adaptable over long periods of time. It has a tendency to fill up every nook and cranny by trying new or better ways to survive. It is not planned: it is a continuous game of craps being carried out by the mechanical process of DNA mutation. It is opportunistic. It has produced a wide assortment of life exhibiting a variety of characteristics. The goal of gain is a necessary feature that is common in all life. It too is opportunistic, at least until man came along. Our species has been endowed with a characteristic that moves gain from opportunistic to a directed, mechanical process, and it may not be any more controllable than the DNA mutation strategy is.

What would the earth look like if humans never developed to more than a 3rd grade level, say the mentality of a normal 9-year-old? I don't mean reverted to that, I mean they never did. How much different would we be than the apes? Would a 9-year-old have the ability to develop a written language or systematize learning in general? What would shelter look like? What would it all look like?

The reason I ask is because a qualitative difference in the human brain that could lead to our current state would not have an instant benefit that could be utilized from birth. Nature, in all its flamboyance, may simply have produced a species with superior pattern matching abilities. The pattern matching is carried out in a mechanical process over time.

Here is how things might progress:

A baby human would take in sensory data much as the other higher mammals do. It would explore its surrounds and it would be nudged by nurturing parents much as the other mammals do. Because it had superior pattern matching abilities, it might "notice" that this thing called self can affect change in its surroundings. It can shout out loud and the symbols called mother and father would react in pleasing and rewarding ways. It would begin to notice patterns to the noises made by mother and father, especially when they repeat the noises. It would notice that it could modulate its own noises to mimic the patterns of mother and father noises. It would begin to annoy mother and father for attention because self was being assigned a greater and greater value and becoming very important.

And that gain thing - whew! What a trip that is. It would seek gain, and begin to notice new patterns that led to it. A chair helps reach the cookie... ouch! A slap on the hand is loss! "You are a very bad mother and I didn't like that!"

It would begin to interact with others that match the pattern of self. They would compete for gain, which would primarily involve the reward center of the brain. They would be impressed and they would try and impress.

They would begin to notice patterns of patterns, and abstraction would begin its self-reinforcing ascent. Knowledge from experience and learning would be multiplied by the ability to abstract. The terms of a remembered experience would get substituted by analogy and abstraction, and the experience would get simulated over and over with different values. Reality would leap from what was, to what could be, and a new, more gainful course would be set.

This will be continued (I lost 25 pages of related writings).

There are some very disturbing implications with a mechanical pattern matching process. The combination of mechanical pattern matching with goal-oriented behavior has many pathological pitfalls.

We may truly be our own worst enemy and are possibly helpless to do anything about it - at least statistically. It will be explored.

No comments: