Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Welcome fellow daed-heads!

Welcome to my own humble online Hyde Park soap box.

You may ask - what is the name NeuroDaedalus meant to invoke?


Neuro

The "Neuro" prefix is meant to indicate, given my education, experience and interests, the topics likely to appear will dwell at the nexus of information technology, scientific publishing of manuscripts, data and analyses, and philosophical studies of the mind as they relate to neuroscientific research practice.

Daedalus

There are two roots to my use of the term Daedalus:

J. B. S. Haldane

JBS Haldane in the fieldThe mathematician, chemist, physiologist and geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (November 5, 1892 – December 1, 1964), known to most simply as J. B. S., in 1923 delivered an oratory entitled Daedalus or Science and the Future, later published in book form (a transcription of which created by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi back in 1993 can be found here). In this essay, J. B. S. expounds on what he felt at the time were likely to be the hopeful and the fear-provoking repercussions to society and civilization of the rapidly accelerating pace of scientific discovery and technological practice. Despite Haldane's acutely honed sense of irony, this piece taken in its entirety speaks largely of the future promise of scientific discovery, with only a minimal nod the looming tragedy likely to befall us were the applications to be primarily driven by other than humanitarian goals.

Here is a short excerpt about Daedalus, or Science and the Future from the highly entertaining and dramatic biography of J.B.S. published in 1968 by Ronald William Clarke just a few years after Haldane's death:
While still an undergraduate Haldane had written a lengthy essay dealing with the future of science. He had tucked it away among his papers...and only pulled it out nine years later when suddenly called upon by the New College Essay Society to produce a paper at three days' notice. He remembered the Future of Science, re-furbished it in the light of wartime experience and the scientific discoveries made since 1912, and successfully read it...Now called Daedalus, or Science and the Future...in 1924...it was published in the series Today and Tomorrow...a...volume of...100 pages which sold for what was then considered the excessively high price of 2s. 6d. Within 12 months, it had passed through five impressions and had sold 15,000 copies.
Daedalus concentrated on future biological discoveries...setting up various Aunt Sallies (i.e., straw dogs), demolishing them, and generally exhibiting proficiency as a writer...This short book revealed other traits which later hardened into essentials of Haldane's character...(one) was his emphasis on the fact the sciences and humanities are but two interlinked parts of the complete life. "I am absolutely convinced," he wrote, "that science is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than are the clssics, but the products of this stimulus do not normally see the light of day because scientific men as a class are devoid of any literary form...Not until our poets are once more drawn from the educated classes (I speak as a scientitst) will they appeal to the average man by showing him the beauty of this own life."
Daedalus...suggested that humanity might extend its ideas into the future...
-- J•B•S: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane by Ronald William Clark, with a preface by Sir Peter Medawar (Hodder and Stoughton: London, UK, 1968)

NOTES:


  • Haldane started reading mathematics and biology in his first year at New College, Oxford. In addition to having already done substantial work in physiology with his father, John Scott Haldane, prior to commencing at Oxford, J.B.S. had considerable success in both fields during this first year, even going so far as to begin his life long contribution to establishing the burgeoning field of genetics on a solid quantitative foundation by being the first to create a mathematical model characterizing genetic linkage in mammals (Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University in New York had already published his analysis of genetic linkage in animals, studying the correlation between eye color and gender in the fruit fly, Drosophila). While in the trenches during WWI, Haldane went on to finally finish work on the manuscript and soon after published his genetic linkage analysis in guinea pig and mouse populations, the first such analysis in mammals.

  • Forever an idiosyncratic seeker of new knowledge, J.B.S. switched to "Greats" in his second year, where he would primarily be studying The Classics, literature, and the related arts. This line of study clearly contributed to his eloquence as a public communicator of scientific knowledge. He ultimately went on to a 40+ year prolific career primarily as a geneticist without ever obtaining an official degree in a scientific discipline. Given the fact he'd been a practicing scientist contributing to significant research efforts since the age of 10, Haldane's lack of a degree clearly bore no relevance to his ability to make significant fundamental contributions in the fields of biochemistry, genetics, and physiology. One can only conjecture as to how the lack of a degree and the resulting complexity it added to his life may have contributed to J.B.S.'s acute disdain for established authority and bureaucratic infrastructure, a very well-documented fact (see J•B•S: The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane). Given the relative informality on such issues in the early half of the 20th century and Haldane's indisputable intellectual prowess and prolific contributions, his lack of a degree may have gone largely unnoticed. His formidable talents as a public speaker and debater may also have discouraged all but the most belligerently polemical senior scientists from even considering such a topic of discussion.

  • The following year, 1924, Bertrand Russell wrote a response to Haldane's essay, ICARUS or The Future of Science, which is equally fascinating in its own right. Russell took a much more cautionary tone - to wit:
    • "Much as I should like to agree with his (Haldane's) forecast, a long experience of statesmen and government has made me somewhat sceptical. I am compelled to fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy. Icarus, having been taught to fly by his father Daedalus, was destroyed by his rashness. I fear that the same fate may overtake the populations whom modern men of science have taught to fly. Some of the dangers inherent in the progress of science while we retain our present political and economic institutions are set forth in the following pages."



The myth of Daedalus and Icarus

No doubt J.B.S. intended for his use of the term Daedalus to refer to specific aspects of this myth.
In particular:

  • Daedalus created an ingenious plan to help him and his son escape the tower prison into which King Minos had sequestered them. Icarus's story is the part of the myth most people are familiar with, but in short, Daedalus hit upon an innovative solution to create wings for himself and his son, enabling them to easily fly away out the tower window. Daedalus warned Icarus to stay close to him and not venture either too low or too high, as the powerful wings were labile in the presence of water or the intense heat of the sun. Icarus, enthalled by the puissance and majesty imbued in him via the large, feathered wings Pryce with wings in Brazil(think the wings worn by Jonathan Pryce in the dream sequences from the spectacular Terry Gilliam film, Brazil), unfortunately for him flew too near the sun causing the wax holding the feathers to the wing frame to melt, and the rest, as they say, is history (well, mythology really). The cautionary Icarus side of the myth is more in holding with Bertrand Russell's answer to Haldane's original essay. I think it essential to maintain a balance between these two views in order to properly consider the long-term value science brings to bear on the human condition. Aldus Huxley expresses this with great insight and aplumb - and remarkably little overt value judgment - in Brave New World , a work directly influenced by both of these essays - e.g., Haldane's essay spends quite a bit of time expounding on the potential advantages of ectogenesis (birth outside the womb), a topic central to Brave New World. As an example of the need to keep a balanced view of the value of science to society and civilization, one must remember, fallable human judgment has already demonstrated in the case of "applied" genetics the potential both to provide great curative power in the practice of clinical medicine, as well as to be misued to make seemingly omnicient judgments on the inherent "value" of certain individuals as in it's use in social darwinistic eugenics programs in both Europe and the U.S. during the early 20th century. Variations on this particular debate rage on in subtler form today and provide much gris for the bioethics mill. It is only one of many debates cast against our eminently fallable inituition in applying our scientific knowledge in the political and social arena. I still remain on the whole a hopeless romantic and an optomist, but clearly the jury is still out on such varied issues as global warming, GMOs, and the use of the Adam Smith-style market economics to dictate government-sponsored social programs.

  • Daedalus was also responsible for building, on commission from King Minos, the labyrinth of Crete, where the Minotaur roamed devouring the victims sacrificed to him by dint of their being sent into the labyrinth from which there appeared to be no end and no beginning. To me, the image of the labyrinth, so artfully explored in many of the works of Jorge Luis Borges, reminds me of the following:

    • phrenology headthe structural, biochemical and genetic intricacy of the brain includes communication paths so numerous and varied as to appear at times beyond the realm of human reason to comprehend in a functionally relevant way. This leaves neuroscientists with the yet incomplete task of fully closing the mind-body dualistic gap first established in the works of René Décartes and others nearly 400 years ago. This effort toward unification of the epistemological construct mind and the biological substrate brain began in earnest with the advent approximately 150 years ago of neuroscientific study focussed on structure-function relationships in the nervous system cast in the context of the mind we all think we know. Recent work in neuroimaging over the past two decades has begun to provide tantalizing and compelling evidence which may soon help neuroscientists to significantly diminish this gap. These findings are amongst the issues I expect to track and explore in this blog.


    • the endlessly recursive nature of the paths in the labyrinth reminds me of the seamingly limitless chain of relations human technological interventions can lead to - a chain described so eloquently in Rachel Carson's strident plea for reason to prevail given in her ground-breaking work of popular science writing, Silent Spring. I don't see this chain as purely negative and fatal, and neither does Carson, as you read through her book. Silent Spring is not a one-sided polemical condemnation of scientific progress but rather a plea to increase appreciation for the enormous connectedness expressed in the biosphere, one that puts a great burden on human civilization as custodians of the "commons" in the historical and legal sense of this word. For example, see the following passage near the end of Silent Spring, chapter 2 - The Obligation to Endure:
      • "It is not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used. I do contend we have put poisonous and biological potent chemicals indiscriminantly into the hands of individuals largely or wholly ignorant of their potential to do harm...I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation into their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life."
      • I would contend for all the many ways in which scientists, engineers, business executives, environmentalists, and even governments have begun to heed Carson's clarion call, many in governement and amongst those scientists and engineers responsible for putting scientific knowledge to practical effect still persist in ignoring the general principles she expounded nearly a half century ago.



As I read Haldane's essay, I see both of these threads intertwined - the double-edge sword provided by scientific knowledge and the inherent complexity and interconnectedness of nature - by a man whose piercing insight and intellectual curiosity were unriveled in his age.


In closing I would add as is the case with any blog, there are no implied warranties regarding the accuracy or currency of the content included here. These pages will contain my thoughts and opinions, and the scope of my knowledge is no more or less complete than any other moderately well-informed neuroscientist, and my judgement is equally fallible.

Having said that, we're all just primates, so I think relatively serious and knowledgeable people likely fall within a pretty narrow range of fallibility, +/- a factor of 2-4, as opposed to orders of magnitude. To aid in making whole my blinds spots and correcting my lapses in judgment, I strongly encourage others to post comments and corrections to police my "gedanken droppings."

If nothing else, this blog should greatly decrease the burden to my friends and colleagues who hitherto found such clotted ramblings clogging their respective inboxes. This blog is dedicated to their tolerance, perseverance, and sometimes encouragement (you know who you are).

No matter how fallible my analysis may be, my judgment of what source material is worth a look is generally pretty good. With this in mind, I will:


Cheers,
Bill Bug

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