July 8, 2012
Nature’s Brains, Part 5
(Note: I invite you to read Part 4 before you dive into this part.)
If you have followed this essay so far, you might have thought I was doing a term paper for a biology class. You could be excused, for you did not know the question that motivated it. But it’s not a term paper, it’s an editorial. You might say this is a bio-political opinion piece.
Now here is where I’m going to look pretty dumb. An editorial author is supposed to have a single, solid opinion. I don’t. I haven’t made up my mind yet. It’s because of the question I asked.
A question popped into my mind as I “observed” the inner workings of the feeding sparrow’s marvelous little brain, as I recognized that brains are useful and that nature has kept improving their designs, that, in the human brain we see both the splendor and drawbacks of advanced brain design, and that, from nature’s point of view, the drawbacks are a supremely serious problem.
And this question entered my mind. “Are brains obsolete?” Is nature done experimenting with brains? That’s the question.
Here, in a nutshell, is my ambivalence on the issue. The human brain has supplanted nature. Or: the human brain appears to think and act like it has replaced nature. Or: perhaps the human brain will, in fact, displace nature in determining the future of all life on the planet. Or: probably not, nature will win and will phase out brains.
One might reply, “Phase out brains? It could never happen!” Want to bet? We have evidence of other design solutions that were edited out of nature’s animal catalogue. For instance, the dinosaurs. Although dinosaur fossils have been found spanning a variety of sizes, for this discussion we want to focus on the most obvious group, the giants whose body masses were on the order of several metric tons. They are no more. That design was phased out.
Dinosaurs had a nice, long reign of over an eighth of a billion years. Another grand animal design is represented by the trilobite group that inhabited earth’s early oceans for over a quarter of a billion years. They, too, are no more. So, it is possible that successful animal designs can enjoy popularity and still end up as throwaways in the genetic scrap heap.
OK, let’s back up a step. Is nature a thing that is capable of making decisions? Can nature phase out brains? I want to be clear: talking about nature as if it is an entity that deliberately chooses which species to include or omit in a catalogue is merely a verbal shorthand. While that shorthand makes it possible to express sentences using fewer words, I would not want you to become confused by it.
Therefore, to clear up any misunderstanding, I will place a small definition on the table. Nature is a system of rules for structuring matter. It turns out that this rule-base is huge, as is the number and type of forms it is capable of producing. Nature does not think, nor does it plan. And yet, as psychiatrist Allen Wheelis poetically argued, nature appears to “progress”. Using verbal shorthand once again, I would say that it is possible to see in nature’s progress innumerable experiments in which forms have been tried out.
Certainly, in the arena of life, the “trying out” of forms (living designs, genotype/phenotype combinations) has a dynamic nature. By dynamic, I mean that experiments can be performed using biological building blocks, and when the experiment is over those bio-molecules can be recycled into other organisms. It’s like having a whiteboard or a computer hard drive that can be written and rewritten upon many, many times.
So, simply because the human brain is the most adept brain to be written onto nature’s slate is no guarantee of anything. That genetic information can be wiped clean, and the raw materials can be assembled to make other designs.