Saturday, 30 March 2013

Evolution, Civilization and Pseudo-science – A Review of "Paleofantasy"

As a young child, nearly 70 years ago, I purchased a beautifully illustrated book “The Story of Living Things” and have been hooked on science and evolution ever since. So when I Saw Marlene Zuk's book “Paleofantasy - What Evolution really tells us about sex, diet and how we live” I has hooked by the subtitle – but puzzled by the short title. On reading the book I realise I have missed out in life (particularly as it lived in the United States) as I never read glossy lifestyle magazines and was virtually unaware of the pseudo-science of caveman diets and paleo-living surrounding the “back to the glorious past” brigade which the book aims to address.

Having got over the shock I found the book a very readable account of the changes that the coming of agriculture and communal living have had in evolutionary terms – including how the changes caused by the selective breeding of our food species have converted what might be considered unappetising wild species of fruit into their delicious modern counterparts on the supermarket shelves. I was also very happy with the way it looked at the relationship between milk products, human evolution and the digestion of lactose. On the subject of exercise it discusses the fact that humans are naturally good long-distance runners compared with many other animals and I found the discussion of persistence hunting (where food animals are chased till they become exhausted) extremely interesting. I can definitely recommend it for anyone with a genuine scientific interest in how we came to be what we are now.

In the context of my own studies into the evolution of human intelligence there was little specifically relating to evolutionary changes in the inbuilt mechanisms of the human brain (as opposed to cultural changes) but this was compensated by very useful reviews on the the relationship between men and women and the problems of rearing children which need many years of support before they reach breeding age. There are also useful comparisons with evolutionary differences between races, such as the way Tibetans have evolved to cope with living at high altitudes. In fact I have flagged these sections for a detailed re-read following up the many notes and entries in the comprehensive bibliography.

Overall I am very pleased to have a copy of this book on my shelf, and only have one problem with it. When I regularly wrote book reviews for the New Scientist, one of the key questions I always asked was “what is the audience this book is written for?” The language is very readable, with virtually no technical jargon, and so is accessible to anyone with a smattering of scientific understanding. I can see a number of the chapters being very useful fodder for a variety of undergraduate studies as the story they yell really makes you think.

However I was completely put off for the opening words of the introduction which reads “The first thing you have to do to study 4,000 year old DNA is to take off your clothes.” This is exactly the kind of introductory lead I might have expected in a short article in a glossy colour supplement of the type which promotes “natural” eating and “back to the past” life styles. As a serious scientist this sent out all the wrong vibes for me – and looks as if it was only there because an editor told the female author to “say something sexy.” simply to boost sales. This would not matter if the book was aimed at the kind of reader that eats raw meat as result of reading hyped up newspaper articles about the "paradise" of natural living enjoyed by cavemen. Of course I may not be a good judge of how such people think – but I don't think the book, which raises a lot of serious points, and which has virtually no pictures, would appeal to such an audience.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Are you trapped by the “Computer-thinking” box

I have just had a message asking if there was a manual for MicroCODIL, and whether the source code is available and in my reply I said:

Of course there is a manual for MicroCODIL and, as most of the code is written in BBC Basic I effectively released most of the source code when the trial version was produced for a BBC Microcomputer in the 1980s – when more than 100 copies were distributed, in most cases to schools. As the BBC Micro was very much of a cult machine there are always working BBC systems for sale on ebay.

The way to learn to use and understand MicroCODIL is to play with it – which is, in effect, the way a child learns about the world. While there is a detailed manual MicroCODIL it is accompanied with a whole range of demonstration applications and it was these demonstration applications which so impressed the reviewers who liked it. The difficulty is that the more someone knows about conventional computer systems the harder it is for them to understand the novel features of the CODIL approach.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Why is Albert Perry's DNA so interesting?

Many people researching their family history are interested in finding as much as possible about the paternal line – and have resorted to DNA testing of the Y chromosome, which passes from father to son, and which is not found in women. Because small copying errors occur between one generation and the next it is possible to find out how closely related and two men are. Fossil evidence suggests that modern man came into existence about 200,000 years ago and that all living men shared a common “Adam” ancestor somewhere between 60 and 140,000 years ago.

That is until Albert Perry's DNA was sent for testing by a relative – and the laboratory carrying out the genealogical tests on his DNA were puzzled – as it didn't fit. Further investigation suggested that his Y chromosome was so different to yours or mine that the “Human” paternal ancestor we shared with Albert lived about 340,000 years ago – over 100,000 years before the beginnings of the modern human species.

Monday, 11 March 2013

It ain't half hot, Mum - In Australia

In 1990 I traveled to Australia to spend a year helping to develop a computer system to keep politicians, civil servants and the public aware of the possibility of climate change. On the way there I drafted my thoughts about the future of the planet - To Australia in a box - and have published the text on this blog, together with my later thoughts.

Did the work I was supposed to do succeed in preparing the Australians for what was to come - as revealed by the   recent report, The Angry Summer, published in Australia a few days ago. Of course it didn't - as within a couple of months of starting work familiarising myself with the scientific literature on the subject I was told the project was being axed. The reason was never clear to me - but it is clear that there was not enough interest to justify a project for something "that would never happen".

On the 1990 trip my wife came with me and warned me that "If it gets too hot I'm going straight back to England" and everything was fine until just after Christmas when we we holidaying in Melbourne (in a student flat with no air-conditioning) and the official shade temperature rose to 42c. Thinking this excessive we simply jumped in to our car (which had air-conditioning) and set off back to Sydney. My wife then spent a month to cool off in New Zealand while I spent an unpleasant few days at a summer conference at Brisbane University with temperatures in the high 30s and high humidity. If I had found a home for my research in Australia we would almost certainly have stayed - but I am sure we would have though about coming back to England when the maximum temperatures started to rocket. Of course air-conditioning can make life bearable in the short term - but running the air-conditioning means generating more carbon dioxide - making the problem worse. Definitely the latest news from the Hawaiian monitoring station on carbon dioxide levels makes grim reading 

Getting the scale right

Your eyes are very good at adjusting to scale - most of the time. But there are exceptions. As someone who trained as a chemist I am used to crystals and I immediately recognised this as group of gypsum crystals growing inside a cavity in a lump of rock. I then noticed a few orange specs and wondered what they were. It was only when I had clicked on the picture to get a larger image that I realised that my brain had been fooled.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Blue Sky Research and the Black Hole in Brain Research

Following my posting "How the Human Brain works – concept cells, memodes and CODIL" I got a message suggesting I look at a recent article, in The Times of 2nd March, outlining the Human Brain Project and the work of Professor Henry Markram. In reply I drafted the following note which explains why I feel that research, such as the Human Brain Project, and the American  Brain Activity Map Project are looking in the wrong place - and why blue sky research which looks for radical alternative solutions "outside the box" looses out.
The article on the Human Brain Project is interesting in that it highlights the problem with modern brain research. Professor Markram says “The fact is, we're still in the Dark Ages. We're a little better than we were 6,000 years ago” which fits entirely with my view that there is a black hole in brain research.

The problem, in my view, is that virtually everyone in the field is trying to find the “Philosopher's Stone” of Intelligence – that extra special something that makes us different to animals. We take it for granted that we are clever – and that there must be something “very clever” in the brain to make us what we are. We are so big-headed that in the past we thought the earth was the centre of everything and the sun and stars went round the earth. Few people still hold that view but we still cling desperately to the idea that there is something exceptional about our brain apart from its size, and what culture allows us to do with it.

The Human Brain Project is a good example of the search for “elixir of intelligence” which is basically a rat race for academic prestige – bigger – better – faster – more computers - more expensive teams of narrow minded specialists – sorry but no time to stop and think outside the box or someone else will beat us to the limited research funds, or worse still, be successful in their search and published first. Even if it succeeds in mimicking the brain there is not guarantee that it works in the same way! In fact millions of people are looking for “the answer” but as far as I can found out no-one has come up with a model, stage by stage, of how the brain's electrical impulses lead to support human [and animal] intelligence. I suspect that you hold this view and are unaware of anyone who has succeeded in such research.

The key to good research is to find the right questions to ask – and not just to charge off in the direction the establishment thinks the answer lies because everyone else is going in that direction. In fact often the most interesting scientific questions are those that fall way outside the box of ideas that the establishment deems to be acceptable. Unfortunately the science rat race, with enormous sums (and prestige) going to a small number of major projects in “top” institutions can mean that genuine blue sky research can get thrown out with the bath water.

The model I am working on [See Brainstorms and information about CODIL in right column of blog] assumes as a starting point that the only significant difference between a typical mammal brain and a human brain relates to capacity (number of neurons and number of interconnections per neuron). I start with a minimal pattern matching model that any animal that can memorise and use facts about the environment must have in order to do anything useful with the its brain. I then look at what extra (if anything) one needs to be able to, for example, support language. Even if the model will not go all the way, it points to the areas where the model suggests possible approaches. After all I work on the basis that any good research model should have predictive power to suggest further research.

My difficulty is not with my model – but rather in persuading people that [the ideas expressed on this blog] represent a viable approach, particularly as I am not in a position to follow it through to a conclusion myself.

The major obstacle is that most people fail to realise that a simple model can help you to understand very complex problems. They jump to the conclusion that as because the human mind can handle very complex tasks the drive mechanism must be equally complex. They forget that the basic idea behind evolution is so simple that it can be written on the back of an envelope yet a detailed study of what has happened (given millions of years of slow changes) can be extremely complex. In my model the equivalent to evolution's million of years is an understanding of the power of significant levels of recursion – which allows the same simple mechanism to be used again and again and again and hence achieve a significant level of sophistication in the concepts the brain is processing, by taking a large number of individually very simple steps. Because of the way recursion works the mechanism is simple even if the ideas being processed are extremely complex.

I also have problem in getting my ideas over because the key features are counter-intuitive in terms of the algorithmic approach to science and mathematics – and in particular the way everyone is taught to think about computers. The Turing model of computing boils down to answering the question “Which came first, the program or the data?” with a very clear answer - “The program”. When I was working on CODIL I was saying that, for large poorly defined problems, all you had was “information” and that when the system made decisions the nearest you got to a task-specific program was to observe the dynamically generated “virtual program” by monitoring how decisions had been reached! For my pains I could not get the support and funding I needed because the establishment was tied to the idea that the Turing model was the only valid model, and was so financially successful that there couldn't be a better information processing model.

What happened in my “Eureka moment” was I realised that the information stored in the brain is also “virtual” in that it only exists in any meaningful form while the links between neurons are active. In particular any neuron might be involved in many different but related “memories” at different times. This “virtual parallel” model of the brain's working memory is so different to the “concrete words in a serial context” of natural language that it can be quite difficult to explain in natural language!

All this suggests that one of the reasons the workings of the brain are such a mystery is that, in order to understand how memories are created and used in the brain, one has to “unlearn” the basis of natural language and the scientific method as applied to individual culturally inspired tasks!!!

I am currently drafting a paper to take my model from individual links between neurons, via building complex concepts by recursive pattern matching, to making decisions (including a consideration of consciousness), the need for accelerated learning, the foundations of language, and the switch to the cultural evolution of powerful mental skills. Hopefully this will be ready in about a week's time and I will let you know when it is ready. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Man's Inhumanity fo the Great Apes

I believe our brains have much in common with the great apes - the main difference being that we have a supercharged version. For this reason I was upset to see the latest report on the numbers of great apes that are illegally killed or taken into captivity each year. I am clearly worried that we are likely to end up with them all going extinct or ending up in permanent captivity.

Rural Relaxation: Red-crested Poachard at College Lake

A couple of days ago the sun was shining and  I decided to bus to College Lake (I normally drive) and walk all the way round - taking photographs as I went. The highlight of the trip was when I was down at water level and through a gap in the water edge vegetation I could see this pair of Red Crested Pochards diving for food.