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February 5th, 2007


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06:29 pm - Technology and Science musings and links
This article on using computers to duplicate neural processing is fascinating and hopeful. If this works (and it certainly sounds like it is) then creating neural replacements and augmentations sounds exceedingly hopeful. Of course, in this endeavor we are also blessed with having an exceptionally flexible nervous system that seems able to adapt to and learn to use almost any input in fairly short order. At this point, one of the major limits it the problem of implanting lots of electrodes in the brain is difficult and not necessarily stable in the long-term. However, this problem also appears to be on the way to being solved

On a completely unrelated from once again the old notion of "nature red in tooth and claw" appears to be drastically incorrect, in that many organisms actually serve to aid the ability of other organisms to thrive in their environment. One of my greatest problems with capitalism is the ideological framework it produces, with the basic assumptions that competition and struggle invariably produce superior results to cooperation. We think about the world based upon our emotional and philosophical models, and the capitalist model is (at least from my PoV) deeply flawed and inclines people away from cooperative behavior, as can be clearly seen in various studies on cooperation, where upper level economics students were significantly more inclined to selfishness and less inclined to cooperation than students of other disciplines.
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From:athenian_abroad
Date:February 6th, 2007 03:05 pm (UTC)
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I've thought ever since noticing the increasing rise of the "merciless combat makes everything stronger" memetics that one thing the whole idea really seems to appeal to is a nasty little part of monkey-brain that likes rationalizing violence.

Agreed...though I think that this has been a dominant idea in Western thought since the late 19th century. It was briefly interrupted in its dominance during the "counter-culture moment" of the late 1960's to mid-1970's. To many of us (myself very much included) who happened to be raised during this period -- when "friendship" and "cooperation" were what Star Trek called "worship words" -- the return to the more enduring old ways seems especially disconcerting. This isn't how we thought life was supposed to be.

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From:heron61
Date:February 6th, 2007 07:07 pm (UTC)
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I'm not certain that this is entirely accurate, since it looks to me (admittedly an outsider) that much of Western Europe has grown at least somewhat beyond the idea that "merciless combat makes everything stronger" - this change seems strongest in much of Scandinavia. OTOH, I completely agree from the PoV of the US - comparing both ideas and mass media tropes from my childhood with those from 1985 onwards is rather depressing. With luck, the US will soon catch up with the rest of the West.
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From:athenian_abroad
Date:February 7th, 2007 02:52 pm (UTC)
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That's a very good point: Europe, at least Continental Europe, would appear to be different, after the Second World War at least.

Pondering on this a bit, I think that I can detect three distinct strains of the "merciless combat makes everything stronger" meme in Western thought: Darwin-ism*, Nietzsche-ism, and what I'll call Smith-ism (a.k.a. "political economy"). Smith-ism is obviously the oldest, followed by Darwin-ism, with Nietzsche-ism bringing up the rear. Smith-ism and Darwin-ism were both anchored in the U.K., while Nietzsche-ism was chiefly Continental, and never really took hold in the English-speaking world; Smith-ism was strongest in the English-speaking world and weak on the Continent. Darwin-ism, I think, showed up in both zones, but mostly in a secondary role to one of the other two "core" strains. In the English-speaking world, Darwin-ism was seen as "proving" Smith-ism, while on the Continent, it gave biological blessings to Nietzsche-ism.

In the U.S., Darwin-ism was taken up by the middle-class left (i.e. the Progressives), while Smith-ism remained the province of the industrialist right.

Anyway, my conjecture is this: that the experience of WWII and of the Nazis more generally poisoned (or, perhaps, immunized) the popular imagination against Nietzsche-ism and, to a lesser degree, Darwin-ism.

So, the key predictor of the survival of the "merciless combat" meme within a national culture would be the strength of the Smith-ism strain prior to the Second World War. Which is more or less what we find.




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* I'm using the "-ism" form to denote the cluster of popular ideas that grew up about and around a thinker, as distinct from the words and ideas of the thinker himself.
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From:heron61
Date:February 7th, 2007 08:01 pm (UTC)
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*nods* That seems to fit the facts quite well. Given that some form of economic "readjustment" (by which I mean something ranging from a serious recession to a deep depression) seems to be looming rapidly in the US, with the crisis in both personal credit and international trade balance, I'm hoping that we will at see a return to the ideas of the New Deal, and perhaps even the late 1960s.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 6th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)
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I've been thinking about intestinal bacteria a lot lately. It's very strange, we are constantly infected, defending ourselves against microorganisms. But without them, we would be in very sorry shape.

I read an article not so long ago about bacteria associated with acid reflux... some prevent it, but ultimately seem to generate cancers. Others do not, but do seem to generate cancers. Obviously, these bacteria have been with us a very long time, so long that their ecology is part of ours. No "cure" is possible, only right relation.
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From:athenian_abroad
Date:February 6th, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC)
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I found the New Scientist article entirely perplexing. To the best of my recollection, the words "interdependent" and "ecosystem" have been central parts of the vocabulary of ecology for...well...basically as long as there has been "ecology." (Wikipedia says "ecosystem" dates from 1935.) As for this: "These positive interactions have generally been assumed to play relatively unimportant roles in ecosystems," I have to say, "WTF?!" More articulately: "Precisely what does Bob Holmes imagine the term 'ecosystem' means?"

Of course, biologists undoubtedly prefer terminology like "interdependence" to anthropomorphic (and therefore simply false) language like "cooperation." But the notion that heartless scientists have somehow overlooked the fact that organisms and species form part of one another's environment seems...just wrong.

However. I suppose that what's at issue isn't so much what actual scientists say as what "Science" says -- that is, the "official" pronouncements of the imaginary monolith "Science," as embodied in the popular media and the popular imagination. And here, perhaps, Holmes is on firmer ground. Do "most people" (that other imaginary monolith) understand that species can co-evolve? Or really grasp what "interdependence" means? Perhaps not.

Still, I find myself squicked at the notion that an article such as this has to accept the straw-man "Science" at face value, even if only to refute it -- because the acceptance simply reinforces the popular view (if it exists) that "Science" has something to do with what scientists think and do.

And perhaps it's all beside the point: once someone feels compelled to anthropomorphize Nature as-a-whole at all, whether as "red in tooth and claw" or as nurturing "Mother Nature," contact with the nuances of reality is pretty much a lost cause.

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From:heron61
Date:February 6th, 2007 07:12 pm (UTC)
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I partially agree, except that in the vast majority of books or articles on ecology I've seen the idea of a "foundation species" would be one which many species in the ecosystem feed on. The specifics of this situation seem to be the sort of thing that has largely been ignored.
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From:athenian_abroad
Date:February 7th, 2007 03:10 pm (UTC)
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Hmmm.... But isn't the relationship between old-growth trees and the spotted owl exactly the same as the relationship posited between cordgrass and mussels? I.e. the cordgrass itself provides a physical environment in which the mussels thrive more successfully? Perhaps I'm missing a key distinction, but I'd say that this kind of interaction is pretty widely described and discussed in mainstream biology and in environmental policy.

As for the term "foundation species," I wonder if Menge (or Holmes) is simply mis-using (or trying to re-purpose) a technical term. I don't know what the authoritative definition might be, but Wikipedia defines "foundation species" as, "... a dominant primary producer in an ecosystem both in terms of abundance and influence." If that's the commonly accepted definition, the usage you describe simply amounts to using the word correctly, and the proposed application to species which don't play that role would be wrong (or, arguably, innovative). I notice the term "keystone species" floating around, which might be used for this purpose.



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From:moominmuppet
Date:February 6th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC)
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causing the nerve fibres to continuing growing, at up to 1 cm each day.

Wow! It's like kudzu-neurons!
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 8th, 2007 05:40 am (UTC)
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One of my greatest problems with capitalism is the ideological framework it produces, with the basic assumptions that competition and struggle invariably produce superior results to cooperation.

I'm not sure that's true. Sometimes, I think zealous capitalists are very pessimistic about "superior results." Rather than believing capitalism is optimal, they simply believe "I got mine." I think our culture has a disease of "I got mine." Cancerous capitalism is one symtpom, but you can see the problem in other areas as well.

"No abortions in MY neighborhood." ... "If my daughter needs one, of course, we'll just make a long drive."

"The erosion of civil rights is a problem for terrorists and criminals, not me."

A truly optimized capitalistic system includes cooperation as well as competition... however, that works as well for oligopolies as well as it does for self-regulating industries.

While capitalists like to think of themselves as self-sufficient and productive, in most cases, I think capitalist owners are actually "free riders," benefitting from the organization of society while profiting on a nonreciprocal basis from others. Just as an example, predatory lenders impoverish working members of society and diminish their economic power; what makes someone a lender other than already having liquid funds available from previous transactions?


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