Reviewed by Amy Ione, March 2019
Published: Leonardo Reviews
A Different Kind of Animal is based on two lectures Robert Boyd delivered in 2016 at Princeton University as a part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. In these lectures Boyd introduces his theory that biology and culture are both evolutionary, a topic he’s been working on with Peter Richerson for three decades. Needless to say, this is a broad topic, a point brought home by the four Responses to the lectures also included in the volume. All four commentators endorse the contours of Boyd’s theory and their critiques also raise valid questions: Is Boyd too reductive? Does Boyd’s view of social learning and cooperation rely too much on copying others? Does he adequately define the ways that norms arise and change? Is he ignoring how individuals manipulate norms?
At the beginning of the book Boyd points out that his lectures are about human uniqueness and cumulative cultural adaptation, not the inventive capacities of individuals. He writes:
“We are much better at learning from others than other species are, and equally important, we are motivated to learn from others even when we do not understand why our models are doing what they are doing. This psychology allows human populations to accumulate pools of adaptive information that greatly exceed the inventive capacities of individuals. Cumulative cultural evolution is critical for human adaptation.” (p. 16)
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Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists
edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman
Review by Amy Ione
Posted: Leonardo Reviews, May 2017
One of the Times Higher Education’s Best Books of 2015, Future of the Brain offers a compilation of original essays by leading brain researchers. Divided into seven sections, the range and disparities of the authors’ views underscore the dearth of an overarching theory researchers apply to studies in this area. Cross-references among chapters do, however, remind us that science itself succeeds through communication among scientists about what their data says. Also noteworthy is that, even given the spectrum of views, most of the authors share a “we can do this” attitude: They are confident we can and will eventually understand the brain. Suffice it to say, as Gary Marcus, one of the book’s two editors notes: “Neuroscience today is a collection of facts, rather than ideas; what is missing is connective tissue. We know (or think we know) roughly what neurons do, and that they communicate with one another, but not what they are communicating” (p. 205).
The first section, mapping the brain, presents connectome projects. This idea (with computation) is the primary research paradigm presented in the book. Essays by Mike Hawrylycz, Misha Ahrens, Christof Koch, Anthony Zador, and George Church set the stage for this book’s survey of current efforts to understand brain connectivity through mapping and imaging neural activities of mice, strategies for reverse engineering and so forth. Computation, the subject of the second section, includes essays by May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Krishna Shenoy, Olaf Sporns, and Jeremy Freeman. Together the two sections argue that the brain is an organ of computation and scientists need to figure out what the brain is computing. Continue reading “Book Review by Amy Ione: Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists”
Review of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
Reviewed by Amy Ione, posted in Leonardo Reviews,August 2017
As a fan of biographies, I was excited to learn about A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. Not only is it a timely biography, this well researched and easy to read book also captures the imagination. Because Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman take care to situate Shannon’s contributions in their cultural context the volume encourages the reader to explore their broader implications. Claude Shannon’s legacy is no doubt of particular interest to Leonardo readers due to the range of his work. If Shannon’s training and conception of Information Theory brings the current elevation of STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to mind, many of his lesser known projects clearly align with projects associated with the STE(A)M (the inclusion of Art) community, although the authors never speak of STEAM per se. These include the playful spirit evident in his ongoing tinkering with electronic toys, his multi-faceted studies of juggling, and his unicycle experiments.
So, who was Claude Shannon? Born in 1916 in Michigan, by all accounts Shannon had an ordinary childhood. Noteworthy traits included a love of math and science, a dislike of facts, and mechanical inclinations. These proclivities led him to purse a dual degree in mathematics and engineering at the University of Michigan. After Michigan, Shannon was hired by the well-connected Vannevar Bush, then at MIT and later founder of the National Science Foundation (NSF), to help with his differential analyzer. This was a mechanical analog computer that depended on combinations of equivalent equations, using a wheel-and-disc mechanism for computation. A major problem was that the equations needed to be reconstructed for every problem, in effect annihilating the very efficiency the machine was intending to add to problem solving. The resounding question was how could it reassemble itself on the fly? Shannon, who was conversant with both symbolic logic and electrical circuitry, produced a landmark master’s thesis with an innovative solution. Titled “A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits,” the young Shannon tied Boolean logic and circuitry together, conceptualizing a path where 1’s and 0’s could represent logical operators of Boole’s (AND, OR, NOT) system, with an on switch standing for “true” and an off switch for “false.”
After a brief stint at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, New Jersey) Shannon joined Bell Labs to work on World War II projects. Here he found an environment that fostered cutting-edge discovery and even met a visiting Alan Turing, another key figure of the Information Age. The sections discussing the shared interests of Shannon and Turing are among the book’s high points, particularly in light of the role of computers in contemporary life. Both probed machine intelligence, feedback and programming commands, and cryptology. The authors tell us that, according to Shannon, much was also left unsaid between them. He did discuss his notions about Information Theory with Turing, but they needed to avoid cryptography because of security concerns.
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Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë
Reviewed by Amy Ione
Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature endeavors to, as Alva Noë the author puts it, introduce art as “its own manner of investigation and its own legitimate source of knowledge” (p. xii) using the enactive approach that he has been working with for a number of years. According to this view, “experience is something we enact or perform; it’s not something that happens in us or to us” (p. 215), “it is something we do, or make, or achieve. And like everything else we achieve, we do so only against the background of our skills, knowledge, situation, and environment, including our social environment” (p. xii). His basic philosophical argument is that we can only understand the human mind in relation to bodily actions given that our experience is situational. Within this he claims that our lives are structured by organization and because art is a practice for bringing our organization into view, it reorganizes us.
When we consider art, Noë tells us, there are two levels we need to keep in mind. On the one hand, the defining feature of what he terms Level-1 activities is that they are basic and involuntary modes of organization. On the other hand, Level-2 activities play with and re-shape level-1 activities. The sum total is that active human experience is neither personal consciousness nor subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. It is not personal because it is interactive and (again) situational activities add meaning to our lives in a way that does not reduce to subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. Since technologies are a part of how we reorganize our lives, and art is an engagement with technologies, art includes a second-level manner of organization/reorganization.
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Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
by Ben Shephard
Reviewed by Amy Ione
Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind traces a slice of history that in turn introduces us to some of those drawn to study human psychology and mental health a few decades after Darwin’s theory of evolution took root. Four of these pioneers are the focus of this book: William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers, and William McDougall. They met at Cambridge in the 1890s and Shephard links their lives more broadly through their efforts to study the brain as biological approaches were gaining increased leverage due to Darwin’s work. The author begins the book by placing us in that context:
“How, then, did the human brain evolve? Why did it evolve as it did? In the 1870s, modern experimental neuroscience began, using electricity to stimulate the nervous system of animals and microscopes to observe the nerve cells of humans. Within two decades, researchers had established the location of functions within the brain, unraveled the way that the nervous system automatically governs the body’s functions, and begun to discover how messages are sent between neurons and synapses. But these extraordinary advances only posed further questions — about human behavior; man’s relations to his fellow primates, and the human occupation of the earth. A generation of scientists went looking for answers” (p. 1).
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