Seizing the occasion, as today is a special day for me, I want to share a scientific (and personal), view related to life.
A while ago, while browsing the net, I found an interesting Wikipedia entry created by a canine organization, ranking Dog breed’s intelligence, listing the most popular breeds, going from the Border Collie as the most intelligent, and ending the list with the Afgan Hound, with the lowest degree of working and obedience score. Labrador retrievers, my favorite breed, was listed in a not so bad seventh place, but still not as high as I thought.
And this made me wonder about the obsession we as humans exhibit to try to classify things in a way that have resemblance with our understanding of what life is, and therefore intelligence. But, does this make justice to the concept of intelligence? And Life?
And maybe I will put myself in a bit of trouble here; but I guess the big question here is how this relates with the sense of consciousness. So, is fair to say that a Border collie is more conscious than an Afgan hound? What about other species? Following this pattern, we can deduct and declare that a bird is less intelligent than a dog, as the bird seems to be less conscious? and going to an extreme, how conscious is a tomato? We know tomatoes are alive and are organized structures, that share approximately 60% of the DNA we humans have. So how come we have this difference, and how can we determine how consciousness disperse, considering that, let’s say, a snow flake or a natural crystal formation is as well a self-organizing system too?
Let’s start at the proper beginning.
Self-organizing systems happen everywhere. We can find patterns in nature caused by specific chemical component’s interactions. These interactions were studied and described by Alan Turing in his paper The chemical basis of morphogenesis, in 1952. Turing, an eminent mathematician more known for his role to break the cryptographic code used by the Nazi army during World War II (the enigma code); worked on this problem describing how certain chemical compounds interact and affect each other, depending on its concentration. He described it as “mathematically convenient, though biologically unusual”, and presented a model where this interaction between chemical substances, follow very simple mathematical rules.
But he wasn’t the only one who identified this effect, around the same time, the Russian Chemist Boris Belousov, working on a problem on how bodies extract energy from sugar, found a very unusual chemical effect; while working on an experiment he transformed a transparent solution to a colored one, nothing unusual about that; but while he stirred this solution, it became transparent again, and even more strange, the solution was oscillating, changing again from colored to transparent repeatedly, with no identifiable pattern. Belousov tried to publish his findings for several years, but scientific journal editors harshly rejected his work declaring it as impossible, saying that there should be a mistake in his findings. He was revindicated later on, but with a posthumous recognition, and this effect is now denominated the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. Unfortunately, due to the recent formation of the Soviet bloc, the complementary discoveries of Turing and Belousov remained isolated.
Here comes Chaos!
Edward Lorenz, a US mathematician, working in the meteorology field, was skeptic about the methods used for weather prediction in that era, and this work was culminated with a paper published in 1963 (Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow), challenging the methods used in this field, arguing that weather systems are nonlinear (therefore aren’t predictable). But his most recognized contribution was due a presentation he did in 1972, titled “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, set off a tornado in Texas?”, the presentation that later coined the concept of “Butterfly effect”, illustrating how a small cause can generate large effects.
Before the “butterfly effect” concept, there was a common understanding among scientist, the notion of the clockwork universe, from the classic physics, and the notion of its behavior in predictable ways, like the case of Newton’s theory of gravity, where by knowing the initial conditions, you can accurately predict what will happen in a system.
The new work on chaos theory was one of the most unwelcome science discoveries since the concept of certainty was simply dissolved, as it was evident that chaos is everywhere, is a fact, and a big factor of life. Chaos brought to the scene the novel concept of how simple mathematical rules, with no randomness in them, can generate unpredictable results, simply by introducing the concept of coupling, or feedback; having the output of a system routed back as an input, forming a circuit, or a loop, that can either reinforce or attenuate an effect. This feedback is what allows the unpredictability to emerge, but at the same time from it, a set of novel and coherent structures arise; a self-organizing process. Being this one of the most intriguing ideas in modern science.
Derived from this work and with the availability of computers, Benoit Mandelbrot, another mathematician, worked on the definitions of self-similarity as a property of nature, where complex systems can be based on simple rules, and where a set is composed of an infinite number of similar but smaller sets. He created these elements as a simulation and called them fractals, having the property of being similar at all scales. Several systems found in nature have fractal-like patterns, like those found in tree branches, or pulmonary alveoli, in river networks, or in Romanesco broccoli, all these have this self-similarity or evolving symmetry. And this shows something fundamentally opposed to common sense, that complexity must come from something complex, but mathematics shows that simple rules can originate very complex objects, and in essence, the object can be considered complex and yet simple at the same time.
And here comes Life!
And from this self-similarity, another effect arises, “emergence”; patterns of interaction between entities forming more complex behaviors as a collective; and through these processes performing astonishing and marvelous tasks, by means of an unconscious process. We can see these effects in real time, on the movement of large animal groups, cases like schooling fish, or bird flocks or large herds where the individuals are part of a group displaying mesmerizing movements, without having any ruling or direction guiding their movements, and yet showing complex and impossible to predict behaviors. The same effect occurs on a much larger time scale, combining these patterns in various ways over millions of years, reinforcing or “selecting” the most successful ones, this is the process we know as evolution.
During their evolution, these interactive and complex systems have more self-regulated but unpredictable results; but, as said, on a cosmic time scale. So, in essence, the whole concept of evolution presented by Darwin has a foundation on what Turing defined as systems with simple rules and feedback. with the selection of the best-fitted organisms, and feedback provided by their environment. With these elements, over millennia, complex organisms are the result. And here’s the most interesting part; the result doesn’t imply another complex system, as it is an inherent part of the universe, and as a result having pleasing and aesthetical patterns forming and emerging, as the DNA strings in a micro scale, to the formation of galaxies and galaxy clusters in a macro scale, both being complex in a different way but obeying similar natural laws.
So, going back to the case of consciousness in dog breeds (and humans as well); with this into consideration, is just amazing to recognize that self-organizing systems can become so complex, even with the capacity to be self-aware, and exhibit intelligent behavior. In another famous paper from Alan Turing, he proposed what is now known as the “Turing Test” as a mean of assessing a machine’s capacity to imitate a human. In this test, a machine and a human have a natural language conversation (or simple conversation), with a human evaluator. If the evaluator cannot tell the difference between the human and the machine, then the machine has passed the test. But does this qualify the machine as intelligent? Turing considered this question “too meaningless to be discussed”, the subject is how capable is a system (or a computer) to perform this test successfully, or for that matter, any other activity performed by humans. So, if a machine has the same capabilities as we humans have, it means that they as well can be categorized as intelligent? or with human properties? Or, as we are just an extremely complex system, resembling a machine, then we can be downgraded to the level of a complex machine?
This definitely is a sticky situation, but I believe the conclusion is simple. Why argue on what is intelligence, and the higher level us humans consider we have? when we have this beautiful and vast evidence about self-organizing systems and how wonderfully they develop, from tomatoes to dogs, and from humans to galaxies, we all share the same principles and the same matter. And to try to find out how these self-organized systems will be in the future, either naturally or with human intervention, would be amazing; yet, at the same time, due to the intrinsic chaos in this process, we don’t have the slightest way to know what these are going to be.
Now, you might wonder, what’s so special about this day to talk about life? Well, today is my Birthday, so… Happy birthday to me!!