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Customer Review

48 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars complexity reduced, June 10, 2009
This review is from: Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell (Hardcover)
The premise for this book is that systems of proteins can convey and process information at the level of a single free-living cell. These proteins act as switches or transistors, functioning as the nervous system does for multicellular organisms. Bray presents abundant evidence that this is the case. Several well-studied cellular examples (e.g. bacterial chemotaxis) are used to illustrate the principle that complex behaviors and even the appearance of "consciousness" can be the product of relatively simple combinations of switches and outcomes. This is augmented by discussion of simple robots (e.g. Grey Walter's "tortoises") and computer games (e.g. PacMan), illustrating the point that some extremely complex behaviors can result from extremely simple circuits and motors.

His insight that "it is much more difficult to infer internal structure from the observation of behavior than to create the structure that gives the behavior in the first place" is a powerful one, and should give pause to anyone who subscribes to the notion of "intelligent design", or who thinks that cellular activities are "irreducibly complex". Humans can be easily fooled into believing that human-like attributes can only be attributed to human-like intelligence.. But the notion that a cell is so complex that it must have been designed by a supernatural agent is similar to the response one might imagine if a caveman was confronted by a simple robot. In both cases the object seems beyond comprehension; in both cases the object can actually be described by simple physical laws, circuits and switches.

Bray brings the full force of his experience and intellect to this book, showing the way toward a deeper understanding of single-cell behavior, neural net capabilities, and our innate ability to infer consciousness or agency in systems that actually have a very simple network of switches and outcomes. It is important to understand that Bray is not saying that single cells have what we call "consciousness", but they do have properties that could be described as short-term memory, intentions, and learning. Clearly these properties cannot be the result of a brain and nervous system, but must be based in a far simpler circuitry of proteins and environmental cues. Complete appreciation of this book will require some basic biological education; some of that is supplied by the author while other concepts are assumed. His perspective allows us another step away from the brain/mind Descartian dualism that seems to be making a comeback among anti-intellectual and anti-scientific proponents of theological arguments such as intelligent design.

The arguments thus have not only scientific ramifications, but cultural and philosophical ramifications as well.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 23, 2009 9:59:34 PM PDT
K M says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 4, 2009 12:05:17 PM PDT
R. Ratto says:
Certainly, analogy has always been a key signal of intelligent design. The more similar human design is with biological design, the more convinced we are that the design is not apparent, but "real".

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 4, 2009 2:19:55 PM PDT
Nice strawman. Nobody's claiming that a robot could result from natural selection. What is being claimed is that relatively simple networks of proteins and membranes (products of natural selection), in response to changes in the environment, can result in behaviors that seem to our feeble minds to be the products of what we call "intelligence". Robots and cells share properties. That does not say that they share origins, or anything else. Debate that, if you wish.

Posted on Aug 25, 2009 4:31:24 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 25, 2009 4:32:17 PM PDT
Ravn says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 6, 2009 3:47:00 PM PDT
Try to focus on the relevant word in that sentence - supernatural.

The point of the book is not about design, although you clearly would like to drag it in that direction. The point is that qualities we classify as "intelligent" can emerge without the prior involvement of an intelligent agent.

HTH

Posted on Oct 19, 2009 2:39:43 PM PDT
Great review, and I am reading the book now. Another point that is relevant to the discussion here is that life can arise from self-assembly, the coalescing of simple components purely based on the laws of physics and chemistry into complex networks and assemblies. I am a chemist and I have studied self-assembly and I know how self-assembly can lead to complex structures that can easily give the illusion of "design". That partially seems to be what Gray is getting at in his statement above.

Posted on Mar 6, 2010 8:15:35 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 6, 2010 8:16:59 AM PST
SayItIsntSo! says:
To be able to discount IC as a plausible, rational explanation for certain complex phenomena, we need to show any and all complex phenomena can be reduced to impersonal forces plus time plus chance. Waving the hand and band wagon appeals do not suffice. The IC challenge stands until such demonstration. However, I appreciate the admonition to "pause" and reflect on new arguments. Does the admonition ever cut the other way?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 6, 2010 11:08:45 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 7, 2010 12:35:28 PM PST
"To be able to discount IC as a plausible, rational explanation for certain complex phenomena, we need to show any and all complex phenomena can be reduced to impersonal forces plus time plus chance."

No. Setting an impossible standard is not necessary. More to the point, it is a goalpost shift. The original claims of irreducible complexity (IC) involved systems like the bacterial flagellum and blood clotting. In both of those cases the claim of IC has been demolished. In addition, there are logical and plausible explanations (scaffolding, etc.) which can be invoked to explain just about any complex system, even if the work has not yet been done on any specific system. This means, and it is important to make this clear, that evolutionary theory can probably explain any IC systems that the creationists dredge up during their next goalpost retreat. At the very least, evolutionary theory has a far better track record in explaining these supposed conundrums.

To make that last point clearer, I will ask SIIS to give us a plausible and objectively verifiable explanation of the origin of the bacterial flagellum via the think-poof scenarios that epitomize ID creationism. Talk about hand-waving!

In reply to an earlier post on May 20, 2010 7:13:21 PM PDT
Stoik says:
The last sentence seem to be the crux of the matter. It is crucial to remember who owns explanation to whom. By the way, one cannot discount IC a rational explanation because Irreducible Complexity is no explanation! Even if IC happens, it is still not enough to infer the necessity of ID.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2014 1:08:46 PM PST
DMZ-MP says:
Hey Dave,

Your claim, like all dismissals of intelligent design, suffers from a lack of empirical support; biological systems are not categorized as irreducibly complex because they 'seem' to our limited minds to be so. They illustrate that concept because we know from experience that certain arrangements of matter and energy containing information cannot arise non-teleonomically from matter alone. The more we find integration and sophisticated multi-subunit components of the cell (such as ATP synthetase, flagellar motor, et al.) the more we see the need for a non-materialist explanation for their origin. For example, has any machine with multiple parts ever been observed to arise from the interplay of matter and energy? No. Since modern molecular biological research has discovered hundreds of machines within the living cell, it only makes sense to compare them to man-made machines and conclude that they both had a designer. Why can't materialists see that? Because they have several strong disincentives to do so. In other words, they don't want to see it, so they don't. That is not only stubborn, it is irrational. And it makes for poor science as well.
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