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Design for a brain: The origin of adaptive behavior Hardcover – 1965
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In 'Design for a Brain' (1952), Ashby begins by posing a question. When the nervous system undergoes adaptations to the environment, how is it that these adaptations do not destroy previous adaptations? That is, 'Why, in the living brain, do they always compound for the better?' The broad framework of Ashby's response is quite elegant and prescient of developments that would be made in neuroscientific theory many decades later (e.g. Karl Friston's 'free energy principle'). It is true that Ashby doesn't always pose the problem in the most elegant manner, and much of his terminology is outdated, and for this reason I cannot recommend the book other than out of historic interest to those already in the field. However, for the general vision presented, the book was a, sadly neglected, classic.
Ashby begins by introducing the basics of a dynamical systems view of the organism. Like Wiener, of particular interest to Ashby is the feedback between organism and environment. Ashby also notes how the dividing line between the two is 'vague', such that 'one group of neurons in the brain [is] the environment of another group'. Ashby then proposes that life is a process of keeping 'the essential variables of the animal' within certain 'physiological limits', and that 'behavior is adaptive if it maintains the essential variables within physiological limits.' There are therefore several references to W.B. Cannon's earlier work on homeostasis, which in turn derives from Claude Bernard. There are many further references to Ashby's 'homeostat', which was an early attempt to build a machine capable of homeostasis.
Ashby discusses some of the difficulties in attaining what he terms 'ultrastability'. Ashby's basic approach involves iterating simpler subsystems - there is a clear parallel here to our current conception of the cerebral cortex, and we can probably take the analogy much further. Indeed, this is likely what neuroscience and systems biology will be focused on in the coming years. It is too bad more biologists didn't pay attention to Ashby's pioneering work in the last several decades - if they had we almost certainly would have arrived at our current understanding sooner.
This book is freely available online via the W. Ross Ashby archive.