Short works

Books : reviews

Harold J. Morowitz, Jerome L. Singer, eds.
The Mind, The Brain, and Complex Adaptive Systems.
Addison-Wesley. 1995

This is a volume of thoughtful essays by a group of scientific leaders from physics, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, the philosophy of science, artificial intelligence, and brain physiology. It addresses fundamental issues such as, in the words of one of the contributors (Nobel Prize-winner Herbert A. Simon), “How a mind resides in a brain.” The essays are set in the framework of the evolving scientific concept of complex adaptive systems, the basis for which is laid in an impressive essay by another Nobelist, physicist Murray Gell-Mann. The various chapters include studies of the neurobiology of mental representation, the brain architecture that bears on the organization of human memory, a connectionist approach to emotions and neuro-modulation, the possible neurobiological bases of consciousness, the new scientific understanding of human unconscious processes, and even the possibility of formulating a parallel distributed process computer simulation of daydreaming and nightdreaming. Scientists in the fields of brain biology, artificial intelligence, and psychology, as well as educators interested in the links of mind and brain, will find stimulating material for potential research and teaching in each chapter.


Murray Gell-Mann. Complex Adaptive Systems. 1994
CASs perceive and respond to patterns: responding to patterns that are not actually there is "superstition", refusing to recognise patterns that are real is "denial" • Compression of perceived regularities, not just look-up tables • External fitness imposed by humans in the loop, versus internal emergent fitness where it is harder to define what is fit without being circular • Maladaptive: frozen accidents, mismatched timescales, ... • Hierarchies of CASs, higher level CASs composed of coevolving CASs
Jerome L. Singer. Mental Processes and Brain Architecture: Confronting the Complex Adaptive Systems of Human Thought (An Overview). 1995
Herbert A. Simon. Near Decomposability and Complexity: How A Mind Resides in a Brain. 1995
John Henry Holland. Can There Be A Unified Theory of Complex Adaptive Systems?. 1995
Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic. Neurobiology of Mental Representation. 1995
Larry R. Squire, Barbara J. Knowlton. The Organization of Memory. 1995
Patricia Smith Churchland. Can Neurobiology Teach us Anything About Consciousness?. 1995
John F. Kihlstrom. The Rediscovery of the Unconscious. 1995
David E. Rumelhart. Affects and Neuro-Modulation: A Connectionist Approach. 1995
John Antrobus. Thinking Away and Ahead. 1995
Roger C. Schank, John B. Cleave. Natural Learning, Natural Teaching: Changing Human Memory. 1995
Stevan Harnad. Does Mind Piggyback on Robotic and Symbolic Capacity?. 1995
Daniel C. Dennett. Evolution as An Algorithm--The Ultimate Insult?. 1995

Harold J. Morowitz.
The Kindly Dr. Guillotin: and other essays on science and life.
Counterpoint. 1997

Harold J. Morowitz.
The Emergence of Everything: how the world became complex.
OUP. 2002

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 18 March 2004

Morowitz takes us on a whirlwind tour of 28 instances of emergence, from the Big Bang, through nucleosynthesis, planetary formation, the beginning of life, animals, primates, tools, language, and philosophy, to mention but a few. His aim is to show us both what has emerged on this admittedly anthropocentric journey, at which he is highly and informatively successful, and how it has emerged, at which he is rather less so.

His has an interesting tool for explaining emergence, that of "pruning rules", defined thus:

nature yields at every level novel structures and behaviors selected from the huge domain of the possible by pruning, which extract the actual from the possible. The pruning rules are the least understood aspect of this approach to emergence, and understanding them will be a major feature of the science of the future.

I have struggled to understand this concept as applied to emergence, because after Morowitz gives his brief definition, he uses the term without further explanation, as if it is now understood. (And he also doesn't use it that much, either, so there is little context from which to infer and abstract a meaning.) So, as I understand it (and I may be wrong), the "possible" occupies some vast phase space, and these pruning rules pare that space down to what actually occurs (and, presumably, make the resulting phase space have a more complex structure?). Then the pruned space is further reduced by the "frozen accidents" of history, leaving us with the specific historical route to consciousness we see on this planet. The idea seems to be that these pruning rules are consequences of the laws of science, and so will work universally, and provide more structure to emergence than do the ideas of pure frozen accident and contingent development. (So I might quibble with the labelling of the pre-pruned phase space as "the possible".)

This is an interesting concept, and the identification of the Pauli exclusion principle as one of these pruning laws is fascinating.

ppp55-6. [The Pauli exclusion principle] is a nondynamical principle that governs how electrons interact with each other, yet it influences their dynamical behavior. It is a pruning rule deep within the laws of nature that only permits behavior of a certain symmetry character. It selects a set of states from all possible states.
     Another feature of the exclusion principle is that it begins to illuminate how the whole may be different from the sum of the parts. For the exclusion principle has nothing to say about the behavior of an individual electron, yet it applies to a system of two or more electrons. The Pauli principle is a way of understanding why entities show in their togetherness laws of behavior different from the laws that govern them in isolation. ....
     This emergence is so intriguing because it leads us to the enticing question of whether, at higher hierarchical levels, there are not other nondynamical principles that introduce new kinds of behavior. Since all of chemistry emerges from one nondynamical rule, might there be another rule that will illuminate biology, or a rule that will give insight into cognition? ....
     ... our reductionist systems are not formally closed systems, and within science itself there is room for new kinds of pruning that will illuminate the emergent transition between hierarchies. ...
     ... At any level there may be a presently unknown selection that will illuminate the hierarchical emergence in some way that we don't understand.

I very much like this concept of pruning rules, providing non-accidental structure at very many levels to the evolution of the universe, although little further emphasis is laid on this structuring concept throughout the work (possibly because the relevant laws have yet to be discovered). However, I believe there is also another feature at work, which is the emergent development of the (pre-or post-pruned) phase space. (This development is described brilliantly in Kauffman's Investigations.) As pruning and contingency occur, new things become possible, new regions of phase space open up due to "gateway events", and so potentially new kinds of pruning rules develop. One could either argue that one starts with a "big enough" phase space, much of which is inaccessible until the relevant gateway events have occurred, or that the non-predeterminable phase space is actually co-created by the events it supports. Either way, this concept of a growing unfolding phase space does not seem to be part of Morowitz' vision (or if it is, I didn't spot it in my reading).

And there is another concept that Morowitz seems to take as a given, which keeps intruding into the scientific discussion -- that of "God". In fact, the last few chapters of the book (after we have emerged in 28 steps to "spirit") is almost entirely taken up with concepts and history of this "God" concept. I have no argument with including the place of various religions within the emergence of civilisation and culture. But Morowitz seems to be taking it much further than this, and I completely fail to understand what points are being made in these chapters. To me, it is a lot of chat about a null referent, and I can't work out where Morowitz is being metaphorical and where literal. Even given the benefit of the doubt, if it is all metaphorical, it isn't an interesting or helpful metaphor, as I can't work out what it is a metaphor of. I don't think it adds anything to the argument. (Well, it certainly didn't for me.)

In summary: this is a good description of emergence from the Big Bang to us, in 28 erudite bite-sized steps, with an interesting, if underused, idea of physically-based pruning rules. (The comments about the Pauli exclusion principle alone probably make the reading effort worthwhile.) But it seems to miss the accompanying concept of an unfolding evolving phase space. And the last few chapters can be safely skipped.

Eric Smith, Harold J. Morowitz.
The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: the emergenceof the fourth geosphere.
CUP. 2016

Uniting the conceptual foundations of the physical sciences and biology, this ground-breaking multi-disciplinary book explores the origin of life as a planetary process.

Combining geology, geochemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, evolution and statistical physics to create an inclusive picture of the living state, the authors develop the argument that the emergence of life was a necessary cascade of non-equilibrium phase transitions that opened new channels for chemical energy flow on Earth. This full colour and logically structured book introduces the main areas of significance and provides a well-ordered and accessible introduction to multiple literatures outside the confines of disciplinary specializations, as well as including an extensive bibliography to provide context and further reading.

For researchers, professionals entering the field, or specialists looking for a coherent overview, this text brings together diverse perspectives to form a unified picture of the origin of life and the ongoing organization of the biosphere.