Saturday, February 11, 2006

The mind's 'Enigma machine' #1

Here is a news item about the discovery that "the human brain is at least 1,000 times more powerful than previously estimated," the result of "200 proteins work[ing] together in a crucial molecular signalling machine" (called "MASC") which is "itself a chemical computer." Isn't the `blind watchmaker' wonderful? :-) My comments are bold and in square brackets. Because of its length, I have split this into two parts.

The mind's 'Enigma machine', Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2006, Roger Highfield ... In all the ballyhoo that greeted the sequencing of the entire human genetic code, one inconvenient detail was often overlooked: scientists may have found that it takes 25,000 genes to build and run a human being, but they had no idea how these components worked together. [An important point. The statement that humans and chimps share ~98% of their genes is misleading in that it does not mention how those genes (and proteins and cells) work together as a unique system.]

Now a remarkable effort has shown how the proteins described by 200 of these genes make a fundamental piece of the machinery of thought, revealing the human brain is at least 1,000 times more powerful than previously estimated and providing profound new insights into mental illness. A working human brain is the most complex known object in the universe and weaves an average of a million connections every second between its 100 billion nerve cells. By one estimate, if you connected a Pentium 4 computer, each containing tens of millions of transistors, to every connection on the global internet, the average brain would still be 100 times more powerful. [This is a reductio ad absurdum of the Darwinist `blind watchmaker'! The Darwinists expect us to believe that a `blind watchmaker' could put together an "awesome chemical computer" (see next) that is "100 times more powerful" than "a Pentium 4 computer"!]

To reveal how genes build and run this awesome chemical computer, scientists in Cambridge and Edinburgh focused on the synapse, the junction through which nerve cells transmit information for the biological computations that underlie feeling, perception and thought. [Note "awesome chemical computer"! And note that the "genes [that] build and run this awesome chemical computer" must themselves form an even more "awesome chemical computer."]

The team broke down synapses into their component molecules and analysed them using a method called mass spectrometry, identifying more than 1,000 different proteins. Then the scientists found the genes that described them and studied which proteins interacted with each other. The effort revealed how 200 proteins worked together in a crucial molecular signalling machine that they christened MASC, unveiled in the latest issue of the journal Molecular Systems Biology. [And as Polanyi pointed out, "The manufacturing of a machine" goes beyond "the working of physical-chemical forces" and requires "the control of a non-physical-chemical principle by "a profoundly informative intervention" (my emphasis):

"We can now lend greater precision and force to the conclusion that morphological features are the boundary conditions of physical-chemical laws in living things and thus are not accountable by these laws, on which they rely for their functions. The functional structure of machines, products of man's designing and shaping, manifestly represent boundary conditions imposed on the laws of inanimate nature to press them into the service of a technical purpose. ... When this structure reappears in an organism, it is a configuration of particles that typifies a living being and serves its functions; at the same time, this configuration is a member of a large group of equally probable (and mostly meaningless) configurations. Such a highly improbable arrangement of particles is not shaped by the forces of physics or chemistry. It constitutes a boundary condition which as such transcends the laws of physics and transcends the laws of physics and chemistry. ... The manufacturing of a machine also represents a distinctive distribution of matter not due to the working of physical-chemical forces and it too, forms the characteristic boundary conditions of the system in question. We can see now more clearly why such a shaping of boundaries may he said to go beyond a mere fixing of boundaries and establishes a `controlling principle.' It achieves control of the boundaries by imprinting a significant pattern on the boundaries of the system. Or to use information language we may say that it puts the system under the control of a non-physical-chemical principle by a profoundly informative intervention." (Polanyi M., "Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry," Chemical & Engineering News, August 21, 1967, pp.54-66, p.64) ]
The team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Edinburgh believe it marks a new leap from genes to cognition, revealing how the MASC is in itself a chemical computer which further boosts the power of the brain by around 1,000 fold. [So without this "computer within a computer" (see below) the human brain would have an average IQ of 0.1! But then of course there would not be humans and in fact there would not even be mammals, because it is the mammalian brain they are talking about in the journal article. Indeed, it is going to be interesting to see how far back phylogenetically this "computer within a computer" goes. I suspect it could be present in all vertebrates, if not before (in fact further down Grant suggests that it may even predate nerve cells)! Conway-Morris notes that the brain of the most primitive `vertebrate' (actually chordate), amphioxus (Branchiostoma) already contains hidden within it "a template" for the "threefold division seen in the vertebrate brain of hind-, mid- and fore-sections" and therefore "carries the inherent potential for intelligence" of all vertebrates (including ours) hundreds of millions of years in advance of it being needed:
"Let us look, for example, at a much deeper stage in our evolution, effectively at the time of the ancestors of the fish. Enter the moderately undistinguished animal known as the lancelet worm or amphioxus (Branchiostoma and its relatives ..). By general agreement this beast is the nearest living approximation to the stage in evolution that preceded the fish, which in turn clambered on to land, moved to using the egg, grew fur, and in one lineage developed into socially alert arborealists. All these changes and shifts must have been accompanied by genetic changes, but if we look back to amphioxus we see a genetic architecture in place that seemingly has no obvious counterpart in its anatomy. To give just one example: the central nervous system of amphioxus is really rather simple. It consists of an elongate nerve cord stretching back along the body, above the precursor of the vertebral column (our backbone, consisting of a row of vertebrae) and a so-called brain. The brain can only be described as a disappointment. It is little more than an anterior swelling (it is called the cerebral vesicle) and has no obvious sign in terms of its morphology of even the beginnings of the characteristic threefold division seen in the vertebrate brain of hind-, mid- and fore-sections. Yet the molecular evidence, which is also backed up by some exquisitely fine studies of microanatomy suggests that, cryptically, the brain of amphioxus has regions equivalent to the tripartite division seen in the vertebrates. The clear implication of this is that folded within the seemingly simple brain of amphioxus is what can almost be described as a template for the equivalent organ of the vertebrates: in some sense amphioxus carries the inherent potential for intelligence. ... and its molecular inherency in any way unusual. Equally instructive examples can be culled from the most primitive animals, such as the sponges and Hydra (the latter is a relative of the sea- anemones and corals), in which genes (or proteins) that are essential for complex activities in more advanced animals are already present." (Conway Morris S., "Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe," Cambridge University Press: New York NY, 2003, pp.6, 7)
That `blind watchmaker' sure is far-sighted! :-)]

"The synapse has far more computational power than we realised," said Prof Seth Grant of the Sanger, head of the mind machine team. [In other words, Darwinian `blind watchmaker' evolution did not predict it (not that that is unusual)!]

The discovery of a "computer within a computer" offers a new way to understand how information is processed in the brain. "We have uncovered a whole new layer of complexity," said Prof Grant. [And that is "complexity" that Darwinian `blind watchmaker' evolution has to account for!]

The MASC can turn patterns of activity generated by messenger chemicals called neurotransmitters into the changes in nerve cells that form memories. [So presumably without this "computer within a computer" there would not be memories (or at least not with anything like the power of the human memory)?]

It is like "the Enigma Machine of World War II, which was used to convert one code into another," said Prof Grant, who revealed its innards with Dr Andrew Pocklington, Dr Douglas Armstrong and Mr Mark Cumiskey. [It just gets better (or worse for Darwinian `blind watchmaker' evolution)! It sounds like we have yet another encoding and decoding system?]

"Our work could open up new ways to think about how the brain evolved, how it functions and how it is affected in disease," commented Prof Grant, explaining how the MASC seems to be a more basic and ancient unit of thinking than nerve cells. [If this is the case, then it will even more evidence for design by a far-sighted Watchmaker!]

"This machine - MASC - is built upon simple principles," he said. [All machines are "built upon simple principles." But principles don't of themselves build machines.]

[Continued in part #2]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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