Saturday, January 21, 2006

Cyborgs, Epigenetic Robotics

On Ellis Seagh's recommendation I've reread Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto.

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women's movements have constructed "women's experience." as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

On a somewhat different note, Jordan Zlatev's epigenitic robotics (pdf):

The crucial difference between the position defended in this paper and most other "robot-friendly" arguments is that it is not the least "deflationist" with respect to critical (human) mental properties, in the manner of e.g. Dennett (1991, 1995). What I have tried to show is that the dilemma "Searle or Dennett" that most philosophical discussions concerning AI seem to deal with, is a false dilemma: we have the Vygotskyan alternative that intentionality, self-consciousness and meaning are real emergent properties arising from the dialectical interaction between specific biological structures (embodiment) and culture (situatedness) through a specific history of development (epigenesis). Since it is not inconceivable that the biological structures may be substituted with more or less isomorphic (and functionally equivalent) artificial structures, this line of reasoning leads to a positive answer to the question "Can a machine mean?"

Update. I ran across Zatlev's paper while googling into epigenetic evolutionary theories. I've been especially interested in the work of Gerd B. Müller (and his frequent collaborator Stuart A. Newman). Here is the abstract from their Origination and Innovation in the Verterbrate Limb Skeleton: An Epigenetic Perspective (pdf):

The vertebrate limb has provided evolutionary and developmental biologists with grist for theory and experiment for at least a century. Its most salient features are its pattern of discrete skeletal elements, the general proximodistal increase in element number as development proceeds, and the individualization of size and shape of the elements in line with functional requirements. Despite increased knowledge of molecular changes during limb development, however, the mechanisms for origination and innovation of the vertebrate limb pattern are still uncertain. We suggest that the bauplan of the limb is based on an interplay of genetic and epigenetic processes; in particular, the self-organizing properties of precartilage mesenchymal tissue are proposed to provide the basis for its ability to generate regularly spaced nodules and rods of cartilage. We provide an experimentally based "core" set of cellular and molecular processes in limb mesenchyme that, under realistic conditions, exhibit the requisite self-organizing behavior for pattern origination. We describe simulations that show that under limb bud-like geometries the core mechanism gives rise to skeletons with authentic proximodistal spatiotemporal organization. Finally, we propose that evolution refines skeletal templates generated by this process by mobilizing accessory molecular and biomechanical regulatory processes to shape the developing limb and its individual elements. Morphological innovation may take place when such modulatory processes exceed a threshold defined by the dynamics of the skeletogenic system and elements are added or lost.

The paper itself is quite technical. A more general discussion of their epigenetic view can be found in the introductory chapter to Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology from MIT Press.

Stewart Newman was in the news this past year for his attempt to patent a human-chimpanzee chimera--not because he wanted to create such an organism, but because he wanted to direct public scrutiny to this trend in biological science.

Tom Bearden: There are some people who will argue that the so-called interspecies boundary really is very pliable. In fact, you've said yourself it is easy to make these chimeric animals and that concern about crossing that boundary are overblown.

Newman: Well I think that a boundary like that is what you choose to make of it. The boundary is not a rigid boundary biologically in the sense that we and the other species have had separate evolutionary histories which makes it probably impossible for us to mate with chimpanzees or certainly with other non-primates. That's because of an evolutionary divergence.

Now that doesn't mean that the molecules that make up our bodies and the cells that make up our bodies can't communicate with the molecules and cells of the bodies of other species. So you can do a technological manipulation and cross the boundary, but does this crossing happen in the normal course of things? It doesn't. So that means that there is something to these species boundaries. Even if it's just evolutionary history and with humans it's culture that separates us from other organisms. There's a continuity at the very basic biological and material level but at the historical level there's a discontinuity. And you could say that we will take advantage of this biological continuity and not bother about the meaning for culture of the society of these boundaries, when it comes to to what they mean for us, for us socially. You could say it doesn't matter. We're just doing medicine here. But I don't believe that. I think that everything is embedded in the wider culture. And we just can't dismiss the existence of these boundaries.

I don't have a position for or against cyborgs, chimeras or the like, though I share many of Newman's ethical concerns. In the debate between preformatism and epigenesis, my bias is strongly towards epigenesis. Regarding evolutionary theory in particular, my sense is that empirical evidence for epigenetic views is strong, but I readily admit that my judgement may be clouded by philosophical bias as well as a lesser acquaintance with genetics than with morphology. My current interest has been developing partially in response to the explorations of Ellis Seagh on the one hand, and Gary Sauer-Thompson on the other.

posted by Fido the Yak at 3:02 AM.


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