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4.0 out of 5 stars A controversial, but fascinating tour de force of science, 10 Dec. 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: Paradigms Lost (Paperback)
John Casti is an American mathematician transplanted in the old world, namely in martial and musical Vienna. And it shows. His prose is as witty and cultured as any European master would like it, and as concise and right to the point as any new world's scientist is taught to produce. Even though my personal opinions about the subject matters covered by Casti in this book more often than not radically depart from his conclusions, this is by all means a must for any skeptic's library. And it will figure nicely in most other collections as well. Paradigms lost is about six major unsolved mysteries in modern science (some would say in modern philosophy). In order of appearance, we have: the origin of life, the genetic basis of human behavior, the existence of a unique "language-organ" in the human brain, the question of thinking machines, the possibility to uncover extraterrestrial intelligences afoot in our galaxy, and the very existence of a real world independent of external observers. Wow! It's hard to imagine a more compelling intellectual tour de force... The structure of Casti's book provides a "claim" at the beginning of each chapter, such as "there exist intelligent beings in our galaxy with whom we can communicate". The author then provides a minimal background necessary to assess the arguments, and proceeds to lead the way to a parade of "witnesses" for the "prosecution" (in favor of the claim) and the "defense" (against the claim). In so doing, we are treated to the reasoning of Einstein and Bohr, Dawkins and Gould, Miller and Crick (if you don't recognize these names, shame on you, skip the rest of the review and pick up the book itself...). Each chapter then ends with a summary of the opposing statements (and a very useful table recapitulating viewpoints and authors), as well as with a final judgment delivered by Casti himself. This last component could be interpreted as somewhat pretentious (especially given the impressive array of witnesses that precede it). But every person is entitled to her/his opinion and to put it in writing (as long as the manuscript is signed)... Besides, Casti makes very clear at the beginning of the book (don't skip the introduction!) that the conclusions are only his, and more often than not are the result of a simple matter of taste. The first claim is that "life arose out of natural physical processes taking place here on Earth", apparently hardly a controversial statement, until your initial confidence is at least questioned by an array of detailed arguments concerning the difficulties that modern physics, chemistry, and biology are still experiencing in order to answer the question of the ultimate origin of ourselves. Did nucleic acids come first, and then somehow gave origin to proteins? Or did it go the other way around? Or maybe they both appeared simultaneously? Or, perhaps neither of them came first, but they supplanted a much more primitive and ancient mechanism for the propagation of life? Casti even entertains - mostly for the sake of completeness - Nobel laureate Francis Crick's theory of panspermia, the idea that life has been "imported" on Earth from outer space; astronomer Fred Hoyle's hypothesis about a "silicon creator" responsible for disseminating life throughout the universe; and last and certainly list, creationist Duane Gish's idea that the christian god did it all first-hand. The author's conclusion is that it is likely that life indeed originated on Earth by natural means, but that we still have few clues to how exactly this came about. His personal preference goes for Cavalier-Smith's relatively recent suggestion that the original organisms were actually clay crystals, later supplanted by nucleic acids and proteins (see my article in Science & Society at [...] <<< check address >>> for a discussion of why Cavalier-Smith's hypothesis doesn't make much biological sense). The second claim is "human behavior patterns are dictated primarily by the genes". This is the old yet always very current nature-vs-nurture debate that has been waged for centuries. Casti does a very good job at presenting the modern versions of the arguments, including biologist E.O. Wilson's "sociobiology" and its somewhat politically motivated rebuttal by the "Boston group", spearheaded by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin. Casti makes very clear that we are interested in the intellectual side of the question, not in its moral and political consequences. This is not to say, of course, that scientists should not care about the social implications of their research; it simply means that they are especially qualified to carry out the research, while they have no particular claim at understanding or discussing the moral corollaries of the research itself. I think this is a particularly lucid treatment of a very thorny subject, and definitely makes for a sobering reading on both sides. When all the smoke clears, the author casts his vote for the very reasonable middle-ground conclusion that it's really a bit of both. We are the result of a complex series of interactions between our genes and our environments, to the point that independent contributions of either factor are distinguishable only in extreme cases. Related to the nature-nurture debate is the third claim, "human language capacity stems from a unique, innate property of the brain". This is Noam Chomsky's revolutionary suggestion in the field of human cognitive psychology, which is indeed the current virtually undisputed paradigm. Casti sees no reason to question it, and neither do I. Even though some of the many opponents of Chomsky do raise interesting questions, they seem to succeed only at refining the details of the central claim, not at invalidating it. The basic idea is that humans all over the world learn any language they are exposed to during infancy much too fast for this being the result of environmental influences only. It seems much more fitting to hypothesize that parts of our brain are specifically genetically hard-wired to facilitate such task. Admittedly, we still know very little of the actual physical, neurobiological bases of the language organ. On the other hand, the opposite claim - mostly by the Swiss Jean Piaget - that the brain is such a powerful general problem-solving machine that the cultural environment is all we need to explain the acquisition of languages, clearly contradicts some elementary empirical observations. For example, why is it that we have increasing problems learning new languages with age, while our brain doesn't find it difficult to learn how to solve other puzzles, including algebra and trigonometry problems? It seems that the human brain (and by extension other animal's as well) is a compound machine; parts of this machine are devoted to a general ability to learn and to solve problems, while other parts are hard-wired to solve recurrent and vital problems that occurred during the species evolution. I submit that the proportion of the two parts, as well as the particular list of hard-wired capacities, can be thought of as both the historical legacy of a given species and a description of the limits which that species encounters in using brain-power to maintain a longer presence on the evolutionary stage. The forth question asked by Casti regards the veracity of the claim "digital computers can, in principle, literally think". To me this was truly a no-brainer. While the if, how, and when this will happen in practice is a matter of interesting debate, the theoretical possibility is demonstrated by the very fact that we - humans - do think. And it has been pretty obvious since Descartes, but especially Darwin, that we indeed are nothing but machines, albeit among the most of sophisticated in the known universe. Casti does also conclude that the evidence against the claim is weak at best (perhaps not by chance, it is based mostly of studies by philosophers, not computer
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