Can Natural Processes Create a Mind?
No problemo, says H. Clark Barrett (UCLA), getting a mind from mindless matter. In a review of a book by developmental psychologist Gary Marcus published in Science June 11,1 Barrett was reassured by Marcus’ book that evolutionary theory working within natural law is up to the task: “The strengths of The Birth of the Mind lie in its sophisticated exposition of how genes guide development and its convincing argument that we need not hold out hope for some magical, as yet undiscovered, process to account for the brain’s complexity. Plain old natural processes, about which we know much already, will do.”
But how can a brain, composed of billions of neurons and quadrillions of connections, arise from a genome with only tens of thousands of genes? “Experts have made much of the claim that 30,000 genes aren’t nearly enough to specify the vast number of connections in the brain (the ‘gene shortage’),” he notes. The answer is in the book:
With clarity and precision, Marcus, a developmental psychologist at New York University, lays to rest the rumors of a gene shortage and also rebuts the argument that minds are too complex to have been designed over evolutionary time by the process of natural selection. He shows instead that minds are built over the course of individual development by genetically regulated processes that have been molded by natural selection to build brains that are functionally organized in ways that promoted human survival and reproduction in the evolutionary past.
We need to rise above the simplistic view of genes as static libraries of blueprints, he urges. Instead, we should view genes as “active ‘agents’ that interact in precisely orchestrated ways to build organisms” —
The author shows us how this view allows us to understand the fantastically complex, yet fantastically well-coordinated, generation of the mind. In cognitive science, it has long been customary to think of the brain as a computer. Marcus shows that the developmental system that builds the brain can also be thought of as an algorithmic system, one that operates through frequent interactions with its internal and external environments. He likens the genome to a compressed file, and the cellular machinery with which it interacts to a decompressor. However, this developmental system is full of ingenious devices not typically found in silicon-based computers, including gradients and switches that allow its operations to be context-sensitive, feedback loops, and self-generated “test patterns” that allow the system to tune itself. … As Marcus makes clear, although we are vastly more complex than desktop computers and therefore have potentially many more ways of breaking, the fact that our developmental process is relatively far less prone to crashing while booting up from the zygote has everything to do with natural selection for specific developmental outcomes.
In addition, the modularity of the brain’s functions helps address the puzzle of the gene deficit. “For example, an animal with 60 legs would not necessarily need 10 times as many genes as a six-legged animal, and although human arms and legs differ considerably, we do not require an entirely distinct set of genes for each type of limb,” he explains. Further, gene duplication can provide novelty on which natural selection can act.
Barrett praises Marcus for overcoming “simple-minded debates about the role of genes and evolution in shaping the human mind,” but he does find one weakness in The Birth of the Mind: “If there is a drawback to the book, it is that the author doesn’t show us exactly how a tiny number of genes builds such a complex brain, only that they can. But he is hardly to blame for this, given that we have a long way to go before we have a complete understanding of brain development.” That last sentiment is reinforced in a press release from USC that says, “It’s amazing that after a hundred years of modern neuroscience research, we still don’t know the basic information processing functions of a neuron.”
1H. Clark Barrett, “Human Cognition: Dispelling Rumors of a Gene Shortage,” Science Vol 304, Issue 5677, 1601-1602, 11 June 2004 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1098610].
Let’s get this straight. Barrett just admitted that Marcus “doesn’t show us exactly how a tiny number of genes builds such a complex brain, only that they can” – i.e., Marcus bluffed his way around a problem by making a bald, unsupported claim. Barrett lets him off the hook for this by saying we have a long way to go before anyone understands brain development. But in the very next sentence, he praises Marcus for making a “sophisticated exposition” of the case that “plain old natural processes” are sufficient to “account for the brain’s complexity.” I.e., nature built a brain, how we don’t know, but my friend Marcus said so.
Can evolutionists solve their problems by appealing to “compressed files” and modular genetic algorithms? No; they make them worse. In the history of computers, modular programming was a quantum leap in intelligent design over the older “spaghetti code.” File compression was a quantum leap in intelligent design over uncompressed code. Any junior high kid can write a text file on a computer, but if she can write software that can compress or decompress it, she’s a prodigy.
One module may suffice to build 60 legs on a centipede, but more is going on, because those legs don’t all grow at the same spot. Something tells these legs where to form, and coordinates their movements. The point is, it displays even more intelligent design to use modular programming and compression, to say nothing of “ingenious devices” like “gradients and switches that allow its operations to be context-sensitive, feedback loops, and self-generated ‘test patterns’ that allow the system to tune itself.” The layers of complexity in the brain have only increased with ongoing discoveries. These complexities cannot be dismissed by hand-waving appeals to natural selection. Why Science would print a simplistic explanation from an anthropologist who accuses others of engaging in simple-minded debates is another issue.
The analogies to computers are irrelevant to evolution. Computers were built by intelligent design, and the intelligence came from minds that beg the question of their origin. Barrett and Marcus cannot appeal to intelligent design in computers to establish a naturalistic origin of a much more “fantastically complex, yet fantastically well-coordinated” mind. They leave us only with a glittering generality, a just-so story, in essence claiming that natural selection acting on developmental processes solely directed at evolving survivable reproducing organisms just happened to produce, serendipitously, entities able to create and execute Rachmaninoff piano concertos and build spacecraft and navigate them to Saturn. For us to believe that, they are going to have to provide better reasons than mere bluffing.