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No. 114: Nov-Dec 1997

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Complexity And Mount Improbable

In principle, the combination of random mutation and natural selection can account for any level of biological complexity you wish to have explained. R. Dawkins' Mount Improbable is never too high to scale with this Darwinistic mechanism -- if given enough time, of course. At times though, we have to wonder if there is not a cog railway or something similar to aid organisms as they ascend this Mount. Such thoughts arose when reading C. Koch's Nature article on neurons and their networks.

Neurons are cells with three principal components: the cell body, the axons, and the dendrites. These cells and the networks underlie all of our perceptions, actions, and memories. The ways in which they store and process information has turned out to be much more complex and dynamic than previously supposed. Neural networks are so intricate that Koch was impelled to conclude his review of current research with this paragraph:

"As always, we are left with a feeling of awe for the amazing complexity found in nature. Loops within loops across many temporal and spatial scales. And one has the distinct feeling that we have not yet revealed every layer of the onion. Computation can also be implemented biochemically -- raising the fascinating possibility that the elaborate regulatory network of proteins, second messengers and other signalling molecules in the neuron carry out specific computations not only at the cellular but also at the molecular level."

(Koch, Christof; "Computation and the Single Neuron," Nature, 385:207, 1997.)

Comment. Thus, Dawkins' Mount Improbable is seen to be even higher and more majestic. Can it really be climbed via a random process edited by natural selection? Even if the answer is "yes," we must ask why atoms and molecules have just those properties that permit them to unite in the marvelously complex and sophisticated biological computers described by Koch.

From Science Frontiers #114, NOV-DEC 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss

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  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

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  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987