Living machines

So, we stared at each other for a moment, each of us thinking that the other was really stupid. But let me start from the beginning …

I have been thinking some more about interdisciplinarity. I have written before about how different disciplines have different ways of thinking, and sometimes this gets in the way of mutual understanding. I have a story about how this panned out early on in my career, when I was working on my MSc project in a developmental genetics lab.

At the time, I was working on genetic mapping of novel mutations. This means figuring out what chromosome a gene of interest is on, and where on that chromosome. A senior guy in the lab gave me a book chapter to read that explained the theory and told me to come back later if I had questions. I read the chapter, which had a few equations in it. As a good mathematician, of course I took a piece of paper and a pencil to see whether I could see how one equation followed from the other. Doing that, I found that there was a mistake. Not in my thinking, in the book. I checked. I checked again. And I checked again. (Because if it’s intern v textbook, chances are the intern is wrong.) But it did not go away – the final equation had a mistake in it. It might not be a mistake, I thought. Sure, there was a term missing, but maybe it had been omitted because it wasn’t that important or was close to zero anyway or whatever. The text did not say anything about it, but maybe that was just assumed?

Anyway, I remembered that I had been instructed to ask questions, so I went back to the senior guy and asked him what was up with that equation. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “it does not look right to me. It does not follow from the previous equations.” He replied, very seriously. “No, the equation is fine. That’s what the computer uses.” My mouth fell open a bit. Let’s be clear: He was not saying the computer had derived  the equation. He was just saying the computer used it. I tried to argue: “But surely, the computer does what ever it’s told to do. If it was programmed to use the wrong equation, it will use the wrong equation.” He obviously thought I had not understood and repeated: “No, the equation can’t be wrong. That’s what the computer does.” And there it was, reader. We stared at each other for a moment, each of us thinking that the other was really stupid. I gave up. (In some places, if it’s intern v senior guy, there is no chance in hell the intern is right.)

Later, I sometimes recounted that story as an amusing anecdote about how some biologists are really not at all comfortable with math or computers or anything like that. And for a long time, I believed that. And I find that it is also what a lot of other people believe, including biologists. But I am starting to think that something else comes into this as well, and it has to do with how people think, and it’s rather cool. Hear me out, OK?

You know how physicists are kinda annoying? Don’t get me wrong, I think physics is awesome, and I highly admire the way physicists think. There is beauty in the thought that everything that is arises from some laws, and that if we just know the laws (or can approximate them), then we can model and understand any system. Because that’s what physics is. Basically, everything is just a machine, and we can figure out how it works. Galaxies are machines, apple trees are machines, the brain is a machine. (I am vastly over-generalising of course, but you get my point.) What’s annoying sometimes is that there maybe isn’t enough appreciation for the innate complexity of things, for interrelations, for beautiful, organic messiness.

That’s what biologists are really good at. Beautiful, organic messiness is what we work with and what we live for. And what we are, by the way. Even if we think the brain is a machine, we think of it less as a machine like a supercomputer is a machine. More like an ant hill is a machine. As a consequence, some concepts that are strange to others are quite familiar to us. You have trouble with the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a tornado? Well, a tiny bacterium was able to wipe out half the population of Europe in the Middle Ages. You think it’s fantastic that humans can build airplanes? You built yourself out of a single fertilised egg when you were just … not even a baby. You are concerned about being brainwashed into buying things by cunning PR people? Meet the lancet liver fluke, which causes ants to behave recklessly, so that they are eaten by sheep and the fluke can conveniently pass from one of its hosts to the next. Ideas about living things and the crazy, messy, unbelievable ways in which they behave are not new to biologists.

Maybe though, the same way that a physicist sees a machine even in an apple tree, the biologist tends to see a living thing even in a computer. Of course, endowing a computer with human characteristics is not something that’s limited to biologists (“My computer hates me!”), but maybe biologists are more prone to seeing life in a computer, because they see life everywhere. Maybe this is what the senior guy in the lab meant all those years ago. This is what the computer does. The computer has decided. And really, who are we to disagree? Better leave it alone, for all we know it might be plotting to eat our brains. And anyway, it is well known that in a fight intern v computer, the computer will always walk away victorious.


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