Scientists at Stanford University and the J. Craig Venter Institute have developed the first software simulation of an entire organism, a humble single-cell bacterium that lives in the human genital and respiratory tracts.
– NY Times article 7/20/2012
When you are done reading below, take a minute or two to read the NY Times article on this breakthrough. We return to a familiar theme, whether in predictive behavioral targeting methodologies, financial markets, global politics, war scenarios or now life itself.
And what is this recurring theme?
Reductionism, my friends.
Isn’t it the case that simulating a single-cell bacterium in a computer model is yet another attempt to reduce complex, nonlinear systems to algorithmic precision? I can’t believe I just typed this sentence. What the heck does it mean?
Nonlinearity is not an easy concept to grasp for most of us, yet it is a central concept in life. Nonlinearity roughly means that outputs are not directly proportional to inputs. This makes establishing cause and effect a bit dicey. Algorithmic precision in this context refers to our desire to predict outcomes using computer programs.
Stanford (home of Google founders amongst many other online thought leaders) believes they have modeled life and can simulate it with precision… almost. One of the doctors leading the attempt to reduce life to bits and bytes said, “Where I think our work is different is that we explicitly include all of the genes and every known gene function [emphasis added]. There’s no one else out there who has been able to include more than a handful of functions or more than, say, one-third of the genes.”
This one-celled bacterium with 525 genes lives in the genitals. It is not terribly new for us men to contemplate the mysteries of our genitalia. But we will table that for a different discussion.
The problems with the Stanford initiative are many. First, scientists do not know every gene function. How do you model functions that remain unknown? Secondly, certain functions are actually unknowable. The spaces between what we know, what we do not know and what is inherently unknowable seems to be beyond reductionists’ ability to contemplate.
Malcolm in Jurassic Park was skeptical about the strategy of forcing sterility on newly created dinosaurs when he said, “Life finds a way.” He was speaking about how life is creative: it mutates, it adapts. In short, life cannot be reduced.
Hubris drives reductionism. The doctor barely can hide his self satisfaction because “no one else has included more than a handful of functions.” The number of functions of the simplest life form is unknown and even if you could identify “all” existing functions, new functions emerge all the time. Life is creative and this simulated approach does not quite understand this basic proposition. Life is more than the rules set up in a program. Computational biology and computational marketing are two sides of the same coin. They both misunderstand the fundamental nature of life.
What I am about to say may sound contradictory, but I am not against trying to understand the levers of life’s existence. I am against believing that we can be reduced to these levers, be they in search of the God particle (which, by the way, the search for it is another attempt at reductionist science), computational biology or online marketing. That is exactly what more and more people are doing as our computational skills grow exponentially.