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April 30, 2005

Dawkins and Darwin and Zebra Finches

As if it weren't already painfully obvious from my previous posts, let me make it more obvious now:

Salon.com has an excellent and entertaining interview with the indomitable Richard Dawkins. I've contemplated picking up several of his books (e.g., The Selfish Gene, and The Blind Watchmaker), but have not ever quite gotten around to it. Dawkins speaks a little about his new book, sure to inflame more hatred among religious bigots, and the trend of human society toward enlightenment. (Which I'm not so confident about, these days. Dawkins does make the point that it's largely the U.S. that's having trouble keeping both feet on the road to enlightenment.)

In a similar vein, science write Carl Zimmer (NYTimes, etc.) keeps a well-written blog called The Loom in which he discusses the ongoing battle between the forces of rationality and the forces of ignorance. A particularly excellent piece of his writing concerns the question of gaps in the fossil record and how the immune system provides a wealth of evidence for evolution. Late last year, this research article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which is the article which Zimmer discusses.

Finally, in my continuing facination with the things that bird brains do, scientists at MIT recently discovered that a small piece of the bird brain (in this case, the very agreeable zebra finch) helps young songbirds learn their species' songs by regularly jolting their understanding of the song pattern so as to keep it from settling down to quickly (for the physicists, this sounds oddly like simulated annealing, does it not?). That is, the jolts keep the young bird brain creative and trying new ways to imitate the elders. This reminds me of a paper I wrote for my statistical mechanics course at Haverford in which I learned that spin-glass models of recurrent neural networks with Hebbian learning require some base level of noise in order to function properly (and not settle into a glassy state with fixed domain boundaries). Perhaps the reason we have greater difficulty learning new things as we get older is because the level of mental noise decreases with time?

posted April 30, 2005 04:15 AM in Obsession with birds | permalink