The September 12, 2022 White House Executive Order* pledges R&D funds to the biotech industry to enable it “to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way [emphasis added] in which we write software and program computers.” We may be glad of this implied admission that the biotech industry currently cannot “predictably program biology” nor effectively “write circuitry for cells,” as demonstrated by the abject failure of the COVlD-19 synthetic mRNA injections. But we may also be concerned that technocrats—who believe that such advances will be possible once they “unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence”—will continue to use us as lab monkeys as they pursue impossible goals.
Some see the issue as a battle between the ideologies of pure mechanism and spiritualism. As long as we see the problem this way, it might remain irreconcilable. In this course, we will use lessons learned from science—complex systems science, the philosophy of creativity, and biosemiotics—to push back against the impoverished reductionism that sees biology in terms of digital computing. We will look at the myriad kinds of physical interactions that can make organisms impossible to precisely control without risking unforeseeable side effects. Medicine is said to be an Art for good reason.
Students will explore the way biological cells use chemical “signals,” genetic “codes,” and “programs” in ways that are significantly different from digital computing processes. Even very simple organisms like slime mold can make creative and adaptive use of error, by, for example, over-generalizing similar signs (as with molecular mimicry) and by associating two signs that are arbitrarily linked in space/time (similar to Pavlovian conditioning). Such learning processes follow a kind of poetic logic and are more complex than the selectionist/connectionist learning approaches of AI. Throughout the course, readings in science will be supplemented by literary works by authors who have insight into creative processes and the complexity of nature.
About the instructor
V. N. Alexander’s honors in art-science work include a Fulbright Scholar grant (ITMO University, StP, Russia), a Rockefeller Foundation Residency (Bellagio, Italy), a public scholar position with the NY Council for the Humanities, a visiting researcher position at the Santa Fe Institute, a Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women Fellowship, an Art & Science Lab Residency (Santa Fe, NM), and the Alfred Kazin award for best dissertation at the Graduate Center, City University NY, which was published in 2011 as The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature and Nature. Alexander is a member of the distinguished group of researchers, the Third Way of Evolution. Her work on novelist Vladimir Nabokov's contributions to the theory of insect mimicry has been widely recognized, and her award-winning literary fiction novels include, Smoking Hopes (1996), Naked Singularity (2003), and Locus Amœnus (2015). She is currently writing a political satire novel, C0VlD-1984, THE MUSICAL.
* Section 1. Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/president...
Syllabus (subject to change)
A PDF of each of the suggested readings will be available in an online drive. All readings are optional and will be covered in class.
Week 1 Mechanism and Chance
Week 2 Code Biology
Week 3 What is Biosemiotics?
Week 4 Propaganda and Art
Week 5 Alan Turing on Machine Learning
Week 6 Cybernetics
Week 7 Artificial Evolution
Week 8 Slime Mold versus OpenAI Video Games
Week 9 Reaction-Diffusion and Self-Organized Patterns
Week 10 Saltational versus Gradual Evolution
Week 11 Conspiracy or Self-Organization?
Week 12 Various Origins of Novelty
Week 13 Genetic Determinism
Week 14 Novelty and Emergence
Week 15 Review