by Brad Nelson
Frank Vertosick’s The Genius Within is one of the finest layman science books that I’ve ever read. It deals with networks, intelligence, and questions regarding the very essence of life itself.
Vertosick’s proposition (which I find uncontroversial) is that all life is intelligent, or contains intelligence, if only because of the vast genetic code that all life contains. What I found particularly fascinating was his division of intelligence into two areas: the longer-term accumulated learning of genetics and the shorter-term learning of non-genetic neural networks (brains, immune systems, and even the organization of ant colonies, for instance). One is hard-wired. The other is not.
The overall thrust in this book is regarding neural networks — wherever we may find them, inside a human brain or in a colony of bacteria — and how they work. And Vertosick takes his exploration of the subject to a very fundamental, but easy to understand, level. Something can be an intelligent network even if it comes in a variety of forms, including our immune system and bacteria. It needn’t necessarily be conscious.
And he gives a nice balance to the radical materialist Richard Dawkinsian view of the “selfish gene.” That’s the idea (and a sort of life philosophy) that states that all life, life processes, and life history, are no more than the story of the desire of genes to reproduce.
Vertosick, instead, sees all life as trying to socialize, or basically for things to try to come together. He notes that there is a primal type of impetus to be, to grow, and to connect that precedes genes themselves. In this view, genes become more of a basement-level (albeit important) bean counter. But the real show is To Be, or Not To Be; it is the very energy and thrust of a yearning prior to genes and one that isn’t necessarily measurable to science but without which nothing would be alive.
And Vertosick is almost certainly correct that there was life before there were genes. The fascinating thing is how he shows how life has gone from impermanent (non-genetic) learning (like the learning in our brains which is lost once we die) to more permanent learning (genes). And he makes the fascinating case for how and why larger, slower-evolving animals (because of slower reproduction rates compared to fruit flies or bacteria, for example) resort to brains as a way to evolve intelligence. Brains allow for on-the-fly learning. It’s quick even if it is less permanent (so far as we know).
And Vertosick makes the fascinating case for how we’ve turned right around again and, via language and writing, added another layer of more permanent genetic-like learning to our repertoire. A book survives us as a source of knowledge much like a genetic code that is passed on.
I think the greatest insight I came away with from The Genius Within was to understand the difference (and the similarity) between brains and genes and how both do the same thing but on a different time scale. Genes represent learning (through natural selection) over a very long time scale. But it is a type of learning and intelligence nonetheless, much like the accumulated knowledge contained in the books in a library is also a type of stored intelligence.
And Vertosick throws new light (at least for me) on the centrality of the cytoplasm of a cell…basically the cellular machinery. He asserts that this machinery, not genes, represents the substance, method, and goal of life — to interconnect and to be. It’s the difference between, say, seeing the purpose of an automobile as getting you from point A to B as opposed to looking at the crankshaft of the engine and declaring that because the car couldn’t move without it that therefore the entire purpose of the car is to facilitate the making and moving of the crankshaft (Dawkins’ “selfish gene” theory).
This book makes for fascinating reading and is one that I can heartily recommend to the general reader. Vertosick has very nicely condensed down and understanding of the very fundamentals of life and networks with relatively little use of jargon. He shows his own vast intelligence in the process by being able to do so. This is certainly among those few ten to twenty books that I would recommend to the layman reader in order to round-out a very good general understanding of this world and how it works. • (914 views)