Wetware

Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell (Dennis Bray, not Rudy Rucker) is a short clearly guided tour on the analogies between biology and computing. Bray walks the reader through the protein-driven algorithms that generate complex behavior even in single-celled organisms without nervous systems, biological sensory mechanisms, cellular communications, and the basics of neurons.

The book raises thought-provoking questions – how much is computing merely a familiar analogy like clockwork in Descartes time, and how much is information processing a fair way to understand what happens in a biological system. How much of a difference does it make that biological life is carbon and liquid-based, and computing is silicate and dry? How much of a difference does it make that bio life is self-powering and self-replicating, unlike robots which depend on extrinsic mining, metallurgy, electric power generation. How much of a difference – seemingly large – between the elegant, simpler, and fragile creations of human engineers – and the convoluted, nuanced and fragile works of evolution?

Wetware is not particularly technical. An interested reader can follow up to find much more about any of the subjects it touches in more detail. One of the things that I liked about the book is how it avoids the occupational hubris that affects some works in the field. Bray calls out Wolfram, of course, but also Stuart Kauffman and Rodney Brooks for overconfidence about the relationship between their simulations and biological life. Bray falls prey to this a little bit in his chapter on neural networks, a field where he has done some professional work. Neural nets are useful algorithms loosely inspired by the biological model, but the intermediate steps in biological circuits which support multiple inputs and connections don’t seem that much like the hidden layers of neural nets to me.

Bray does a good job of writing his sentences with subjects, verbs, and connected referents which makes it easier to follow complicated multi-step processes. This may seem elementary but is not as common as it should be. By contrast Nick Lane’s book on Mitochondria, which is as far as I can tell brilliant, is harder than it needs to be. Not because it uses some technical terms and walks the reader through live debates and contrasting theories – it’s fair to ask the reader to think – but because his sentences don’t parse, and the reader needs to read them twice and then guess what “it” and “this” refer to. I need to reread Lane’s book to understand it better before I write about it.

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