A pocket of Edelman in a James P. Hogan book

From: Jim Fehlinger (fehlinger@home.com)
Date: Sat Mar 03 2001 - 13:08:11 MST

A friend at work lent me a book recently (I do this to
other people, so I try to bear it with good grace
when it happens to me :-> ): _The Multiplex Man_ by
James P. Hogan (1992), a reasonably entertaining SF
thriller whose McGuffin is a rather implausible
technology which permits the transfer of learned skills,
political beliefs, and even personal identity from one
human brain to another. The book also wears its politics
on its sleeve -- it was clearly inspired by the collapse
of the Soviet empire, and in this imagined 21st century,
the former free-world countries now exist behind a
"Green Curtain" of oppressive state regulation of
technology and resources ostensibly motivated by
environmental concerns, while the former Soviet satellites
are now the epicenter of technological progress and free-
market economics, and the gateway to space exploration
and colonization. While I find Hogan's descriptions of
government corruption, bureaucratic red tape, and police
harrassment in the U.S. all too plausible, the descriptions
of the revitalized East strike me as a libertarian fantasy:
[He] thrust across his passport, and having nothing else
to offer, his German visa and U.S. exit papers. The
official pushed them back again. 'I don't need those.
You're in the Free World now.' He stamped the passport
without giving it a second glance and handed it back.
'Welcome to the Federation of Eurasian Republics.'"
Uh huh.

However, I was very surprised and amused to find a page
of explanation by a neuroscientist character in the book
that is a very well-turned summary of Gerald Edelman's
1992 _Bright Air, Brilliant Fire_. On p. 148: [T]he way
the brain works can't be thought of in the same way as
computers -- which is what sent most mainstream research
up the wrong path for a number of years. No two human
brains contain the same configuration of neural connections.
Therefore the same information isn't stored in the same
way, as it would be in different computers that are
designed the same way to handle the same data representations.
What happens is that genetic directions lay down a general
pattern that has certain commonalities in the embryonic
nervous systems, but the actual configuration that's
realized is a result of selection and reinforcement
between competing neural subnets as they develop, guided by
experiences and to a certain degree by chance. Then,
later, after a unique connectivity is established at the
physical level, a secondary process of adaptive modification
is superposed on it, essentially in the form of selective
reinforcement of preferred pathways, based on the variable
sensitivity of synaptic receptors... It means that the
computer model of the brain isn't really accurate...
Brains aren't wired to any pre-existing design that's
stored somehow in the chromosomes. They develop through
a process of competition and selection among complex
neuronal groups, and they're all different."

Edelman doesn't get any credit for this, at least not in
the paperback edition. In fact Edelman isn't even mentioned
in the bibliography or index of Hogan's later (1997) non-
fiction _Mind Matters: Exploring the World of Artificial

One other passage in _Multiplex Man_ that I liked (p. 174):
"It's funny how people are always finding that the mind
works like their latest technology. It never does, of
course, but it shows how they always think that the
latest technology must be the ultimate. At one time the
brain was an elaborate telephone exchange of nerves going
in and out. Then, after servomechanisms were developed,
it worked by feedback loops and error signals. And then
after that, naturally, it had to be a computer."


Jim F.

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