Friday, May 31, 2013

The engineer and the auditor – part two

Not all our breakfast meetings were productive, Gerry’s and mine. There were many subjects that just didn’t lend themselves to give-and-take exchanges. Gerry wasn’t interested in the origins of words and names: I didn’t care how nuclear plants operated or aeroplanes were assembled.

But sometimes we found common ground in unpromising material. One day I asked, out of the blue, “How come dogs are so smart at maths?” Gerry’s eyes boggled. I explained. Catching a Frisbee requires a series of calculations involving aerodynamics, velocity, air currents and gravity. I was no academic slouch at school, but physics of any sort was beyond my grasp. Yet most dogs can catch Frisbees with ten minutes’ training, unless the wind is gusting. Instinct, or intelligence?

My dictionary defines the word intelligent as “quick to understand”. That rules me out; I’m a plodder. I can get from A to B well enough, but step by logical step. I have little of the intuition that would get me there quicker. Women in general are more intuitive than men, and therefore more intelligent, by my own and my dictionary’s definition – and yet they’re not better at catching Frisbees. Another mystery.

Gerry was intelligent as well as well educated, but he wasn’t always logical. My contribution to our discussions was an auditor’s scepticism and logic. He baulked at acknowledging dogs’ superior reasoning in the matter of Frisbees, because that would grant them the power to think intelligently. But intelligence isn’t an across-the-board quality.

Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” – an autistic idiot-savant – could think, though his capacity was limited. Dogs can think, though their capacity is limited. Thought doesn’t have to be taught; it’s a natural quality. I have a suspicion that trees think. Every time the rains are late, the Poinciana tree in our yard delays dropping her babies until the drought is broken. Isn’t that some kind of thinking? Come to think of it, she’s not bad at catching Frisbees, either. Hmmm.

In a later ambush I asked Gerry, “How come a salamander can re-grow a severed limb?” We extended the topic to stem-cells and their DNA wiring, and got several mornings of enjoyable argument out of the exercise. All life-forms’ respective DNAs are actually – he claimed – comprehensive computer-programs, each one tailored at the instant of conception. Wow!

People talk about the miracle of birth, but it’s conception that is the miracle. In the instant of conception a comprehensive program is instantaneously created (engineered, Gerry called it) that contains every single specific instruction necessary to grow the host and to maintain it throughout life, and eventually to age and decay it. Each sperm must contain half of the program, and the portion of an egg that it penetrates (not the whole egg), the other half. Nano-engineering on an infinitesimal scale.

Even more impressive, the program is engineered to remember each individual basic step, in case it’s needed later. We see this in salamanders and other lizards that can grow new tails that are exact replicas of the lost ones. Where else can the instructions come from except the original program?

We don’t see it in humans. And, salamanders can’t grow new heads. Maybe they once could – all those ancient legends of monsters that grew new heads to replace severed ones – but not now. Like all programs, DNAs develop bugs that can delete stored memories. The severed limbs of trees can grow back, but rarely out of the stumps. Some human amputees tell of being able to “feel” their missing limbs; their programs are presumably searching for the appropriate app – alas, in vain.

The best that human science has been able to come up with to date is the transplanting of embryonic stem-cells. It’s a rough-and-ready option – a temporary fix. Gerry and I looked forward to the day when the original program could be trapped at the moment of conception, and banked until needed.