Thursday, May 17, 2007

Flying by the seat of your pants

This article about fruit flies was linked from Scott Adams's blog: "Study hints that fruit flies have free will". In case you don't care to read it, the title should be enough.

Schwunh? My first thought was, "What the heck else would they have other than free will? A teeny fruit fly dictator that tells them what to do? Or is this a study done by a conspiracy theorist who believes that the Commies have implanted microchips in the fruit flies that make them all take up suicide missions diving into the eyes of good Capitalists?" Well, as it turns out, the debate is whether fruit flies are simply reacting to external stimuli, acting "completely randomly" or have the free will. (The article seems to ignore that there could be some overlap between reacting to external stimuli and having free will. Can't I decide whether or not to react to some external stimuli? Also, the scientists ignored that it would be experimentally impossible to differntiate between purposeful and unconscious reaction. How do you test whether or not I "meant" to do it?? Especially if I'm a fruit fly??)

My second thought was, "Isn't this more a theological question? Scientists actually get money to study this???" Then logic kicked in and I realized what the real problem with the study is.

For a moment, let's leave aside questions of determinism vs. randomness vs. free will. How is gluing a fruit fly to a hook a good way to study whether or not they have free will? The article stated that the scientists wanted to "remove all the stimuli which could trigger a response". HEL-LO! I think having a copper hook glued to you so you can't move is a pretty big stimulus!!! Can't you just hear the teeny, tiny buzzing: "Aaaaahhh! GetitoffmeGetitoffmeGetitoffme!!" Where was the control group of fruit flies that didn't have hardware attached to them?

The scientists hypothesized "...if fruit flies were simply reactive robots entirely determined by their environment, in completely featureless rooms they should move completely randomly". Again, copper hook = "feature". Especially if I'm glued to it. And does that hypothesis seem dumb to anyone else? If they are completely "reactive", wouldn't they not move at all in the absence of stimuli? They'd have nothing to react to!

Now comes my favorite bit of the article:
A plethora of increasingly sophisticated computer analyses revealed that the way the flies turned back and forth over time was far from random. Instead, there appeared to be "a function in the fly brain which evolved to generate spontaneous variations in the behavior," Sugihara said.

"Spontaneous variations," apparently, are vastly different than "randomness." And this "evolution" of the function also was completely unprovoked by external stimuli, I guess. The article goes on to state that the variations are consistent with a mathematical formula that is found lots of places in nature...among them, how these "dumb" animals search for food. Intelligent design, anyone? But anyway, I would really like to see the analyses that one would run on fly wings flapping. 'Cause that's all the little buggers could do: flap and "attempt" to turn.

I'm going to start trying to work the phrase "plethora of increasingly sophisticated computer analyses" into my daily work-day repertoire.


Erin said...

Oh, oh, stop! My sides are splitting!!! I haven't read anything this funny in I can't tell you how long. Thanks!

Heather said...

LOL! Good thing I didn't talk about how they could have really provided sensory deprivation...teeny RayBans and eensy little ear muffs.... DH asked if they were scrubbing the air on the way in so there were no "smells" they could react to.

Old Geek-outs