Man and Machines

This week’s NMFS readings were Men, Machines, and the World About by Norbert Weiner and Man-Computer Symbiosis by J. C. R. Licklider. In both readings, I was struck most by the biology being used as example and metaphor.

Weiner spoke quite a bit about negative feedback loops. He was most aware of these in engineering designs, but also recognized the connection to homeostasis — the human body is very good at holding constant temperature despite our ability to survive in a wide range of environmental conditions. We can be even more reductionist, though, and find negative feedback loops in biochemical reactions in the cell — it’s very common for a product of a reaction to act as an inhibitor of that very reaction.

Just this week in ecology I’ve gone over physiological ecology, which is also related. Living systems are more complex than they are given credit for in these essays — the temperature range in which an organism can survive is dependent on the temperature at which the organism current exists. This is acclimation, not adaptation (the latter is a bit of a loaded word in biology — adaptations result from evolution by natural selection only). To make the point, I point out to my students that the current temperatures (50s and 60s, °F) feel somewhat cool to us today, in early fall, but would feel downright balmy in January. We become acclimated to our current conditions, and how we react to a change in temperature is affected by the difference between what we’re used to and the new temperature. (This is not adaptation, however!)

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