February 3rd, 2019

This week I was slogging through the scientific literature when I stumbled this delightfully poetic sentence that had slunk its way into a paper on stochastic gene expression:

“Life is a study in contrasts between randomness and determinism: from the chaos of biomolecular interactions to the precise coordination of development, living organisms are able to resolve these two seemingly contradictory aspects of their internal workings.”

Stochastic gene expression isn’t as complicated of a concept as it sounds. Consider a pair of identical twins, the paradigm case of “Nature vs. Nurture.” Identical twins have the exact same genetic material. This means that they have the exact same blueprint upon which to build their bodies as they develop. Their “Nature” is identical. So how do identical twins end up with discernible differences in their personalities and even physical appearance? The obvious answer is “Nurture” – there are slight differences in their environments in which the twins are raised, which are reflected in differences in the twins’ identity.

But what if both “Nature” and “Nurture” were held constant? What if the twins had the exact same genetic material and environment? The scientific consensus is that the identical twins would still be different. This is due to stochastic gene expression. There is inherent randomness to the way in which our DNA is “expressed,” or translated from its genetic code to the structure of our bodies. If we return to the analogy of your DNA as the blueprint to your body, the process of expression is akin to the contractors building the structure dictated by that blueprint. But gene expression machinery isn’t too dissimilar to real-life contractors – there is no accurate way to predict exactly when your structure will be completed. The timing of the expression of your genetic code is inherently random. This randomness in timing ensures that even if two cells, or organs, or organisms have the exact same genetic material and are placed under the exact same environmental conditions, they will still be fundamentally different.

Randomness is weird. And it’s not surprising that randomness appears at the quantum mechanical level, where basically everything is weird. But it’s unnerving that randomness appears at higher levels in biology and even psychology and microeconomics. Classically, human decision-making was conceived as a process in which a rational agent chooses what they prefer based on essentially a cost-benefit analysis. Over time, however, cognitive scientists have replaced this “rational choice theory” with probabilistic and quantum-mechanical theories of choice, which more accurately describe observed patterns of human decision-making. These contemporary theories frame randomness as an essential contributor to our actions and, thus, our identities.

Raj and van Oudenaarden say: “Life is a study in contrasts between randomness and determinism.” This statement implies that nature is a system that incorporates both randomness and determinism. But this conception is at odds with the way in which we experience the natural world. Both our scientific and daily practical lenses rely on a strictly deterministic conception of nature – linear causation as guided by the Laws of Nature. Randomness is at odds with the notion of a scientific “mechanism,” the dominant framework for scientific investigation.

Our difficulty in grappling with randomness is perhaps best displayed in the realm of computer science. Computers are essentially an extension of human rationality – we have designed computers to reflect the most basic human cognitive functions of first order logic. And because we have trouble conceiving of true randomness, our computer does too. In fact, as of now, it is impossible for a computer to generate a truly random set of numbers, sequence of coin flips, etc. Rather, any computer algorithm employing randomness is only really pseudo-random, relying on seeding or drawing from seemingly random processes in nature, such as atmospheric noise.

We generally consider determinism to be the greatest threat to our notion of free choice. If the physical processes in the world, our brain included, are strictly causally determined, then free choice is an illusion and neurobiological mechanisms are responsible for all our thoughts, decisions, and action. Randomness, however, which is increasingly recognized by science as an essential aspect of nature, may give both determinism and free choice a run for their money.

Max Loeffler is a Berlin-based illustrator with a distinct reality-bending, psychonautic dot art style. Though most of his work is editorial illustration and album artwork, he has also crafted a disturbingly magnetic alternate universe in his two personal projects: Daymare Boogie and The Psychic Vault.

While you’re sucked into Max’s gnarled reality, complete the ambiance with the eerie bop “1997” from Danvers (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp).

And Shit and Shine’s “You Were Very High” (SpotifyYouTubeDiscogs) sounds like the auditory product of radiation exposure, riddled with genre-bending mutations and dysfunction. But it powered me up a hill like no song ever has on a recent run, so give it a listen.

I have mad respect for seven layer dip and mini hotdogs, but if you feel like your Super Bowl party was lacking that one little something it was probably this: Corn Cheese, a classic Korean bar snack (anju). We halved the recipe when we made it. We royally regretted that decision.

Straight out of my college kitchen. Add togirashi please.

And lastly, to celebrate artists doing whatever the hell they want, I bring you the eccentric clutches of Kent Stetson, a Providence-based artist whose work is the Platonic ideal of a conversation starting accessory. (And all of the hand bags are hand-made in a studio in the great state of Rhode Island!)

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Archived newsletters can be found at butterforthebrain.blog! Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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