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Strongyloides stercoralis (threadworm) in stool, analyze by microscope

Stretton’s Paradox: The Paradox of the Lowly Worm

Because nature is full of intelligence, the more we learn, even about a worm, the less we "know"

In a recent podcast discussion” with computer engineer Robert J. Marks, tech philosopher George Gilder used the term “Stretton’s paradox” in connection with the attempt to understand the human connectome, the white matter in your brain that is as dense as the entire internet.

Even the lowly nematode worm, frequent research subject and survivor of the space shuttle blowup, seems to be full of an intelligence that we are only beginning to understand.

Robert J. Marks: You said enthusiasts for connectome studies must face Stretton’s paradox of connectome knowledge. I tried to Google Stretton’s Paradox but couldn’t find it. What is Stretton’s paradox?

George Gilder: Tony Stretton, who worked with the major biological laboratory at Cambridge in Britain and then came to Wisconsin, where he’s been a professor of biology for decades, did the first full connectome of the nematode worm.

And he started out thinking this was going to be a simple job to really define all the connections in the brain of a tiny worm, which is the smallest. And it’s believed to have a full, discrete brain.

And he said the more he learned about the brain of a nematode, the less he felt he knew… And the oceans of reality lay still far beyond his reach and beyond his ken.

At his university web page, Anthony Stretton (pictured) writes,

The major aim of my laboratory is to understand the way the nervous system controls behavior. We now know that the “simple nervous system” of the nematode Ascaris has much more complexity than was ever imagined–the chemical signaling system it uses are very diverse, and we are sorting them out. These signaling systems include the neuropeptides, which we are devoting a major effort towards identifying and sequencing; other signaling systems that we have worked on include serotonin and glutamate, both of which play an important role in the motor nervous system. These signaling systems typically are involved in the process of neuromodulation, and each chemical involved affects the system in a different way. Some produce profound effects on the neurons they influence, and others have subtle effects. Different chemicals affect different subsets of neurons. Neuromodulation is a matter of details, but the details matter.

The complexity is exponentially greater with humans:

Robert J. Marks: So the connectome doesn’t suffice for the explanation of what’s going on totally, I guess.

George Gilder: Oh, yeah. Once you get this connectome of the human brain, you still don’t know how it works. Well, once you have a complete connectome for the Internet, you probably know how it works pretty well because it’s mostly binary computer processes can catenate it around the world. And if you can really map them in detail, you pretty much have the definition or the schematic for the entire global Internet. But you define the connectome of a mind, and it still eludes you…

Note: You can download Gilder’s new book, Gaming AI, for free here. He discusses these issues in more detail there.


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Stretton’s Paradox: The Paradox of the Lowly Worm