Your appendix and your eyes
That little time-bomb inside us, and morals for the advancement of science.
This week there has been press about new research suggesting that our appendix might actually have a purpose. It is unclear why this was ever in doubt: if the role of the appendix was only to occasionally rupture and put its host at lethal risk, then it surely would have been strongly selected against long ago. There almost surely is a good reason for it, something worth the risk of carrying this toxic bomb inside us. Current conjectures suggest that it is a holding cell for certain useful bacteria.
Our appendix is by no means the only part of our bodies we have been slow to discover a function for. Organs have the uncooperative tendency of not displaying their functions on their sleeves. Although reductionistic science is good at disassembling our hunks of meat, in order to understand the mechanisms of an organ one must understand what those mechanisms are *trying* to do. And comprehending the "why" of biology and brain -- why a biological structure is there -- doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should. In addition to reductionistically understanding the genome and the detailed anatomy and physiology of our brain, what we really need is gobs of attention paid to the opposite end of science. To the "phenome", or the set of functions the biology and brain manages to carry out. This will be orders of magnitude more difficult than finding the "genome" level details.
For example, my research described in THE VISION REVOLUTION (Benbella, 2009) has provided evidence that our eyes have functions nobody had yet noticed. Color is well optimized for sensing skin color modulations, for the purpose of sensing socio-sexual signals -- color is an "empathic" sense. Our forward-facing eyes are not for three-dimensional stereo vision, but for seeing efficiently in leafy habitats. And the illusions we have all seen are not an unfortunate error in rendering geometrical stimuli, but a consequence of mental software designed to foresee the near future, so that by the time the perception occurs it is of the present.
My point is that fundamental functions of our visual system are only recently coming to light. My suspicion is that MOST of our powers (i.e., functions our body is capable of) have not yet been noticed. ...because few scientists are looking for them, focusing instead on the mechanisms.
The appendix was long relegated to the appendices of science. But no more. And the appendix had something going for it: we could at least see that it was an organ. Many of our powers are carried out by meat with no easy-to-see boundary, and, worse than being buried in the appendices of science, have not even found their way into the book. That's what we need to change.
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