The Royal Society: State of the Life Sciences


The Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary, and giving the gift of free online articles across the breadth of the life sciences. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences has put together a special issue edited by Georgina Mace on Personal Perspectives in the Life Sciences for the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary.

In her editorial Mace outlines the three broad topics this special issue covers. To paraphrase, they are:

(1) environmental degradation and the intricate linkages between human societal norms and structures

(2) genome to organism processes, both in a theoretical and methodological sense, as well as questions about the origins of life and the sources and maintenance of variability

(3) and complex biological systems, especially the brain and genetic control of organism function, and the nature of intelligence and biological and technological information processing.

You can access all eighteen articles either online or as pdfs through the Table of Contents. These full-length review articles range from Partha Dasgupta on Nature’s role in sustaining economic development to Sydney Brenner on sequences and consequences. Ecosystems, biodiversity, food security, reproductive diversity, ageing, and stem cells are among the topics covered.

The most relevant article for us is Uta Firth and Chris Firth’s “The Social Brain: Allowing Humans to Boldly Go Where No Other Species Has Been (pdf).”

The biological basis of complex human social interaction and communication has been illuminated through a coming together of various methods and disciplines. Among these are comparative studies of other species, studies of disorders of social cognition and developmental psychology. The use of neuroimaging and computational models has given weight to speculations about the evolution of social behaviour and culture in human societies. We highlight some networks of the social brain relevant to two-person interactions and consider the social signals between interacting partners that activate these networks. We make a case for distinguishing between signals that automatically trigger interaction and cooperation and ostensive signals that are used deliberately. We suggest that this ostensive signalling is needed for ‘closing the loop’ in two-person interactions, where the partners each know that they have the intention to communicate. The use of deliberate social signals can serve to increase reputation and trust and facilitates teaching. This is likely to be a critical factor in the steep cultural ascent of mankind.

You can also see Colin and Uta Firth in a video interview.

Finally, the article by Geoffrey Hinton on Learning to Represent Visual Input looks fascinating, examining how “Recent progress in machine learning shows that it is possible to learn deep hierarchies without requiring any labelled data. The feature detectors are learned one layer at a time and the goal of the learning procedure is to form a good generative model of images, not to predict the class of each image… This module looks remarkably like modules that have been proposed by both biologists trying to explain the responses of neurons and engineers trying to create systems that can recognize objects.”

For access, access the entire special issue Personal perspectives in the life sciences for the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary.

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