If we could find a necessary or sufficient condition for free will in the minds of fruit flies, would we bug out just a little? Sure we would, and then we’d blog about it.
Here’s the paper that started it all.
- Maye A, Hsieh C, Sugihara G, Brembs B (2007) Order in Spontaneous Behavior. PLoS ONE 2(5): e443. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000443
From the abstract:
Instead of random noise, we find a fractal order (resembling Lévy flights) in the temporal structure of spontaneous flight maneuvers in tethered Drosophila fruit flies. Lévy-like probabilistic behavior patterns are evolutionarily conserved, suggesting a general neural mechanism underlying spontaneous behavior. Drosophila can produce these patterns endogenously, without any external cues. The fly’s behavior is controlled by brain circuits which operate as a nonlinear system with unstable dynamics far from equilibrium. These findings suggest that both general models of brain function and autonomous agents ought to include biologically relevant nonlinear, endogenous behavior-initiating mechanisms if they strive to realistically simulate biological brains or out-compete other agents.
The paper involves math. If you get lost, look for good stuff in the section titled ‘Brains are simultaneously indeterministic and deterministic for a reason’. You get gems like:
Brains indeed do throw the dice–but by refuting the notion of stochasticity our results imply that they have exquisite control over when, where and how the dice are thrown.
Hat tip to LiveScience for mention of the story, clear writing without any (gasp) math, and lots of fun quotes from the researchers making it clear they are targeting this research towards development of autonomous robots.
Update: Nature columnist Philip Ball says this has nothing to do with free will, a concept that has no place in science.
Update: Philosophers at the Garden of Forking Paths – people who know free will really, really well – are wondering if the paper really tells us anything about free will. For now, the drive-by response seems to be “huh”. If the story is genuinely worthy of comment by free-will scholars, expect something of substance on that blog in the near future.
Update: In a strange turn of events, we learn free will in fruit flies is good for Intelligent Design. So says Uncommon Descent, which concludes:
Evidence for free will is evidence against Darwinism, no matter how it is spun.
Update: For one of the best commentaries on the research, see Good Math, Bad Math.