Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

On the Nature of Models: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Women, Too (from Warren McCulloch to Candace Pert)

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

On the Nature of Models: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Women, Too (from Warren McCulloch to Candace Pert)

Article excerpt

Centenary Celebration for Warren McCulloch

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I had the privilege to know most of the founders of cybernetics, and three in particular I honor as mentors: Norbert Wiener, Ross Ashby, and Warren McCulloch. This year there is special reason to celebrate Warren Sturgis McCulloch, for it is his centenary year. He was born on the 16th of November 1898, in Orange, New Jersey.

Warren was a philosopher and scientist. As a freshman at Haverford College he told the Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones that all he wanted to know was: "What is a number that a man may know it; and a man, that he may know a number?" To this the Quaker famously replied: "Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives." Warren acknowledged in his last days that the prophecy had been fulfilled, and had helped him to invent cybernetics on the way.

Warren was a physician and psychiatrist. He graduated from Yale in 1920, and took in a period of service in the Naval Reserve. Then he went to Columbia University where he qualified as a physician, attaining his M.D. in 1927, and became known for work on experimental epilepsy. You might well ask what he was up to in the early 30s, then, doing graduate work in New York University on mathematical physics. But in a year or two he was back at the alma mater in Yale and working on the central nervous system. Throughout the 1940s, he was professor of psychiatry and clinical professor of physiology at the University of Illinois.

Warren was a logician and neurophysiologist. He can properly be called responsible for the field now widely known as neural nets (where for some years he had Walter Pitts as a significant collaborator). Perhaps it now appears more plausible why a psychiatrist in Illinois, should suddenly turn up in 1952 in Cambridge Massachusetts--running a research laboratory in electronics at MIT! He remained in that small but influential room until his death 17 years later, in 1969. In 1963 he became consultant to the presidential office of President Kennedy.

Warren was a blacksmith and poet. He enjoyed physical activity and working as an artisan. He undertook crazy schemes--from constructing a sizable dam (referred to as a "pond"), to building a quasi-cathedral (referred to as a "barn"), on his estate at Old Lyme, Connecticut, where Einstein was a neighbor. And when the Chicago Literary Society invited him to speak, I am not sure that everyone was entirely prepared for him to spend the entire evening reciting his own poetry.

Philosopher and scientist, physician and psychiatrist, logician and neurophysiologist, blacksmith and poet--those are a few of the categories that Warren in fact transcended. That is because he was above all a polymath: an all-purpose intellect, and a liver-of-life on a grand (some would say profligate) scale.

In the Small Conference Mode

The notion of meeting in conference as a small group of powerful intellects--with no outside audience--had a vogue during the '40s and '50s to which I fervently wish we might return. It was outstandingly successful; but it does however require substantial funding. The theoretical basis of such an "evolutionary cluster" came from Margaret Mead, and a persistent advocate was Frank Fremont-Smith. Warren McCulloch was a forceful if often manipulative chairman.

The outstanding series of these conferences was sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. Each lasted for two full days. They began in 1946, and continued on an annual basis for ten years. Unfortunately, formal publication did not begin until the sixth year: they were a tremendous boost to those of us who received them as they arrived.

Towards the beginning of this series, in 1948, a cognate conference was held at the New York Academy of Sciences under the heading of teleological mechanisms--again with Warren presiding. It was a favorite topic of his. Teleology comes from the Greek root meaning end in the sense of purpose. …

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