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An original thought at Zurich airport


The sciences of recognition and population thinking
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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If I look back on my scientific career which, such as it is... I see it's been dominated by one idea and that's a Darwinian idea – the idea of what I like to call the sciences of recognition; the idea that is underneath those sciences which is the idea of population thinking – namely, what you saw in Macfarlane Burnet's and previously obviously in Darwin's work, that biological systems generally work by selection. That you have a generator of diversity, some variance, G-O-D in evolution's case; mutations, recombinations etc. Then you have some kind of polling in which an environment is challenged or the environment challenges your system which has been made independently, and then certain differential amplification or natural selection. In evolution it's differential reproduction: the progeny of those individuals who have genes that give them a phenotype or a body capability able to be fitter and respond to that environmental change better, that progeny increases, that changes the gene frequency, etc. So you have this threefold thing or this two-step of Darwin – namely: variation, selection; variation, selection. That idea informed my work in immunology obviously, thanks to Macfarlane Burnet and Jerne, and also it informed my work and the work of my colleagues in cell adhesion molecule and embryogenesis. It still dominates my work in the nervous system to which that embryogenesis work led.

US biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) successfully constructed a precise model of an antibody, a protein used by the body to neutralise harmful bacteria or viruses and it was this work that won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 jointly with Rodney R Porter. He then turned his attention to neuroscience, focusing on neural Darwinism, an influential theory of brain function.

Listeners: Ralph J. Greenspan

Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders, Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he received his Ph.D. in biology in 1979. He subsequently taught and conducted research at Princeton University and New York University where he ran the W.M. Keck Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, relocating to San Diego in 1997 to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. Dr. Greenspan’s research accomplishments include studies of physiological and behavioral consequences of mutations in a neurotransmitter system affecting one of the brain's principal chemical signals, studies making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior, molecular identification of genes causing naturally occurring variation in behavior, and the demonstration that the fly has sleep-like and attention-like behavior similar to that of mammals. Dr. Greenspan has been awarded fellowships from the Helen Hay Whitney Foundation, the Searle Scholars Program, the McKnight Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Klingenstein Foundation. In addition to authoring research papers in journals such as "Science", "Nature", "Cell", "Neuron", and "Current Biology", he is also author of an article on the subject of genes and behavior for "Scientific American" and several books, including "Genetic Neurobiology" with Jeffrey Hall and William Harris, "Flexibility and Constraint in Behavioral Systems" with C.P. Kyriacou, and "Fly Pushing: The Theory and Practice of Drosophila Genetics", which has become a standard work in all fruit fly laboratories.

Tags: Macfarlane Burnet, Charles Darwin, Niels Kaj Jerne

Duration: 1 minute, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008