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The theory of neural Darwinism


Why I don't think the brain is a computer
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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More and more that I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this is an area where you really need to have a theory. Well, why would I say that? Particularly since the accepted and received idea was that the brain was a computer. And you know this problem of every great invention of the age becomes the model for your next biological phenomenon; to Freud it was some idea of the pump, a hydraulic thing, having to do with emotions and what have you. Nowadays, or then at least, it was the computer. And the more and more I looked, the more and more I saw that this just doesn't make any sense. Why doesn't it make any sense? Because even at that time, when we don't know... when we didn't know as much as we know now, the individuality and variation of each brain was absolutely overwhelming. It was just amazing how clear it was, at every single level, from the single cell to the synapse, to the collection of the different anatomical areas, to the whole relationship to the body and behavior, every brain was unique. Indeed a certain calculation can indicate that it's unique in all of the history of the universe – that all of us can take solace in the fact that there won't be anybody like us, even twins. And so that struck me as a very major issue, and one that had to be confronted.

Now people don't generally confront that kind of complexity; they don't like it. In science you search... you search for generality and you look for rules and laws, and this didn't look like it was susceptible. But then Darwin came to the rescue; in my opinion Darwin had confronted exactly this problem and supervened by showing his fundamental idea – namely that variation is not noise. That variation is a shot on the future, if you will, in a selectional system. And so more and more these ideas pervaded my thinking and, in that time – a little between 1976 and 1977, I don't remember the exact date at Zurich airport – I sat down, I wrote this thing. And I let Frank Schmitt know that I wrote it and so he invited me to one of his intensive study programs at Boulder, Colorado, where he'd invite about 100 scientists to spend two to three weeks with their family and present a whole view of neuroscience.

Well, he had me start it out and... and Mountcastle as second, and I... I presented this theory. And then Mountcastle presented his theory of the distributed nature of the nervous system – namely, it isn't in just in one place; that a function can be carried out all over. And it was received with a great deal of interest and excitement and without either Vernon nor myself knowing it, Frank proceeded to clap the two presentations together and produce a book with MIT Press. Then he called me up after he'd produced the book and ready to have it go into the publisher and he said, 'What shall I call it?' And I didn't even know that there was going to be such a book. I suggested The Mindful Brain and that's how this little collaboration occurred. Neither of us actually collaborated but the ideas were, how shall I say, complementary. Well, the book got reviewed – marvelously for Vernon and dreadfully for me, particularly in England. It was considered a disaster. They considered who is this upstart and what is he talking about and all of these words and what have you. So it was not particularly popular. It's true that Vernon was a great recognised master in neurophysiology and his work was more focal and related to particular structural features of the nervous system – mine was a global theory. Well, in effect, ever since then I've been doing nothing in the theoretical field but trying to perfect this notion.

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: 1976, 1977, The Mindful Brain, Charles Darwin, Frank Scgmitt, Vernon Mountcastle

Duration: 3 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008