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The idea of self and consciousness


Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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In 1869 Darwin had a... how shall I say it, was vexed. He was vexed by what Wallace did. You remember that Wallace independently created a theory that amounted to natural selection. Darwin, when he received the manuscript from Malaysia a year and a half later after it was penned, felt forestalled, he felt his posterity was gone; the only sign of human weakness I've seen in the man, but we'll come to that. In any case, in 1869 – well after Wallace was back... admired the great master and everything, Wallace writes to Darwin that he's going to publish something in the Quarterly [Review] that indicates that the mind of man could not possibly have happened, or the brain for that matter, as a result of natural selection. Darwin had a fit. Darwin really cared about this. By this time by the way Wallace was a spiritualist and Darwin wrote back: 'I hope you have not too seriously murdered your child and my own', meaning natural selection, and Darwin understood. What was Wallace's argument? His argument was: 'Well, the brains of savages are just as big as those of Englishmen, almost, but they don't have mathematics and abstract thought, therefore...' This is a bit like saying if God had intended us to fly She [sic] wouldn't have invented railroad trains. The logic is faulty but never mind. Darwin tried to correct him and he saw that what happens during natural selection is very many neutral traits come along with the selection; there's correlative variation, and later, 200 generations later, those very neutral traits become just what you need. So you don't need math and you don't need abstract reasoning – if you have language alone it would be enough – and in The Descent of Man he sort of implied that, I think. So, yes, this is all a nice kind of harmonious way of looking. It may distress people, however, to think that there isn't any sort of witness in there, huh? They don't like that idea.

[Q] I think it distresses people quite a lot.

Yeah, and so that's a deep problem one is going to have with all of this.

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: 1869, Quarterly Review, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace

Duration: 2 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008