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Complexity and Darwinism


Conscious artifacts
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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People make a lot of fuss about SETI – intelligence from outer space and all of that, exobiology. I think just as exciting is having some... there was a movie, wasn't there, about space... a lady astronomer who has an idea and she's in touch... I forget the name of it. Anyhow...

[Q] More than one.

The fact is... the fact is supposing we had a conscious artifact. Well, would you be terrified? No, I don't think you should be, because first of all you heard what I said about the body, it would not have our phenotype, it would therefore have a different kind of consciousness; who would have in my opinion philosophically have got to have something equivalent to language so it could report like in that experiment about the blue and the red bars. But imagine what it would be like for the first time to ask another critter, who could correspond with you, what they think the world is like. What are the boundary conditions? Now, they might slice up the world in an entirely different way than you do, and if they did I wouldn't be surprised. And this brings us to a very interesting point I think about all of this promenade I've exposed you to about the pursuit of particular subjects and different subjects in science in different stages of knowledge. And that is: what is the basis of knowledge and how do we know things and how exhaustive is the scientific enterprise? Maybe we can talk about that later but I... the thing that naturally comes from this issue about conscious artifacts. I think I'd put it this way. No-one is going to be changed, I think, by having a truly established or solid or reasonably effective science... scientific theory of consciousness, but if they're told there's a conscious artifact I think they will certainly react, don't you?

[Q] Absolutely.

Yeah. So this brings us to this larger issue of... of what is it; how does all of this biology affect the way we are? Right?

[Q] And our concept... our concept of who we are.

And the concept of who we are, all of the above, and it's of course a, how shall I say, an incredibly potentially explosive subject isn't it? And I don't mean it in the same sense as molecular biology is a potentially explosive subject when it's applied to human reproduction.

[Q] No, because this one is far more threatening to people.

Well, yeah, and it's threatening possibly to belief and it's threatening to a lot of things. On the other hand it's clear that, given the history of the way we've always worked as human beings... that it will happen. So there's another related question which we might discuss or we might not, and that is: what's the really challenging next problem? I mean, someone would say, ‘You're not satisfied with consciousness – you have to go to the next problem’, but I would say, if I were pressed, the next problem's to understand the complexity. The complexity that arises out of the process of evolution and how that affects how we do science.

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: Contact

Duration: 3 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008