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Waardenburg's syndrome


The problem of language
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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First of all, it's always struck me that the remarkable advances that have been made in linguistics and the hope that by making those advances you'll understand the origins of language may be a mistaken hope, or a misplaced hope. And the reason is a little bit like confusing the product for the process. I'll make that very clear by saying: supposing I had a Stradivarius which has gorgeous varnish and I chip off a piece of the varnish and I put it under a mass spec, and under a spectrometry and modern chemistry and everything and try to deduce what the formula of the varnish was and the family Bible that Stradivarius used. Not very likely. It's a huge series of irreversible events would have occurred. So I've always found it a little vain to think that by talking about generative grammar and language acquisition devices – sort of putting them off to biology – will really give you any insight. I think what's really much more important is to try to understand the process of discrimination... categorization we were talking about in consciousness; how you assign meaning through value systems to particular events, whether they're words or not. There are cases you know of individuals who have no language; they're human beings who have no language. There's a case of a Mexican man; there's a case of some people who have Waardenburg's syndrome.

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: language, linguistics, varnish, Stradivarius, consciousness, meaning, value, Waardenburg's syndrome

Duration: 1 minute, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008