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The nature of science and knowledge


Complexity and language
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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I would add that to the problem of complexity because indeed it is complex. And the reason that it's complex fascinates me because it's something that just goes a bit against the grain, doesn't it, in science? What you want from science is a kind of certainty, right? But if someone says to you, 'Well, wait a minute, what you have to have in biological system is degeneracy.' Let me explain that, because it won't work otherwise. Even evolution wouldn't work because you'd have too many mutants that are lethal. What is degeneracy? Well, degeneracy is what you see very clearly in the genetic code. You know that the code is a triplet code – there's the letters G, C, A, T, okay, and they base-pair à la Watson and Crick. Fine. Now you realize that the third, that there are 64 code words, and if you take out the three stop codons there are 61 code words for 20 L amino acids. So that means there are too many code words if you will on a one-one basis, and so what do you see? You see that the third position of every code word, every triplet, can be replaced by any one of the letters and it doesn't matter, in general. That means, say, to make 100 amino acids of particular protein sequence I need 300 nucleotides, roughly 3100  different possible chains can be made that all specify the same darn amino acid sequence. A truly degenerate situation. Well, what Joe Gally and I and in our conversations with you have developed is this idea that at practically every level of biology you see degeneracy, even up to the ambiguities of language. So my challenge to anyone who says otherwise is to go as follows: supposing you were just born with ordinary algebra and not with the capacity for language as we know it – natural language. Well, if... if you were born and could speak that language what would you say? You'd say (-B + -v(B² + 4AC)) ÷ 2A, the discriminant of a quadratic equation. I'd say, 'Write a poem', and he say (-B + -v(B² + 4AC)) ÷ 2A. You would not, in effect, really be able to deal with what's involved in poetry – namely, a huge richness of implication and reference.

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: Joe Gally

Duration: 2 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008