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Choice in science


The nature of science and knowledge
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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You've been very kind to have even let me rave on like this about my own scientific career and I have a number of things to say. First of all, I don't think I've done very much, and the only solace in that, if there's any envy in it, is nobody does, because science evolves this dealing with what is the case, the truth – so-called the verifiable truth. Andy Warhol once came to me, the artist, and he said, 'Can I ask you a question?' I said, 'Sure.' And he said, 'Why does science take so long?' And I said, 'Mr Warhol, when you do a Marilyn Monroe does it have to be exactly as she is?' He said, 'Oh no, I don't even do it; we have something called a factory and we do silk screens.' And I said, 'Well, in science it has to be just the way it is.' He said, 'That's horrible, right?' So, in effect, to do something in science takes a rather long time even with the help of your colleagues, which is necessary. So that's the first thing. The second thing is, of course, in scientific work there are deep elements of luck. But, like everything else, I think, creative, you start the way an artist starts. Of course, the way I think you end is as a paragraph somewhere. Because in fact it is a web of knowledge in which the particularities and story of your particular quest might be interesting in programs such as this, and might be interesting in a human point of view, it's irrelevant to the actual knowledge and the way that would be transformed by others, even if it remains true.

For example, Maxwell's equations are not written the way Maxwell wrote them, but they're still Maxwell's equations. They have the meaning of it, even if you don't remember who Maxwell was. So I think I must say that, because it means to me that any kind of epistemology or theory of knowledge that is very severe, sort of logical, is if... in itself correct, quite insufficient, because knowledge is generated from experience; experience builds on this Darwinian base; and in all selectional systems you start with range, the repertoire, and then get specificity as a result of selective events, some of which are not even controlling.

So I would say... if you ask me my view of the acquisition of knowledge and of true knowledge, I would say I'm very lenient; I'm extremely lenient. I would think that you'd have to start with the infant, go into the society, interact, refine according to criteria, but never be ruthless – so ruthless that you say that all of knowledge is just justified true belief. If that's all, then it's not much and I don't think it's very creative. So I think creative people always start with this ambiguity, not the other way around. If you start with clarity, where do you go from there? That isn't speaking against clarity. As I've tried to tell you in these stories that the clarity of immunology was certainly a signal and lucky event in my existence because you could see with sort of an almost aesthetic glory – something like a Greek temple, okay? This extraordinary thing. But that's not true of everything we do, and it's certainly never true in the beginning is it? So, above all, biology, and maybe to some degree physics, although not as much, has got to pay attention to this, to this fact, that not everything has to be expressed as laws; not everything has to be reducible to simple elegant equations, although that's very beautiful when it can be done; and that it's all, how shall I say, open-ended and before us like a land of dreams.

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: Andy Warhol

Duration: 3 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008