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Science, consciousness and the world


Contradictions in science
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] It also brings you once again into conflict with accepted dogma, which also seems to be a recurring theme.

Yeah, I never thought of it that way but of course that's a risk, isn't it?

[Q] Well, and the question then becomes how... how to... how to handle that? How to deal with it.

What is the picture of that Italian artist that you have in your office?

[Q] Morandi.

Morandi, yes. My friend Milton Glaser, who invented Pushpin Studios and is a great applied artist and etc., told me about studying with Morandi and I said, 'What was it like?' And he said, 'Well, you know... he didn't say anything. And finally he did say something.' I said, 'What did he say?' He said, 'He came into the room, he saw me painting, he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Coraggio – courage.” That was all he said.' He said, 'But I got something out of it and I don't know why.' Nonetheless you're right, I hadn't thought of it that way. But there is a piece of advice there. You could say whenever... say to a young person, whenever you see in the literature and in the report of the day some kind of contradiction, don't just gloss over it. Don't attribute it to error or whatever; go and ask, 'Well, what's missing? What is going on here? The thing doesn't gel.' And there are a lot of... contrary to public opinion, I think there are a lot of received ideas in science that are like that; they get inserted and they hang, and no-one picks up the contradiction.

[Q] Well, there's also... maybe also there's another... another angle on it which has to do with not taking a Panglossian view of the progress of science. Or as Barzan once said, 'The march of science is less an orderly parade than it is a mad dash for the open spaces ahead.'

More than that, and modern life is like confetti without the parade. But be... be that as it may, I... I would go along with that. I think that there is a kind of a triumphalism that comes from physics, right? It's sort of amazing how human intellect and experiment has been able to give you a picture of the world that's so inobvious, so different than our commonsense view of what reality is so called. There's that famous case of Eddington's desk. Eddington the physicist said, 'You know, here I am looking at my desk, but if I go down at the quantum level there are all these electromagnetic repulsions and movements and uncertainties and weirdness that I can't...' Now what's going on here? Well, when you look at the triumphalism of physics, the grand space of cosmology and the microscopic way down into the quantum field you say... you have to say that's fantastic, but if it reflects too statically on the notion of how you acquire knowledge, and what the question is, then I think you can get in a lot of trouble. And I think in biology – again because I think Darwin introduced history into the whole issue – you... without obscurantism, without saying you can't understand it, you have to be much more modest in a certain way because there are things that don't make any sense at all, and that is the whole point. The point of evolution is that...

Well, let me stop and say there's another way of looking at it. Steven Weinburg, who's a pretty great physicist, once attacked me in the New York Review of Books. He said, 'Edelman's theory may be right, speaking about Neural Darwinism, but he has to understand the whole thing has to be expressed in terms of a super-symmetry relationship or the four forces of nature. He is an extreme reductionist.' He said, 'Except for historical accidents.' And so I actually sat down to write him a letter: 'Dear Steve, you are a historical accident.' I didn't send it, but when I saw him in Sweden I mentioned it to him, and his position was that the universe is essentially pointless and meaningless; but if you look at it as a biologist, that, this can't be the case because of the introduction of value that says run, mate, eat etc., that is a value system that is absolutely built in to the notion of Darwinian selection and fitness. And so I'm not saying that our moral values come directly from there because I don't believe that ought comes from is. I think Hume was right. On the other hand not everything of science is value-free, and not everything of morals is free of facts. And so there is this interesting balance that biology and maybe especially neurobiology poses: that you have to look at the acquisition of knowledge and truth in a not more... not in a sloppier way, but in a more lenient fashion, because in fact not even physics has really analyzed super-complex situations and we've talked about that.

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: Milton Glaser, Giorgio Morandi, Arthur Eddington, Steven Weinburg

Duration: 4 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008