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The benefits of writing books


The issues of writing scientific books
Gerald Edelman Scientist
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[Q] It's to some degree a matter of contention and controversy amongst scientists as to the value of writing books as opposed to publishing research papers, and you've certainly devoted a fair amount of energy to writing books. How do you see those issues?

I see a mixed picture of pleasure and pain. You're quite right. I think that the... if I took what I'll call the reduced picture – and this is probably wrong and maybe Jacques Barzun should be in the room to say what's really right – I think the professional scientists, the idea of the scientific profession, which we might even discuss in terms of Sir Humphrey Davy, for example, who tried to do that for the first time... the idea of professional in science says, look, pick one field, stick with it, dominate it, and write papers, don't write books. If you write books the delay is too great. No-one's going to listen. Who reads anyhow? Etc., etc., etc.

I think there's a certain truth in that because the notion of urgency and speed has entered into science. There's a necessary concomitant of this large-scale incredible increase in the number of people in that fancy technology they can use by going in the middle. Indeed I think it's worth mentioning that. That in the old days you really had to master the fundamentals of a field before you did anything because you mostly had to build your own stuff. But now, by golly, you can actually hire somebody to do parts of your experiment. When that happened in my laboratory across the street at the Scripps Research Institute, when my kids said to me, 'We'll just have these guys... we'll pay them to do this gene cloning for us.' I said, 'What, you'll pay some commercial outfit to do what is your experiment?' And their comment was: 'Boss, you want the Japanese to get ahead?' And that was what I remembered and I had to acquiesce; and, besides, they told me it was cheaper.

So, you see, this peculiar set of flavors that never really were felt back then are being felt now. And so certainly your comment about books is true. There's another issue. The longer the book, the smaller the number of readers. There is this terrific thing of what I'll call sort of the museum-goer who says in Holland, 'Where's the night watch? Quick, I'm double-parked.' There is this terrific sense of urgency that has always puzzled me because, in effect, there's a kind of obsessive notion about deep ideas, right? I mean, what kind of technology, besides lens grinding, did Spinoza have? Or how come you have these extraordinary thinkers of the past that didn't have all of this, and we had the thinkers of the near present anyhow like Einstein and some of the great physicists. What's going on? Or you had Darwin – obsessive to such a degree right? And in a sense forced to write that book by the events, by the fact that when Wallace came along he thought he was forestalled and he'd better get it all together: years and years of notes. The atmosphere is not favorable to that, but it is favorable to, for instance, writing very popular books in which you bowdlerize the ideas, or you try to sell a disease or something.

Well, I've made every possible mistake a person can make. For instance Neural Darwinism is a book of high density and, as I think of it, without making excuses against negative criticism, I felt when I'd finished that book, like a centurion full of blood, and mud and having come from the marshes and sort of fatigued, and saying I got to get to bed. Very challenged because it was coming to the edge of a whole set of concepts. Certain books I've written are not like that. I did write this trilogy in which I tried to embody this whole view of science and I don't know to what extent it's been really accepted or acceptable. The first one was... not necessarily in temporal order... was Topobiology – the idea of morphogenesis, gene expression governing molecules that converted the whole message into mechanics of cells and how they stuck together or didn't stick together and moved. And then there was Neural Darwinism. Finally there was The Remembered Present. That trilogy was saying, 'I want to go from the form in Darwin's program which was certainly selected, all the way on up to these very complex events of mind like... like consciousness.' And so, yes, I've done that, and I've also, as Chairman of the Neurosciences Research program and of the Neurosciences Institute, edited along with others... with Einar Gall, Max Cowan, edited ten other books on symposia that we had here. So, yes, I've been embedded in that, but I think the implication of your question, isn't it, is that papers are more fruitful in the scientific domain... in the sense of conveying ideas.

[Q] Or at least, that's what some think, and the question is, are there things that can be done in a book that can't be done in a paper?

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: Neural Darwinism, Topobiology, The Remembered Present, Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Jacques Barzun, Humphrey Davy, Albert Einstein, Baruch Spinoza, Einar Gall, Max Cowan

Duration: 5 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008