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Gerald Edelman's theory of neural Darwinism


Gerald Edelman's work: reinventions and Neural Darwinism
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I... I felt very honoured and very excited by meeting Crick and by the correspondence… I… this was really my first encounter with a major scientist of that calibre, but our correspondence and our sharing of interests were all in the visual realm, including that of visual consciousness. I met another figure, who was and remains crucial to me, and this was Gerald Edelman. Gerald Edelman is a neurobiologist, a great neurobiologist, who is in La Jolla. Edelman had got a Nobel Prize for his work in immunology, really showing how... how immunological identity was formed. There had been the notion that one might have a sort of rack of preformed antibodies, but Edelman showed that this was not the case, but that the immune system learned and... and responded appropriately. And after Edelman had achieved that, he then looked at the nervous system and wondered whether there was a similar selective action with populations of nerve cells, and whether personal identity could be built up in the same way as immunological identity.

One can… a book has recently been published in Holland, I think it’ll be published generally, it’s been a big hit, saying: my brain is me. Well, in a sense your heart and your liver and your lungs are you, but they are only immunologically specific, and if you do something to damp down reactions, then you can get a heart transplant or a liver transplant. You can’t have a brain transplant because a brain is someone else, although it’s conceivable that... that little bits of the brain might be transplanted one day. There had been an astonishing article in The New York Review of Books, by a man called Israel Rosenfield, about Edelman’s work. I’d never heard of Edelman, and when I read this article, I... I don’t know what… all the phrases, like, I was awestruck, I dropped dead, blew my mind… and... because clearly Edelman had a theory of... of the nervous system and of how one became an individual, unlike anything which had existed before. About six months later, I met Edelman, Israel was there, plus a friend from Italy. I couldn’t follow the conversation, because Edelman talked at great speed and without interruption – he is a monologist – and then when he left us and walked away, I saw that he was walking very rapidly, and looking at the ground and paying no attention to people around him, and this... this increased my awestruck feeling of total absorption and powers of concentration.

But for me, the real epiphany came in '88, when Edelman and I had been invited to a conference in the Vatican. It was a very strange conference because it was about brain and mind, and brain and spirit. It was opened by Edelman, it was concluded by the Pope, and I was somewhere a very small contributor in the middle. But after the conference finished, I had dinner with Edelman. We were in a restaurant with... with paper tablecloths, and Edelman talked, and how he talked and the tablecloth became covered with diagrams, and I could stop him, and asked him to go back over things. And as I walked back from the restaurant I... I sort of, thanked God that I had lived to this day. I thought it must have been similar for people in 1859, when the Origin of Species came out – a completely different, wonderful world picture. Edelman’s book was called Neural Darwinism, and... and I saw him as sort of, as... and he sees himself, as the Darwin of the... of the nervous system. Crick cracked a joke or so, and used to call neural Darwinism, neural Edelmanism, and Edelman would both smile and feel slightly prickly whenever he heard that.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Vatican, the Pope, Origin of Species, Neural Darwinism, Gerald Edelman, Francis Crick, Charles Darwin

Duration: 5 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012