Saturday, February 11, 2006

Zimmer on the brain

DarkSyde continues his series of interviews at the Daily Kos with Carl Zimmer. Zimmer is the author of copious books, including Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Parasite Rex : Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, and Soul Made Flesh : The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World, publishes articles in the New York Times and elsewhere and blogs at The Loom. Describing his research on the birth of neurology and the religious conflicts that surrounded the notion that the brain was the seat of consciousness:
History runs in a cycle when it comes to how people view themselves and the world. A certain kind of understanding works well enough until new observations and ideas throw it into doubt. It takes a long time for people to find a new system into which these new things can fit comfortably. The brain offers a good example of this shifting consensus. Thomas Willis worried that people would take him for an atheist for suggesting that learning, memory, dreams, and the rest of our psychological life was produced by chemical corpuscles in the brain. By the 1700s this had become conventional wisdom. Now we're in a second neurological revolution, with brain imaging allowing scientists to dissect thought, with a growing understanding of the underlying chemistry, and an enormous industry in trying to alter that chemistry.

I don't think we've figured out how to live with this new kind of understanding of the brain on a day to day basis. There's also a fair amount of resistance to the idea that this precious brain ours is the product of billions of years of evolution.
This neatly ties together two themes I've been hammering on lately. On one hand, how society views life, or consciousness changes as science advances. The revolutions Zimmer describes have also happened in our views on the edges of life, not to mention the origins of the universe, or of life. People's religious and scientific understandings had been entwined in ways they didn't even recognize, and the advance of science revealed contradictions. People thought it over and realized they had been trying to use science to explain theology (the soul) and vice versa, and corrected the error. Life moved on, and we take it for granted that the consciousness resides in the brain, and is an emergent property of simple interactions between neurons.

He also says something I like to say also: "One reason I love my job is that I can watch scientific history in the making." We live in a Golden Age of biology. Better molecular techniques are giving us unimaginable insights into the details of how processes work, and better access to various parts of the world are letting us increase the fraction of the world's biological diversity that we've seen. Computers and other technology lets us integrate our understanding of biology at its very broadest scales – the global environment, global biodiversity and the total history of life's evolution – and at the very smallest molecular scales, and everywhere in between. Ecology is booming, and pulling in new insights from developmental biology and molecular biology and integrating that into an evolutionary and environmental framework.

Zimmer comments that "The well-being of American science depends not just on lots of scientists doing good work, but on the rest of us having a good basic understanding of science." I'll add to that by saying that the public appreciation of science depends largely on scientists reaching out beyond the realm of academia.

Somehow, politics has come to dominate the content here, and I hope to rebalance that.