I shared a lift with Baroness Greenfield

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Adelaide is an unusual city, a mix of parochialism and conservatism and progressive, innovative thinking. One of the examples of the latter is the Thinkers in Residence program, where world renowned thinkers are invited to Adelaide to discuss issues relevant to urban and regional development. Currently, the Thinker in Residence is Baroness Susan Greenfield, a world authority on neuroscience cognition the pharmacology of Alzheimer’s disease. Baroness Greenfield is considered to be the 14th most inspirational woman in the owrld (and as she wryly notes, Dolly Parton is the 9th). Last Friday night I went to a symposium on “Neurotransmitters in the Brain”, where I listened to here give a talk entitled “Is there more to the brain then neurotransmitters?”.

What has this got to do with evolutionary biology?

Well, Paleyists keep on going on the imminent collapse of “Darwinism”, but they have probably not been talking much to working biologists. Neuroscientists are a fairly down to earth group of people, hardly the image of “Dogmatic Darwinists” that the Paleyists promote, yet evolutionary biology and evolutionary insights were woven into all the talks. Theodosius Dobzhansky once said “In biology nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution”, and this is nowhere as true as for neuroscience.

Baroness Greenfield’s talk was a tour de force, an inspiring, sparking rush of ideas. Even I, who tries to keep up with the more advanced literature, as amazed by the images of linked nerve cells growing on computer chips, prototypes of advanced brain implants. I am now a confirmed Geenfield Groupie.

One of the elements of her talk was about the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. Some of you might recognize this enzyme, as it breaks down acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic and skeletal muscular system, and is responsible for terminating the effect of a nerve impulse. It turns out that acetylcholinesterase also is a neuronal growth factor, an effect that is unrelated to its enzyme activity. It is turning out that many proteins can play multiple important roles that are unrelated to their originally described “primary” enzymic activity. Why is this important? One of the Paleyist’s claims is that complex systems cannot be built because intermediate systems have no evolutionary advantage, a eubacterial flagella without a motor has no useful function and a motor on its own has no function, therefore it cannot evolve via natural selection. But many proteins have multiple useful functions, and can be doing things other than the thing we think of as the “primary function”. Indeed, the very concept of a “primary function” may simply be an artifact of the way we discover proteins. The eubacterial flagella is an effective secretion system, and the motor is a member of a class of proteins that help power secretion. It is easy to see how these systems could have evolutionarily important functions on their own, and be co-opted into a motility role. Co-option is extensive in biological systems, as the Paleyists would know if they talked extensively with working biologists, and there is no barrier to building complex systems as these can play multiple, important roles at various stages in their assembly.

After the talk, I wandered off amazed and enthralled by all the ideas I had just heard. In a bit of a daze, I got in a lift, to discover that I was sharing the lift with Baroness Greenfield and one other person. Here I was in close proximity to the person whose luminous ideas had enchanted me, here was my opportunity to say something meaningful and profound. What did I say? “That was a very nice talk, thank you”.

11 Comments

Ah, that last bit is familiar. The one time I got to meet Steve Gould was shortly after he gave a talk at the Society for Neuroscience meetings, and all I managed to do was stutter out a brief compliment.

Evolution has become political. The assault on Science by the bush administration has encouraged creationism and allowed so-called “intelligent design” intrusions. The only way to keep science true is to be able to compete at the place where funding and direction is controlled. That would be to interrupt a downward spiral, a veritable toilet swirl of logic uttered simply. The creationists talk of random, using as metaphor the tornado in a junkyard making a stopwatch. Or, the unlikely occurance of that likened to cells becoming us. I’ve tried to present the idea that evolution only rewards what works, and that’s not random. Only survivors pass on traits. Run that through a 3 billion year shakedown cruise, all basically beneficial in nature, and you get stuff that works. Stuff that works is inherently beautiful, and the integration is viewed in an appreciative manner - might even think it needed God. But it’s really just stuff that works. I wish evolution could be presented as beneficial - NOT “dog eat dog”, NOT really “survival as the fittest” as in a triumphant cross-species warrior. Evolution can be seen as niche-seeking. And mostly beneficial, if the niches are plentiful. I realize eating rabbits is a niche, and the bunny part ( part of their niche) requires a certain fatalism. Not that the bunnies don’t try real hard to minimize that part. But a bunny, a blueJay, and a mouse all co-exist and are evolving like crazy.

I wish I could explain the benevolence better, Am I on track with how to win a culture war?

Anyone who can write a book named “The Private Life of the Brain” has to be inspirational

Speaking of the Society for Neuroscience, let’s give three cheers for its recent strongly worded Statement on Evolution and Intelligent Design, according to which “K-12 science education based on anything other than tested and accepted scientific theory is counterproductive to the education of America’s youth.”

Speaking of the Society for Neuroscience, let’s give three cheers for its recent strongly worded Statement on Evolution and Intelligent Design, according to which “K-12 science education based on anything other than tested and accepted scientific theory is counterproductive to the education of America’s youth.”

Speaking of the Society for Neuroscience, let’s give three cheers for its recent strongly worded Statement on Evolution and Intelligent Design, according to which “K-12 science education based on anything other than tested and accepted scientific theory is counterproductive to the education of America’s youth.”

Three cheers for the NCSE, Glenn! Good work.

So what?!? So what if the Society for Neuroscience (is that the NCSE?) says that, or says anything! Powerless pissing into the wind. These things are decided by POLITICIANS nowadays. I really believe that our best ammunition is being shot into the dark, and we are losing the science/culture war. Go fight the fight where it is being fought. Please.

Richard W. Crews wrote

Go fight the fight where it is being fought. Please.

Many of us are. How about you?

RBH

QWe are on the same side. I am a layman, and I assume that some of we readers are people with position/stature/creditability/etc

I try to do my best. Here is a letter from me, limited to 200 words, that my local right-wing paper printed. The 20 word limit is daunting. We have an on-going debate in the letters section about all things political, including evolution and global warming.

My letter on evolution :

Evolution is not a random process, subject to those daunting odds thrown about by the scoffers. It is a natural force, benevolent, even symbiotic in its own niche, fiercely competitive when need be. It is a parallel, multi-pronged opportunistic effort that promotes only what works. These paralleled efforts will eventually come down to a few winners, who will compete to extinction if sharing the same niche. Evolution produces successful differentiations, an opportunistic and aggressive system that fills all niches. If you run such a system through a 3.5 billion year shake-down cruise, you end up with a beautiful working system. It’s not chance. It’s not random. If it didn’t work early, it’s gone. If it worked, but paralleled too closely; gone. The possible combinations decrease greatly. How greatly? We have no idea how many species inhabit the earth now, much less for all time. That explains why there are no “links” left from man to ape; we wiped them out! We see beauty because it works. Flowers are for bees, not us; but we see the beauty. We measure with what we know. If our sky were puke green, we’d see beauty. No wonder we think we see a designer.

“3.5 billion year shakedown cruise”

I like that. Did you coin it?

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This page contains a single entry by Ian Musgrave published on July 10, 2004 6:21 PM.

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