American neuroscientist, professor, and author Gerald M. Edelman (born 1929) won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 at the age of 43. He went on to achieve equal prominence for his pioneering theory of mind, referred to as "Neural Darwinism" or "Neuronal Group Selection" (NGS). While his conclusions about the fundamental workings of the human brain were often controversial, they were never dull. Edelman's publications on the subject included Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind , and Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness . He founded the Neurosciences Institute in New York City in 1981, and moved it to La Jolla, California, in 1993.
Edelman was born on July 1, 1929, in New York City. His father, Edward, was a physician and his mother, Anna, a homemaker. As he was growing up in Ozone Park, Queens, and Long Beach, New York, science was not foremost in his mind. Instead, he trained to be a concert violinist with noted teacher/performer Albert Meiff. Music was to remain a consuming passion of Edelman's over the years, but it was not to become his career.
After attending public schools in New York City through high school, Edelman went to Collegeville, Pennsylvania, to study chemistry at Ursinus College. He graduated magna cum laude in 1950 and then headed off to the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received an M.D. in 1954. In 1955 Edelman became a medical house officer at Massachusetts General Hospital. Next up, he joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps as a captain, and practiced general medicine at a military hospital connected with American Hospital in Paris, France, for two years.
Upon his discharge from the army in 1957, Edelman returned to his hometown to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and immunology from the Rockefeller Institute (now Rockefeller University). It was there, under the guidance of Dr. Henry G. Kunkel, that Edelman began the research in immunology that would lead to his Nobel Prize. His thesis explored methods of splitting immunoglobulin molecules, or antibodies, and he received his doctorate in 1960.
After earning his Ph.D., Edelman stayed on at Rockefeller University as assistant dean of Graduate Studies. In 1963 he became associate dean of Graduate Studies, and in 1966 he became a full professor. He continued his research in his own laboratory, and was soon making some groundbreaking findings.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the understanding of the nature of antibodies was scant. Their role in combating foreign substances, or antigens, in the body was known, but their chemical structure and the way in which they were able to recognize antigens was less clear. English biochemist Rodney R. Porter was investigating the matter, as was Edelman. Throughout the 1960s each scientist came up with independent research, sometimes drawing on one another's research, in order to explain the properties of antibodies
After winning the Nobel Prize, Edelman changed his focus from immunology to developmental biology and neuroscience. Specifically, he began to investigate how the human body, and especially the brain, operates, by honing in on cellular interactions in early embryonic development and the formation and function of the nervous system. He quickly made innovative inroads into this new area as well, beginning in 1975, when he discovered cell adhesion molecules (CAMs). CAMs bind neurons together to form the brain's fundamental circuitry, thereby guiding the basic processes through which an animal achieves its shape and form and by which nervous systems are constructed. While seminal in its own right, this work also led to the larger theory for which Edelman is likely most famous, that of "Neural Darwinism."
In 1981 Edelman founded the Neurosciences Institute as an independently supported part of Rockefeller University (relocated to La Jolla, California in 1993). Its mandate was to emphasize the scientific "big picture" and investigate creative theories on the workings of the brain, particularly as to higher brain function. Within this organization, Edelman formulated his notable theory of mind.
Neural Darwinism, or Neuronal Group Selection (NGS), was first presented in Edelman's 1987 book Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection . The idea is described in his biography on the Cajal Conference website (citation below) as: "the theory that populations of neurons develop individual networks through a Darwinian selection process. [Edelman] thinks that the converse opinion, that neurons are genetically coded to make specific connections, just as transistors are wired in a preset pattern, is untenable given the very limited size of eukaryotic genomes in relation with the explosive number of neuronal connections." Further, Edelman argued against the traditional concept of a fixed human nervous system, suggesting instead that neural systems continuously change. That is, the human brain has variations unique to each individual and modifies itself constantly in response to each new incoming signal.
The forgoing explanation is, necessarily, an extremely simplified and streamlined definition of a multi-faceted and complicated theory. Indeed, some of its controversy stemmed from its very complexity. Edward Rothstein of the New York Times quoted the 1988 comment of biologist Gunter Stent on NGS as, "I consider myself not too dumb. I am a professor of molecular biology and chairman of the neurobiology section of the National Academy of Sciences, so I should understand it. But I don't." Other critics found the theory either derivative or based on incorrect interpretations of other models of the mind. But Edelman ignored the naysayers and quietly continued his pioneering work.
After his first book on NGS, Edelman went on to write several others elucidating his ideas for both the scientific and lay communities. He started by writing the two volumes that completed his initial trilogy, Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology (1988) and The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (1989). He followed those up with Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind , published in 1992, A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000), which presented new data on the neural correlates of conscious experience, and Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2005), which included a model of the biology of consciousness. It was in the latter book that Edelman, unenviably, attempted to articulate his ideas for a lay audience. Additionally, he had authored more than 500 research publications by 2006.
By 2005 Edelman had added other responsibilities to his resume besides heading up the Neurosciences Institute. Those included serving as chairman and professor of neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute, scientific chairman of the Neurosciences Research Program, and president of the Neurosciences Research Foundation. His institute was thriving on its own campus in La Jolla, with 36 research fellows studying nearly every field of neuroscience. Each fellow was fully funded by the institute for up to four years, in order to insulate him or her from the vagaries and distractions of grant writing and laboratory politics, as Edelman felt such independence was necessary for proper original research. And the institute itself was an interesting reflection of its founder: one building devoted to theory, another to experimentation, and a third (a concert hall) to music.
Edelman's unique and significant contributions to science garnered him many accolades, honors, and awards throughout the years. In 1954 he received the Spencer Morris Award from the University of Pennsylvania; in 1965, the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry of American Chemical Society; and in 1969, the Annual Alumni Award from Ursinus College. He gave the Carter-Wallace Lectures at Princeton University in 1965, the National Institutes of Health Biophysics and Bioorganic Chemistry Lectureship at Cornell University in 1971, and the Darwin Centennial Lectures at Rockefeller University in 1971. He was the first Felton Bequest Visiting Professor at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, in 1972, and became a Vincent Astor Distinguished Professor at Rockefeller University in 1974. Other awards included the Albert Einstein Commemorative Award, the Buchman Memorial Award from the California Institute of Technology, and the Rabbi Shai Schaknai Memorial Prize. And he held memberships in numerous professional and scientific societies. He was one of the few international members of the Academy of Sciences, Institute of France.
Despite the controversy surrounding his theories, and perhaps even because of it, Edelman was indisputably one of the preeminent neuroscientists of his time. His advocates found his ideas breathtaking. His adversaries rarely dismissed him out of hand. And the potential impact of his ideas, whatever one felt about them, was enormous. As Rothstein wrote, "(Edelman's) vision can also spur discomfort, because it implies that there is no supervising soul or self—nobody is standing behind the curtain. This, for Dr. Edelman, is Darwin's final burden."
New York Times , March 27, 2004.
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