June 19, 2013
Culture or Neurons?
Posted on Mar 8, 2012
By Susan Okie
Pagel contends that the existence of mutual altruism and cooperation among the unrelated members of human societies is our species’ signal achievement, and his explanation of how such behaviors may have developed is the intellectual heart of his book. These chapters are heavy going at times, relying on science’s understanding of how altruism is thought to have evolved in nonhuman species such as social amoebas (single-celled organisms that stick themselves together to build towering stalks from which to launch their reproductive spores) and also relying on extensive research about human behavior and decision-making by psychologists, sociobiologists, economists and game theorists, involving either volunteers or computer simulations. According to his analysis, language, morals, the economic value of reputation, religion, the arts and even mob justice all serve to strengthen the motivation for members of a society to cooperate and to discourage cheaters and non-cooperators.
A critical question is how humans’ ability to cooperate will fare as national boundaries grow more fluid and our societies continue to become bigger, more diverse and more interconnected. Through most of our history, our cultural groups have remained relatively small and cohesive, competing with other groups and typically fostering distrust or exclusion of outsiders. Our species’ future, Pagel predicts, will depend on our ability to look beyond ethnic and other markers of cultural differences, to become increasingly willing to trust members of other groups, and “to encourage ... a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes.”
While Pagel focuses on humans in groups, Seung’s passion is looking within the individual brain. A professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he wants to understand how the brain’s tens of billions of neurons—each connected to tens of thousands of others—are able both to store the memories and knowledge required for a consistent personality, and to change and update those connections, allowing us to learn and record new experiences. He defines the neologism of his book’s title, “Connectome,” as “the totality of connections between the neurons in a nervous system.” Just as a person’s genome refers to the complete, unique sequence of his or her DNA, an individual’s connectome is also unique—but is influenced by both genes and life experiences. Those neural connections, Seung and many other neuroscientists believe, probably contain all of the information necessary to create our individual consciousness—“you are your connectome,” he suggests—but the only way to be sure of that is to map all of a human brain’s connections. Such a project would be a mammoth undertaking, requiring improvements in technology for imaging the living brain as well as the most advanced electron microscopy. It would generate a vast quantity of data—even more than the Human Genome Project—whose interpretation would demand years of complex analysis by teams of humans and computers. So far, the only connectome yet deciphered belongs to a worm, C. elegans, whose brain contains a mere 300 neurons. Yet Seung suggests that the mapping of a complete human connectome could be achieved by the end of this century, and he offers strategies for how researchers might begin that effort.
Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind
By Mark Pagel
W. W. Norton & Company, 416 pages
Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are
By Sebastian Seung
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pages
Much of this book is an elegant primer on what’s currently known about how the brain is organized and how it grows, wires its neurons, perceives its environment, modifies or repairs itself, and stores information. Seung is a clear, lively writer who chooses vivid examples—such as the Jennifer Aniston neuron, a nerve cell in one research subject’s brain that responded whenever its owner viewed an image of the actress. He makes the case that research of the kind he is proposing might solve the puzzle of what is amiss in the brains of people with schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease or autism, and might even lead to corrective or preventive treatments for those disorders. Yet, he concedes, there’s no guarantee it would yield such practical payoffs. Even more remote is the science-fiction fantasy that, one day, a human being’s connectome could be simulated and “uploaded” onto a computer, conferring a kind of electronic immortality.
Seung does explore that far-out scenario, but as a neuroscientist he has a more immediate goal: understanding the workings of the awe-inspiring, living supercomputer that’s reading and reacting to this book review right now.
Susan Okie is a physician, a former medical reporter and national science editor for The Washington Post, and a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Georgetown University.
©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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