You have 94418 hits.

You are currently viewing archive for September 2009
Posted By Patrick

I recently finished reading Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain - And How it Changed the World, which came out in 2004 – it’s an engaging, intelligent history of Thomas Willis and his investigations into the brain, which were the first steps in figuring out just what the brain did (it wasn’t there to use its ventricles to pump animal spirits through the body, as Galen, the ancient Roman physician whose ideas were influential into the 18th century, thought). Willis wanted to keep a space for the rational soul somewhere in his new conception of the brain, and kept dedicating his writings to archbishops, partly, says Zimmer, as a way of stressing that he was a good Anglican, not some ranting atheist. Basically, Willis worried that if mental processes were located in the brain, and not the soul, it would open a door to the concept that rationality might be innate in humans. It would be part of the body’s make-up, rather than something conferred through God via the rational soul. Willis didn’t want to give rationality and the soul any corporeality – that is, he wanted to keep it outside the body, as a sort of spirit-essence. But that’s not what happened, and before long the brain became the centre of rationality, instead of the soul (hence Zimmer’s title).

One of Willis’ main scientific contributions came from the fact that, unlike many before him, he compared animal and human brains, and discovered that they were built in similar ways. The obvious conclusion was that they also performed similar functions. However, something had to be different, he thought – after all, humans had rational souls and animals didn’t. But there were too many basic similarities to ignore the implications that animal and human brains must have had a lot of the same responsibilities in governing how the body works.

Willis was also part of the Oxford circle that would eventually form the Royal Society; his teachers (including William Harvey), students (such as John Locke) and collaborators (Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Richard Lower, & Robert Hooke) are fascinating characters in their own right, and Zimmer gives them all enough attention to give a sense of the intellectual energy that must have been circulating through Oxford and London in the mid-late seventeenth century.

Another consequence of Zimmer’s book is that I feel the urge to read more of Willis’ works again myself. And here's an image of the brain from Willis' Cerebri Anatome (The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves), as drawn by his collaborator, Christopher Wren.
The brain, as drawn by Christopher Wren

Posted By Patrick

An insight from the sage and inspired Rob, in vino: homo sapiens, which is generally understood to point to our status as intelligent thinking folk, can also be translated as “wise guy.” And that leads inexorably, relentlessly, inevitably, to the Three Stooges. I don’t know what to do with this, but it’s humbling. And strangely brilliant. Owww!!


The Three Stooges

Posted By Patrick

In the 1860s the big name in natural selection was, of course, Charles Darwin, and he weighed in on how intelligence, evolution and civilization were connected in 1871, in his The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. And his verdict: the civilized were evolving beyond the barbarians, thanks to their superior intelligence:

“At the present day civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect. It is, therefore, highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection; and this conclusion is sufficient for our purposes” (160).

Darwin deferred to W. R. Greg, Alfred Russel Wallace (the main characters in the previous two posts) and his own cousin Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, in rehashing ideas by these authors (he even quotes Greg’s entire passage about the squalid, unaspiring Irishman!). Then, commenting on 19th century English social strata, he divides the classes & notes that the intelligent must prosper in each one:

“If in each grade of society the members were divided into two equal bodies, the one including the intellectually superior and the other the inferior, there can be little doubt that the former would succeed best in all occupations and rear a greater number of children. Even in the lowest walks of life, skill and ability must be of some advantage…. Hence in civilized nations there will be some tendency to an increase both in the number and in the standard of the intellectually able. But I do not wish to assert that this tendency may not be more than counterbalanced in other ways, as by the multiplication of the reckless and improvident; but even to such as these, ability must be some advantage.” (171)

Darwin’s suggests that the intelligent of different classes rise to the top of their particular place in the social structure, even rearing a greater number of children. But he doesn’t seem convinced by his own words, quickly worrying that the reckless and improvident might still threaten to overwhelm the intelligent, just by sheer numbers and willingness to procreate. And then he veers again, suggesting that there might be some intelligent folk among the reckless and improvident, whose ability will give them some advantage. It’s a bit confusing, and reflects the difficulties of trying to decide how natural selection and intelligence are related. For instance, we might wonder about precisely what advantages are conferred by intelligence (as well as about just how closely reckless improvidence is tied to Victorian ideas about morality). For one thing… is a social advantage (increased wealth, security, status, etc) the same thing as a biological advantage (more efficient food-gathering capabilities, disease resistance, etc) of the sort favoured by natural selection? Or are they entirely distinct? Or is there an overlap between the “natural” and the “social,” and if so, where are these overlaps and how does it all work?

So: what (or where) is intelligence in all of this? It seems to be an abstraction, a quality that Darwin, like Greg and Wallace, believes is shared among clearly successful folk, but then it is also a quality which is demonstrated by social success. Success comes from intelligence; we know someone is intelligent because he or she is successful. But does this tell us what intelligence is itself, or are we left to look at its markers, success and status? And is an intelligent merchant then more intelligent than an intelligent bricklayer? Or an intelligent naturalist? I don’t think Darwin really had an answer to this – I suspect he didn’t think he did either. But it looks like people were edging toward asking this type of question at any rate…