gary_marcus's picture
Professor of Psychology, Director NYU Center for Language and Music; Author, Guitar Zero
Minds, genes, and machines

Brains exist primarily to do two things, to communicate (transfer information) and compute. This is true in every creature with a nervous system, and no less true in the human brain. In short, the brain is a machine. And the basic structure of that brain, biological substrate of all things mental, is guided in no small part by information carried in the DNA.

In the twenty-first century, these claims should no longer be controversial. With each passing day, techniques like magnetic resonance imaging and electrophysiological recordings from individual neurons make it clearer that the business of the brain is information processing, while new fields like comparative genomics and developmental neuroembryology remove any possible doubt that genes significantly influence both behavior and brain.

Yet there are many people, scientists and lay persons alike, who fear or wish to deny these notions, to doubt our even reject the idea that the mind is a machine, and that it is significantly (though of course not exclusively) shaped by genes. Even as the religious right prays for Intelligent Design, the academic left insinuates that merely discussing the idea of innateness is dangerous, as in a prominent child development manifesto that concluded:

If scientists use words like "instinct" and "innateness" in reference to human abilities, then we have a moral responsibility to be very clear and explicit about what we mean. If our careless, underspecified choice of words inadvertently does damage to future generations of children, we cannot turn with innocent outrage to the judge and say "But your Honor, I didn't realize the word was loaded.

A new academic journal called "Metascience" focuses on when extra-scientific considerations influence the process of science. Sadly, the twin questions of whether we are machines, and whether we are constrained significantly by our biology, very much fall into this category, questions where members of the academy (not to mention fans of Intelligent Design) close their minds.

Copernicus put us in our place, so to to speak, by showing that our planet is not at the center of universe; advances in biology are putting us further in our place by showing that our brains are as much a product of biology as any other part of our body, and by showing that our (human) brains are built by the very same processes as other creatures. Just as the earth is just one planet among many, from the perspective of the toolkit of developmental biology, our brain is just one more arrangement of molecules.