Gerald Edelman – Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace (56/86)


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Biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) was born in America. His early work concentrated on the study of immunology and he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972 for his work leading to the understanding of the antibody’s chemical structure. [Listeners: Ralph J Greenspan; date recorded: 2005]

TRANSCRIPT: In 1869 Darwin had a… how shall I say it, was vexed. He was vexed by what Wallace did. You remember that Wallace independently created a theory that amounted to natural selection. Darwin, when he received the manuscript from Malaysia a year and a half later after it was penned, felt forestalled, he felt his posterity was gone; the only sign of human weakness I’ve seen in the man, but we’ll come to that. In any case, in 1869 – well after Wallace was back… admired the great master and everything, Wallace writes to Darwin that he’s going to publish something in the Quarterly [Review] that indicates that the mind of man could not possibly have happened, or the brain for that matter, as a result of natural selection. Darwin had a fit. Darwin really cared about this. By this time by the way Wallace was a spiritualist and Darwin wrote back: ‘I hope you have not too seriously murdered your child and my own’, meaning natural selection, and Darwin understood. What was Wallace’s argument? His argument was: ‘Well, the brains of savages are just as big as those of Englishmen, almost, but they don’t have mathematics and abstract thought, therefore…’ This is a bit like saying if God had intended us to fly She [sic] wouldn’t have invented railroad trains. The logic is faulty but never mind. Darwin tried to correct him and he saw that what happens during natural selection is very many neutral traits come along with the selection; there’s correlative variation, and later, 200 generations later, those very neutral traits become just what you need. So you don’t need math and you don’t need abstract reasoning – if you have language alone it would be enough – and in The Descent of Man he sort of implied that, I think. So, yes, this is all a nice kind of harmonious way of looking. It may distress people, however, to think that there isn’t any sort of witness in there, huh? They don’t like that idea.

[RJG] I think it distresses people quite a lot.

Yeah, and so that’s a deep problem one is going to have with all of this.

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