The science of brains

Submitted by AWL on 20 July, 2021 - 7:49
Brain power

InSolidarity 597 John Cunningham wrote that a materialist understanding of thought requires a deep understanding of the brain and its functioning at the physical level. Matt Cooper in Solidarity 598 called this a reductionist approach “which attempts to reduce the social-psychological to only a biological level”, arguing instead for psychology as “the study of observable behaviour… [and] the ideas, feelings or mental structures on which it is based”. I think both of these are true and both are partial.

How can they both be true? The brain is an extremely complex entity and must be understood simultaneously at several different levels with different properties. The late biologist Gerald Edelman wrote “mental processes arise from the workings of enormously intricate brain systems at many levels of organisation… I would include molecular levels, cellular levels, organismic levels (the whole creature), and trans-organismic levels (communication of one sort or another).”

The lower level at which John operates — that of neurons and brain structures such as the cortex — is necessary for the functioning of the higher levels and in that sense is a prerequisite of human thought. That does not mean however that it can serve as an explanation for the higher levels that Matt talks about. The reason is that complex entities often display emergent properties, by which I mean properties that emerge from the complexity that cannot be understood at the lower levels and may have causal effects.

With the brain, the mappings between levels are extremely complex and, as John points out, have not been fully explained. Edelman calls his own approach Neural Darwinism, which means that he sees Darwin’s theory of natural selection applying to the internal development and functioning of the brain. He opposed theories of “mind without biology” such as analogies with computers and derived an explanation of consciousness from different levels.

It is important not to neglect that the brain is a dynamic organ that exhibits plasticity in the sense of the ability to strengthen or weaken connections between neurons in response to the external environment, including importantly interactions with other humans. This can lead in turn to the development of specific human skills or abilities.

Nothing in this conflicts with Matt’s assertion that we need different categories to deal with human social behaviour. However I think his views on Marxism and science are wrong both in claiming science is value-free and that Marxists should not venture beyond human society.

I will just point to the career of the geneticist Richard Lewontin, who died on 4 July aged 92. It demonstrated that it is possible both to be a scientist and a Marxist and not keep the two spheres separate. Lewontin used his scientific knowledge to oppose IQ testing and argue against genetic determinism — which he described as “nature as ideology” — and also co-wrote a book called The Dialectical Biologist which discussed evolution, scientific methodology and “Science As a Social Product and the Social Product of Science”.

Bruce Robinson, Manchester

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