INTERVIEW Science is embedded in culture and history
" In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a neuroscientist: there are many new techniques, a lot of research money. But we lack a common language, the right theories to understand the ways in which all the experimental approaches relate to one another. We are fact rich and theory poor, says Steven Rose. RTD info meets the man they call ‘Professor Jekyll and Comrade Hyde’ – a renowned scientist and staunch defender of peace and justice. He is a man for whom memory is at the heart of research on humans – from the functioning of our brains to our socio-cultural identity, including our genetic heritage.
How would you explain the interest of the general public in everything that deals with memory?
One part of the answer is certainly that, as I wrote in my book The Making of Memory, our memory defines who we are as individuals, which is well illustrated by Alzheimer’s disease. Why is this disease so tragic for the people who surround and love the patient? It is because with a person who has it, you no longer have the possibility of relating through shared memories and a shared past.
Have there been decisive breakthroughs recently in neuroscience and in the understanding of memory?
We have certainly learned a lot. For example, we now know in great detail some of the molecular cascades and mechanisms that occur when animals learn – for instance, when their synapses are stabilised in certain configurations. But the general process still escapes us, because there are a lot of paradoxes in the formation of memories. Even though we know how synapses change when a memory is consolidated, the memory does not ‘stay’ in the synapses as you might expect – it migrates, it moves around in regions of the brain, it is dissociated and, in fact, it is hard to know after a certain time what ‘a memory’ is. Memories are both localised and delocalised, they’re both stable and unstable, they’re constantly being reactivated and transformed by the very act of recalling them.
I can tell you what parts of the human brain light up when you ask people to remember a particular task. We took people shopping in a virtual supermarket using the big EU-funded MEG (magneto-encephalography – a brain imaging technique) facility in Helsinki. During the process, we could see a whole dynamic of regions lighting up, the visual cortex at the back of the brain, the infero-temporal cortex (semantic memory), Broca’s area (speech), the parietal cortex when they finally made the decision of which item to choose. All these regions are somehow involved, but how that works is still simply a neuroscientific mystery. In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a neuroscientist: there are lots of new techniques, a lot of research money. But we lack a common language, the right theories to understand the ways in which all the experimental approaches relate to one another. We are fact rich and theory poor.
Will neuroscience provide us with drugs that can enhance our memory in the future?
Many people are very worried about loss of memory, not having good memories and so on. I think a lot of these worries are unfounded because one of the extraordinary features of our current technological society is that we produce artefacts to enhance our memories. Computers, tape recorders, notes and books – they all contribute to making it less crucial than in the past to have a perfectly efficient memory.
We also have to bear in mind that forgetting is important as well. It is not desirable to remember everything that happens during a lifetime. There is a fascinating short story (Funes the Memorious) by Jorge Luis Borges about a man who can remember everything – and he dies early of an overdose of memory, so to speak. Erasing trivial, irrelevant or painful memories is part of moving on.
But it is true that there are already many substances available, including the peptide I am working on, that enhance memory tasks in experimental animals. I think some of these drugs will turn out to improve memory or attention not only in disease but also in normal circumstances. So these drugs are going to be around, just like steroids are around in athletics. And they – like other neuroscientific techniques – do raise a certain number of problems and ethical questions which need to be addressed. Fortunately, here there is a chance to discuss those issues proactively, instead of running after discoveries that have already been made, as was the case for cloning, for example. And I know it has to be discussed not only among neuroscientists. This is a matter for civil society to handle, and at the European level.
Does our mind keep some kind of memory of our evolutionary past – for example, through genes linked with cognition or behaviour?
Let me remind you that the rate of evolutionary change can be very fast. Most adults in the Western world are able to drink milk, while many adults in the Eastern world lack the enzymes that help in digesting milk – they are said to be lactose intolerant. In pre-agricultural times, lactose intolerance was dominant in humans. The development of agriculture brought milk products into society and lactose tolerance was favoured in such agricultural societies to the point at which the majority of the population have a genetic profile that makes them lactose tolerant in adulthood. That has happened in a relatively short time – so if selection forces are strong enough, you can get quick changes. I, therefore, don’t accept the argument of those people known as ‘evolutionary psychologists’, who argue that human nature was somehow fixed in the Paleolithic period and there hasn’t been time subsequently for human nature (whatever we mean by that) to change.
As for the problem of genes and behaviour, it is clear that whatever we do has to do with our genes. But it also has to do with the environment in which we develop. I have argued for years to try to get rid of that dichotomous thinking between genes and the environment. The key issue is how an organism develops, drawing from the raw materials provided by both genes and the environment. It is also clear that the ways in which we behave in the world are significantly shaped by our genetic past. Since our children are born rather poorly developed in comparison with other species, and they develop slowly over several years, needing a lot of time and attention from caregivers (a condition known as neoteny), it is in the nature of humans and human societies that we have caregivers for children and a long developmental period. But if you turn from that to say there are genes for intelligence, aggression, criminality, alcoholism, or sexual orientation – then I find those arguments profoundly unconvincing.
Of course, a part of this behaviour can be associated with some genes but, more essentially, these global properties are first and foremost socially defined properties. I’ve spent my researching life trying to ask a very simple question: what happens in the brain when an animal (a chick in my case) learns a new skill? To do that, I had to dissect theoretically, and then experimentally, issues such as attention, arousal, perception, visual acuity – and each of these is independent. So, the idea that you can talk of learning genes, or the genes necessary for the chick to peck at a given bead (which is the learning paradigm I use) is nonsense, and it is even greater nonsense when you start to talk about this in the context of human phenomena.
Do scientific theories keep some kind of memory of the societies in which they were born and in which they have developed?
Certainly. Science asks questions about the world, but the questions we ask and the answers we accept as being meaningful to us obviously reflect our cultural expectations. Even if the heritage of Greek civilisation was important, modern science really began in north-western Europe at the same time as protestantism and capitalism; it was very much influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. The idea of dominating nature comes from Genesis, in the Bible, where it is said that God gives man dominion over the beasts of the earth and it is man’s duty to name them and to control them. And I would also link to the Judeo-Christian tradition the peculiar way in which emphasis is now given to DNA, thought of as the ‘master molecule’ that controls everything else in the cell and in the organism. As a biologist, I think this is not the right way to understand living processes and living organisms. The dominant idea for a lot of biologists, and the way it is reflected in popular culture at the moment, give pre-eminence to this particular molecule. It’s almost biblical: “in the beginning was the word” becomes “in the beginning was ACTG”, the four letters of the nuclear alphabet. But also locked up in that is an idea which was very powerful in a certain sort of Christian theology: preformationism – i.e. that everything is preformed in the DNA and then it has only to be expressed. And also determinism: that you are shaped and determined from birth to behave in some sort of way and you don’t really have the freedom to break out of those ways – that, too, is an aspect coming from at least one strand of Christian thinking.
I also think that a particular view of the world – which I would call reductionist – comes from our tradition. That is, we view it as composed of particles, of elements, and the task of science is to explain very complicated processes in terms of much smaller objects. So we want to explain life in terms of cells, then in terms of molecules, then ultimately in terms of atoms. That’s a reductionist approach. Well reductionism goes back to the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, which was very concerned with reducing the world and quantifying it, so everything can be measured and reduced to a number on some arbitrary scale. In Hard Times, the novel by Charles Dickens, there is an archetypal capitalist named Thomas Gradgrind who explains that the important thing that must be learnt at school is facts. He sees the whole world in terms of numbers: so many hours worked, so much money earned, so much production, etc. That reduction of quality into quantity is very much an aspect of how the Industrial Revolution worked. I suspect that if modern science had developed in Eastern culture, for example, you might have ended up with a concern much more for process and dynamics than for elements.
Do you think that being conscious of the link between science, history and culture can help a scientist produce better science?
I think there is a general need for civil society to understand what science is. For too long, there has been an argument that science speaks the truth and we are experts who cannot be questioned. On the other hand, partly because of various failures in expertise, there is an increasing distrust of science, and I think those are two sides of the same coin. If people, in general, and scientists, in particular, understood better how science is embedded in our society’s past, we would have a better capacity to understand its limits, to criticise it – and, at the same time, to appreciate its power.
A neurobiologist and Professor of biology at the Open University (UK), Steven Rose also heads the Brain and Behaviour Research Group. His research on the brain focuses on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in learning and memory. His latest ...
A neurobiologist and Professor of biology at the Open University (UK), Steven Rose also heads the Brain and Behaviour Research Group. His research on the brain focuses on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in learning and memory. His latest book, The 21st Century Brain, was published in the Spring of 2005. His notable works, include Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism (1998), Lifelines: Life Beyond the Gene (2003) and The Making of Memory (2003). Concerned by problems of society and justice (his name is often found at the foot of petitions, along with that of his wife Hilary), as well as the issue of popularising science, Steven Rose is Head of the biology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.