2.7 Neural Darwinism
There are a multitude of different theories on the mind. Many more than have been discussed in this document. However, of all the ones I have seen before, I feel that this one offers the greatest hope of coming up with a real, working understanding of the science and neurobiology of how the mind works and what consciousness really is. Its author, Gerald Edelman, is a former Nobel laureate who was instrumental in cracking the mystery of how our immune systems work. After that he turned his attention to something far more difficult, attempting to understand how the neurobiology of the brain forms the mind. The main thrust of his theory of neural Darwinism is that the brain is a somatic selection system similar to evolution, and not an instructional system. (Somatic means that is over the time scale of your body instead of being on the time scale of evolution.)
2. Instruction vs. Selection
The main difference between an instructional system and a selectional system is that the instructional system uses information from the environment to change the properties of the object in question, but a selectional system has a large and varied population of objects, and the ones that are most fit for the environment are differentially reproduced. Hopefully an example Edelman uses from immunology will help clear this up.
However, it was discovered that this theory was wrong. The immune system was in fact a somatic selection system. Most laypeople do not realize that evolution is really just a search algorithm, and the most efficient one ever found in the proper problem domains. It is a specific example of a selection system.
The algorithm can be run on many different kinds of things and not just biological organisms in evolution. In the immune system it is run on a population of different antibody molecules. Those that encounter foreign molecules are reproduced, and those that do not are not magnified in this way. The algorithm works in the immune system on a much shorter time scale than it does in evolution. The thing that selectional systems give us in this debate that instructional systems do not, is that selectional systems do not have to have any prior knowledge of the environment, and require no explicit information transfer from the world. Whereas with the instructional system you are left with the question of who or what decides what is important for the system to learn! This leads to the endless regression of homunculi (the small man in my head) seen in figure 1.
3. The Stages of Selection
Figure 2 shows the major stages of selection that make up the theory of Neural Darwinism. The three stages are developmental selection, experiential selection, and reentrant mapping. Each section is discussed more fully below.
4. Developmental Selection
Our genes do not specify explicit blueprints for building our bodies. They are more like general guidelines. (This is a very complex subject and I will not go into details here.) So even clones with 100% identical genes will not have the exact same neural layout in their brains. The body creates a huge variation of different neural connections during development. The thing that the genes do is specify the more large scale connections and features. For instance, your genes specify that area A of the brain connects to area B. But it does not explicitly say that Neuron A at location (X1, Y1, Z1) connects to Neuron B at location (X2, Y2, Z2) with a strength of K. The brain actually creates far more connections than you actually use. Babies lose a large proportion of their neurons and connections in the first year of life. Edelman believes that the brain initially grows out a huge population of variant neuronal groups (groups consist of between one hundred and one million neurons). And it is the sampling of the environment by the newborn that then selects which of the connections and neurons to keep and which to discard. (There is a lot of evidence provided to back this up that is being skipped here. If you are interested then please read his books in the selected reading section.) This is called the primary repertoire.
5. Experiential Selection
However, eliminative selection alone could never build something as incredible as the mind. The next phase of the theory uses the experiences of the organism to strengthen or weaken populations of synapses in the primary repertoire. As you see, hear, taste, smell, and move, it effectively "carves out" a variety of functioning circuits (with strengthened synapses) from the anatomical network by selection. This is called the secondary repertoire.
6. Reentrant Mapping
It is an established fact that the mind forms a multitude of neural maps. For example, there is a map that relates the pressure receptors for each area of your body to a specific area in your brain. The next portion of the theory is the one that connects psychology to physiology. It says that brain maps interact with each other in a process called reentry.
I have in no way done this theory justice in this short space. But hopefully I was able to give you the general idea what is involved. If this has peaked your interest then I strongly suggest you read Edelman's books. They can be very difficult to understand, but they are well worth it. This theory is very strongly based on neurobiological evidence that has largely been collected over the last fifty years. And it is the first one I have seen that gives me any real hope that we can solve the mysteries of the mind within my lifetime.