What is the next big thing, by Ian Sample.
Humans have always thought of themselves as special, and with good reason. As far as we know, we are alone in the universe in churning out great works of art and literature, in formulating laws, the laws of physics, and in creating the spectacle that is Morris dancing. But our view of ourselves as the pinnacle of life has suffered huge blows at the hands of science. Every now and then comes an idea so revolutionary that it rocks the foundation on which our hubris is built.
At the University of San-Diego, California, V.S. Ramchandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition points out to three major upheavals in scientific thinking that have served to remind us that we are not so special after all.
First the Copernicus revolution in the 16th century: the Polish Astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the earth was not at the centre of the solar system. Instead he relegated our planet to one of many orbiting the sun. He wasn’t the first to come up with the heliocentric model of the solar system, but his description was backed up by mathematics which meant it was taken far more seriously. “At once the whole notion that earth was special was rendered obsolete and must have been pretty humbling” says Ramchandran.
If Copernicus ruffled feathers by saying that the earth wasn’t special, Charles Darwin got personal more than 300 hundred years later by implying that humans weren’t special either. With the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin promoted his theory of evolution via natural selection, immediately suggesting that humans were just another kind of animal.
Nearly a century later, two Cambridge-based scientists, James Watson and Francis Caick, unravelled the structure of DNA. According to Ramchandran, it led to further challenge to human arrogance. We were, in short simply vessels of self-replicating molecules, whose only purpose was to pass them onto another generation.
Nancy Rothwell, a neuro scientist at Manchester University says that previous revolutions haven’t made our place less significant. We are just discovering the complexity of the natural world. The fact that we can begin to understand these concepts at all shows how advanced we are. A breakthrough would be in understanding the complex functions of the brain, emotions, consciousness and imagination and how they are formed. We might even find that there is a biological basis for religion. Suppose we discovered that God lived in a particular part of the brain and that religion was a biological function which has evolved to help us through difficult times, it is not impossible. For some, it would be fascinating and curious, for others it would be dismissed. But others might find it difficult indeed–it would shake their world, “What it means to be a person”. V.S. Ramchandran says that the next revolution will be in understanding the origin that made all the previous revolutions possible. “Your mind, your ambition, your love-life, even what you regard as yourself, all the activity of little wisps of jelly in your head”.
Once we can figure out the code, that’s going to be a big revolution and another humbling experience. The ultimate triumph of the human mind is to understand what the mind is. We’ll understand what it means to will an action, what it means to be a person, what is the self. People say that if you know all that, it’ll be terrible, but just because you know the rules it doesn’t mean that you can predict what everyone’s going to do. That may happen someday, but in the next hundred years, we’ll just know the ground rules. “How did the mind emerge from the jelly?” Once we figure out that, we’ll have a more mature understanding of the relation between mind and brain, and the nature of the self, which I think is the last frontier.