Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind

By Gerald M. Edelman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Topobiology: Lessons from the Embryo

"The Chicken and the Egg, Together at Last" --Title of a review of Topobiology, New York Times Book Review, January 22, 1989

It may seem strange that we must concern ourselves with embryology when this book is about the mind. Eggs and sperm show no evidence of mind, and neither do very early embryos. But since we know that newborn infants do show evidence of mind, however feebly, it seems reasonable to wonder by what interactions the bases for mental life have been laid down.

But why deviate to such issues as shape and form? And why concern ourselves with cells, molecules, and DNA? The straightforward answer is that the rules by which embryos are built govern the way that brains are built. The actual formation of the anatomy of the brain depends on muscles acting on bones, nerves acting on skin in a given order, and so on--that is, it depends on the rest of the phenotype. And as I stated in the last chapter, if we are to understand when aspects of mind arose in the course of evolution, we have to understand the connection between development and evolution.

To examine development, I will of necessity rely on some technical words and details. My suggestion to the reader is to go by the details once, look at the figures, and then return to the text. Let me dispose of some preliminaries (figure 6-1). The cells of higher organisms (called eukaryotes) have nuclei that contain DNA, the hereditary material. DNA is made up

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