Posted by: DSprockett | April 28, 2013

Neuroscientist George Paxinos: Our brain is the perfect size…to doom us all.

Most days I either work from home or our local library. The nearby Woollahra Library is by far the most active municipal library I’ve ever spent time in, and probably rivals most college libraries in terms of daily users per square meter. It is well-organized and well-staffed, but above all it is GORGEOUS –surrounded by lush, tropical landscaping, well-manicured lawns, and an active public beach. The area is so beautiful that weddings and modeling shoots are performed in the library garden.

The immaculate setting all but insures high attendance rates at library events, including the one that Andrea and I recently  attended. Last week’s Tea Topics community presentation was lead by George Paxinos, a neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales. Paxinos has spent his career building structural atlases of the brain, particularly in the context of identifying homologous structures between different species. Among his nearly 40 books, he is the author of The Rat Brain in Stereotaxic Coordinates, which is one of the 50 most cited items in the Web of Science, attracting over 30,000 citations in over 25 years and 6 editions.

Overall, I found Paxinos’s talk compelling, but a bit muddled (a video should eventually be available here). He started out stringing together a disjointed series of anecdotes about ancient Greek philosophers, English poets, and early psychologists. Many scientists will attempt to tie their research to history or literature while giving public lectures in an attempt to make their work more accessible, but I think in this case he focused too much on how wrong pre-scientific notions of the connection between the mind and the brain were, and too little on the experiments that proved his later points. Namely that:

  1. There is no soul.
  2. There is no free will.
  3. Our brain is built on the evolutionary scaffold of the reptile brain, and is therefore poorly adapted to our modern environment.
George Paxinos speaking at the Woollahra Council.

George Paxinos speaking at the Woollahra Council.

The second part of his talk was heavily centered on the impending crisis of climate change, a topic pretty far out of his expertise. That isn’t to say that any of what he said was incorrect or misleading. On the contrary, I found his framing of the very real dangers of anthropogenic climate change in an explicit and uncompromising (although probably a bit hyperbolic) manner  quite refreshing. However, I did find it unusual for a scientist to stray so widely from his normal research area, which necessarily meant he had to cite the work of other researchers instead of his own. Most scientists wouldn’t attempt to bridge such wide topics, and would much rather stick to discussing the implications of their own work.

He concluded by stating that the brain is exactly the NOT the ‘right size,’ because if it were any ‘smaller’, we wouldn’t have the capacity to build such powerful societies and industrial complexes, and if it were much ‘larger’, we would be able to foresee the destructive and irreversible consequences of our behaviors, and would be working to prevent global catastrophe. He was essentially taking his third observation:

Our brains are poorly adapted to addressing modern problems.

…and extending it to:

Therefore, we are all doomed.

Which I found astoundingly pessimistic, even for a scientist that is getting on in age. Of course, what else can I be but optimistic? I can’t realistically expect that science will solve all of the world’s problems, but it is our best (and as far as I can tell, only) tool for addressing them. I was about to dismiss him as a cynical Negative-Nancy, but then when he was pressed during the question and answer session, he made the following point: What evidence do you have that things are going to get better? Fewer people now believe in global climate change than they did a decade ago. We are polluting more this year than we did last year, and that has been true for all of human existence! One point he emphasized was that the consensus among climatologists that a 2°C+ change in temperature will cause irreversible changes to our global homeostasis, which is the equivalent of adding around 500 Gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. If you add up all of our known oil and coal reserves, you find that there is more than five times that amount of carbon currently available for extraction. What will stop energy companies from doing so? And who (if anyone) will be held accountable when they do?

My own (admittedly rather uninformed) opinion is only slightly more optimistic. Climate change has already begun occurring and will likely continue for at least my lifetime. Further global climatic and ecosystem changes will occur.  It will therefore be the task of my generation of engineers and scientists to find new ways of dealing with and adapting to these changes, because the previous generations’ inability to prevent them.

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