U presents professor with honorary doctorate

Todd Milbourn

To commemorate a lifetime dedicated to advancing the understanding of the human body, the University granted an honorary doctorate of science degree Wednesday to Dr. Gerald Edelman in a ceremony at Phillips-Wangensteen Building.
“Dr. Edelman is a legend,” said Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos, a University professor of neuroscience. “He has contributed in many different fields inside and outside of neuroscience.”
Throughout his 50-year career, Edelman has advanced knowledge in the fields of biochemistry and philosophy, as well as neuroscience.
For his pioneering work that led to the discovery of the chemical structure of antibodies, Edelman, and his partner Rodney Porter, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1972.
The duo’s study of antibodies has led to numerous medical advances, including the improvement of organ transplant acceptance.
“Because of his revolutionary work in biochemistry and neuroscience, giving this honorary degree is really an honor for us,” said University President Mark Yudof.
Edelman now serves as the director of the Neurosciences Institute, a research group based in San Diego dedicated to improving human understanding of learning, perception and memory.
In an hour-long presentation prior to the degree ceremony, Edelman discussed his more recent work on theories concerning neural Darwinism and consciousness.
Contrary to the traditional view of the human brain as a static and unchangeable organ, Edelman argues neural systems change and evolve through a process akin to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
“The brain is an evolutionary god which has structure, but enormous variability,” said Edelman.
Over long periods of time, the brain connections that are frequently used tend to be preserved while those that aren’t, decay, Edelman said.
He also criticized the common analogy likening the human brain to a computer switchboard. He said the brain’s complexity and integrated nature are incomprehensible even by supercomputers like chess champion Big Blue.
“We are not like computers, I don’t believe we are ordinary machines. We are products of eons of evolutionary natural selection that has shaped us to have this magnificent organ,” Edelman said.
Despite Edelman’s contention that human brains aren’t analogous to computers, he said technology will play an important role in improving human understanding of the brain in the coming years.
“I believe that as brain science progresses, we will finally have a picture of what consciousness is about,” Edelman said. “Then, we will have a clearer picture of our place in the world.”

Todd Milbourn covers science and technology. He welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612)627-4070 x3231.