The Third Culture Eduard Punset

The End of the Brain

It is the best candidate to the major unreported event of the next century. Only people in need really do need a brain. Plants don't, and get along pretty well without it: photosynthesis alone largely fulfil all their requirements. Actually, now that we know that we share, for better or worse similar DNA, — the instruction booklet that designs living organisms robust enough to ensure survival, but flexible enough to adapt to changing environments —, the missing brain is the only difference between plants and us. And as we'll quickly learn during the next century, it is nothing to be very proud of.

Although it seems harder to define the differences within the brainy species themselves, including primates and other animals, it is, however, rather surprising to find that -in the History of human thought- there has hardly been a single intellectual who has not condescended to share the collective and unending appraisal of the substantial differences between men and the rest. In fact, this debate has bored quite a few generations of learned hominids. Fortunately, it is about to end thanks to, above all other scientists, Lynn Margulis. Let me explain why.

It has taken quite some time and arguing to show that most animals do indeed communicate and master reasonably evolved languages to that end. There is nothing terribly creative about the capacity to learn a language; as Steven Pinker pointed out it is genetic, and could not be more damn simple, since it is digital. Men can do it; other mammals too. The only surprising thing about it is the sheer impotence of current scientific thought to unveil the basics of animal culture.

Despite the fact that we share the same genes, tool-making also helped to substantiate the differences between hominids and chimps. Of course, a few of those genes are different, but we still don't know which of them actually makes the difference. The tool making singularity, however, has not outlived the language exclusiveness. As other people moved by curiosity, I have enjoyed looking at zoologist Sabater's collection of chimp's sandals, hats, seed's catchers and sticks for all sorts of widely different uses, such as beating, or carving the sand searching for fresh water during the dry season, instead of trying to drink in muddy soils.

The identification of consciousness — since scientists assumed twenty years ago that the scientific method could be extended to these domains, up to then left to superstition —, looked like the final argument. "We're conscious of ourselves. We know who we are. And they don't". It was the most serious argument ever put forward in our defense. It did not matter that chimps could also recognize themselves in a mirror; somehow they would not show the precise awareness, nor the same cognitive capacity to ruminate about one self. Unfortunately, biologists like Lynn Margulis showed that bacteria — as far back as two billion years ago- could not manage their electric-like motors, nor their magnetic navigation systems, without some realization of what on earth they were building up those ultramodern transport systems for. You just can't pretend any longer that bacteria are not conscious too.

For those still interested in the old debate about the differences between the brainy species, let me remind you that the most avant garde argument now runs something like this: only the descendants of the Australopitecus have developed the capacity to generate symbols. Nobody can demonstrate neither when nor how it happened; I myself am convinced that the whole thing started six thousand years ago when people settled to labor the land, and women had to leave their babies unattended shouting all day long.

But total allegiance to symbols like the San Francisco 49ers, the Serbian motherland, or the Manchester United colors are undeniably humane. No chimpanzee would risk his life for these or similar symbols, nor for that matter would leave their newly born unattended. Chimp's mothers love to carry them. There at last is something which makes us really different from other animals. The capacity to generate symbols and to blindly follow them, has indeed taken Homo Sapiens a long way off from the brain's original purpose: to go in the right direction, and to anticipate a few questions. A very lucid New York physiologist attending last December a Neuroscience Congress at the birthplace of Ramon y Cajal, actually told me he knows of a particular specie who ends up eating its own brain once it settles in the right place and knows the basic answers.

Could it not be that the brain has taken over a bunch of simple people who were only in need of a few addresses and of guessing what on earth was going to happen tomorrow? The World Health Organization is predicting that life expectancy will reach one hundred and twenty five years very shortly. Neuroscientists should start worrying about the outcome of forty additional years with jammed brains immersed in the process of deepening their symbolic capacity, leaving at long last an unbridgeable and recognizable gap with plants and animals.

Yet despite this distinctive capacity to generate symbols, some 25% of the population — excluding criminals — have serious brain disfunctions, and most medical observers already agree that brain disorders will be the most serious health threat in the twenty-first century. The lucky 75% who will not be insane already know, according to the latest statistics, that more patients die as a result of practitioner's brains guessing wrongly about the nature and treatment of real or invented illness, than people succumb on the roads and from heart failure altogether.

Thankfully, building a collective brain through Internet should alleviate the stress of saturated individual brains, and help manage the lives of the great majority of people who have already been overcome by too many choices regarding the path to follow and the answers to non-formulated questions, even under current life expectancy models. I'm afraid that quite a few of them will, however, regret the placid and constructive life of brainless plants.

EDUARD PUNSET is Master of Science (Economics) by LSE, and Professor of Economic Policy at the Chemical Institute of Ramon Llull University in Barcelona. He was Chairman of the Bull Technological Institute, Professor of Innovation and Technology at Madrid University, and IMF Representative in the Caribean. He actively participated in the Spanish political transition to democracy as Minister for Relations with the European Union, and Member of the European Parliament. He is currently Director and Producer of Networks, a weekly programme of Spanish public television on Science. His latest book is A Field Guide to Survive in the XXIst Century.