Cafe Scientifique: Can we find a mind gene?

Café Scientifique has started up again here in Portsmouth, and yours truly was there to catch the action. This event featured a talk by Prof. Ajit Narayanan, Head of the School of Computing at Portsmouth University, entitled ‘Can we find a mind gene?’

It’s a pretty contentious subject, and also one that you’d not expect to hear from a professor of computing. But it turns out that this dovetails neatly with the event I attended previously with Prof. Aleksander speaking, because the two paths of research concerned are diametrically opposed.

What follows will be my approximate transcription of Prof. Narayanan’s talk; it is not intended to be precise, and any glaring errors or omissions that a reader can point out will be much appreciated.

Prof. Narayanan initially gave us some background on the advances in biology over the past few centuries. During the 19th and 20th centuries, biology moved from being based on the external observations of cells, to the observation and study of what occurs within them. This change was enabled by advances in microscopy and related devices. The notion of biological architecture was founded, i.e. that cells formed tissues, tissues formed organs, and that organs formed organisms. Up until the end of World War Two or thereabouts, the cell was considered to be the ‘primitive’ of biological systems, much in the same way that the atom was considered to be the primitive of physics.

In 1952, Crick and Watson made their famous discovery of DNA, which formed the revolutionary tipping point of biology as a science, much as the discovery of quanta did the same for physics. The fundamentals of genetic theory, and its history, can best be summed up by sources with far better background knowledge than my self – I’ll not attempt to paraphrase Prof. Narayanan’s simplifications here. Suffice it to say that one of the enduring mysteries of this field of study is ‘why do some cells only use a certain part of the entire genetic code, and ignore the rest?’

We moved on to a discussion of genetic engineering, and the basics of how it works. Say for example one has a crop, like soya, that has to be treated with pesticides to eradicate a parasitic insect. The genes of the human digestive system are not equipped to produce the proteins to process these pesticides safely. Say, furthermore, that someone discovers a deep-sea creature that has a gene that produces a protein that is toxic to the parasite that the pesticide is deployed against.

It could be (and indeed is) possible to splice the gene from the deep-sea critter into a soya seed. The resulting plant would have all the regular genes of its species, plus the extra one, which just happens to express by creating a protein that is lethal to the soya parasite.

Another example; say you have a diabetic person whose body, due to genetic mutation, produces no insulin naturally. It would be possible to take a yoghurt bacterium, insert into it the insulin-producing gene, and develop a culture of that cell. Then the yoghurt could be introduced into the body of the diabetic by the simple expedient of eating some of it. The human body is used to hosting benevolent bacteria; the yoghurt would be able to breed and colonise the body, all the while producing the insulin which the human in question is genetically unable to do – thus effectively curing the diabetic’s illness.

The overall notion is to use genetically engineered cells as tools, as medicine factories that are resident inside the host organism.

Of course, there are consequences to consider. What would the effects of these sorts of alterations be in the long term? What would happen if the altered code escaped into non-modified organisms, and through mutation caused a greater problem than the one the modification solved?

The problem, as anyone familiar with media stories regarding biotechnology will recognise, is one of ethics. There are a number of standpoints from which one can approach this sort of research:

  • the biblical ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’, which merely offers a new set of dilemmas involving the experience of the other and one’s second guessing of their desires;
  • utilitarianism, or the weighing and balancing of the benefits and harm of performing an action or not;
  • absolutism (or the categorical imperative), namely referring to an axiom of belief or higher authority (religion, for example) that says such a thing would be wrong to do;
  • and many more.

These viewpoints are parsed into legislature by the governmental systems of the world, circumscribing what is and is not permitted, as far as genetic research is concerned.

In the 1980s, extreme claims started to materialise from genetic research. Examples included the suggestion that there were ‘genetic causes’ for homosexuality, for the propensity to violence, and susceptibility to addictive behaviours. For the first time, what were previously considered to be social phenomena were being ascribed to a genetic cause.

At this point, Prof. Narayanan detoured slightly, to state that there are four major questions that dominate scientific endeavour at the present time:

  • What were the conditions that caused the Big Bang?
  • What are the conditions that allow the life to occur, in that we live in a universe that so far seems devoid of any life other than that which we already know of?
  • What were the conditions for the change from a world of single-celled organisms to a world of multi-cellular cooperative organisms?
  • Why the hell has, in a mere 100,000 years, a from of intelligence arisen that can sit here in a bar and ask these sort of questions? Genetically, we are no different to the first men to walk out of the African plains – why weren’t they asking these same questions? What gives rise to the existence of minds, of consciousness, of intelligence?

Half a century ago, computer science believed it had the answer to the question of mind, and the field of artificial intelligence was born. This was based on a philosophical concept discovered by Alan Turing, namely the ‘hardware/software’ distinction, a model for thinking about the mind that no philosopher had possessed as a tool before that point. The notion of the mind as software has been the dominant paradigm almost ever since. However, the neuroprogramming thinkers have still failed to create artificial intelligence using this model of the mind, despite their peripheral successes with such concepts and devices as neural networks.

And so a new school of thought has arisen from computer science, which abandons the hardware/software model in favour of the notion that mentality is something that results from our genetic make-up. What if social phenomena like sociability, homosexuality and so on, are actually genetically predetermined? What do humans have in our code that makes us different from mice, cats and monkeys? What if there is a gene for the mind?

Obviously, the experiments that could test these theories empirically are not the sort of thing that would be considered ethically valid, at least if performed on humans! But as a though experiment, well, what if one spliced the ‘gene for mind’ into a mouse? Would you get a conscious mouse as a result? What if you completely custom-built a series of cell types, and then gave them the mind gene? Could you then build a thinking organism from scratch?



As you can imagine, ideas like this provoked some impassioned debate. It was interesting to note, however, that much of the debate, as often seems tom occur in these situations, revolved around the definitions of the terms used in the discussion; most notably ‘mind’, ‘intelligence’, ‘consciousness’, and the distinctions between them. The nature/nurture question raised its head too, and yours truly decided to pitch from the outfield and suggest the notion of a collective consciousness, similar to Teilhard de Chardin‘s noosphere. Also making appearances were suggestions of the Jungian subconscious in the form of inherited memories, and the question of whether it is possible for conscious beings to accurately define consciousness in the first place without any further points of reference.

Prof. Narayanan stood his corner well (and used some great rhetorical tools that I am going to attempt to practice and deploy myself in future), but seemed somewhat disappointed that the discussion veered away from the original question, that of the possibility and ethical implications of a ‘mind gene’. He also suggested that the propensity for getting bogged down in definitions of terms is an inherent weakness of certain schools of British philosophy, stemming from Wittgenstein. I wish I could say that I knew enough philosophy to debate that point further. Suffice to say, the conversation was very stimulating, even if it detoured somewhat from its intended direction. A good time was had by all, as the saying goes.



As you can probably tell, I had a great evening, and this was enhanced by Prof. Narayanan agreeing to do an interview via email – so watch this space over the next few weeks. It will be fascinating to compare his thoughts with those of Prof. Aleksander, who is a traveller on the other path of consciousness research. I hope you’ll come back and read the results when I have them. In the meantime, the next Café Scientifique here in Portsmouth is on the subject of sleep, and what happens to us during it – a subject which is very close to my heart!


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