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Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge Hardcover – October 24, 2006

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Editorial Reviews


"Until this provocative book, I thought that Gerald Edelman was merely one of our greatest and most original thinkers in neuroscience. But now having read such a remarkable disquisition on the relationship between brain physiology, consciousness and knowledge as he presents here, I have become certain of something about which I had previously only wondered: he is also one of our greatest philosophers."—Sherwin Nuland, Yale University; author of How We Die
(Sherwin Nuland)

"Edelman's Second Nature offers the mature synthesis of his reflections on brain and mind. Somehow, it is both intellectually satisfying and wise."—Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes' Error and Looking for Spinoza

(Antonio Damasio)

"A remarkable contribution to the philosophy of the mind, Edelman's Second Nature breaks new ground to an age-old problem by launching brain-based epistemology. Original, lucid, concise, succinct: easily the best in the field."—Apostolos P. Georgopoulos, Regents Professor, University of Minnesota

(Apostolos P. Georgopoulos)

“Dr. Edelman has done something unique in this book. He deals both with the important epistemological issues and the mechanisms in the brain that give rise to them.”—Avrum Stroll, University of California, San Diego

(Avrum Stroll)

“In the tradition of John von Neumann’s The Computer and the Brain and Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life? Gerald Edelman summarizes his seminal contributions to our understanding of the human brain and the human mind. The reader is drawn into a conversation with a master, who is at once witty and wise.”—Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds
(Howard Gardner)

"It was William James's dream that physiology, psychology and philosophy be joined into a single discipline, and in Second Nature, the latest volume in Gerald M. Edelman's seminal series of books on Neural Darwinism, this dream of a brain-based epistemology is brought closer than ever to realization. For anyone who is interested in human consciousness, this is required reading. "—Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

(Oliver Sacks)

From the Author

A conversation with Dr. Gerald M. Edelman
Q:  Is there a single message in Second Nature you want to convey?
A:  We are about to understand how consciousness arises in the workings of the brain. I argue that while the scientific picture of the world describes the bases for all phenomena including consciousness, there remain arenas, such as ethics and aesthetics, which cannot be fully described by a scientific approach.
Q:  What are the most significant advances in brain science that you address in this book?
A:  We now understand that the brain is not organized like a computer. A better image is provided by considering it to be a biological system whose form and activity involve pattern recognition rather than logic. This implies that each person’s brain is unique in the history of the universe.
Q:  Will we ever understand how consciousness arises as a result of brain action?
Yes, we will. We are on the brink of understanding how consciousness arises as a result of myriad mutual interactions of nerve cells distributed in our cerebral cortex. Integration of these interactions allows us to make enormous numbers of distinctions that are the hallmark of consciousness. Indeed, someday we may be able to make a conscious artifact.
A:  Will knowledge and how we acquire it be reduced completely to a scientific description?
No. This is a major point of the book. For example, each brain has a developmental and evolutionary history that is largely irreversible and uniquely individual. Furthermore, creative thought, scientific and otherwise, starts with ambiguity, and only in some instances can it proceed to scientific clarity.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 203 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (October 24, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300120397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300120394
  • Product Dimensions: 7.2 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #162,693 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Will knowing how the brain works--in particular, what consciousness is--transform our view of human knowledge itself? This is the question that looms large in Second Nature, Gerald Edelman's latest book. Though compact at 157 pages (excluding preface, footnotes, and index), this work represents Edelman's ambitious consideration of the implications of his view (likely the correct view) of the brain and mind for the broader world of human concern. Edelman seeks to understand the nature of knowledge as it is generated within a biological entity--the brain--that is shaped both by individual history and evolutionary forces. Astonishingly, in this little book, he succeeds in this quest marvelously. The result is no less than a new type of epistemology--what Edelman refers to as "brain-based epistemology."

Gerald Edelman is no mere dilettante or interloper in neuroscience. Since the publication of The Mindful Brain (a volume he co-edited and co-authored with Vernon Mountcastle) nearly thirty years ago, Edelman has diligently toiled in the theoretical vineyards to construct a comprehensive theory of higher brain function that is consistent with the latest available neuroanatomical, neurophysiological, and behavioral data. Perhaps the most significant fruit of these labors, the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, or Neural Darwinism, proposes that, during neurogenesis, a vast "primary repertoire" of physically connected populations of neurons arises. Later, in a process akin to Darwinian selection, a "secondary repertoire" of functionally defined neuronal groups emerges as the animal experiences its world, and that world in turn selects patterns of connectivity (the so-called neuronal groups) that provide a good enough fit in a given moment to engender some kind of positive outcome.
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50 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Shaun on December 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Printed small, Edelman's "Second Nature" is a bit-sized flight through how consciousness relates to larger cultural phenomena. This book is supposed to be a bridge between neurobiology and philosophy.

Edelman coins the term "brain-based epistemology" which he calls an extension of W. V. O. Quine's naturalized epistemology (pg. 2). Edelman also says that he follows in the footsteps of William James who said that consciousness is a process whose function is knowing (pg. 4).

Edelman has 3 graphs (2 on pg. 16 & 1 on pg. 29). The 1st graph is a rudimentary localization of cortical functions, the 2nd graph is a rudimentary visual of synaptic connections, and the 3rd graph is a simple (but important) directional illustration of "Reentry." For Edelman, the brain is a selection system which selects based on an evolutionary drive. "Neural Darwinism," which Edelman says has 3 tenets basically refers to the plasticity of brain development and processes. "Reentry" is the most important part of Neural Darwinism because "reentry in the enormously complex dynamic core distributed to the thalamus and across the cortex was the key integrative event that led to the emergence of conscious experience" (pg. 39).

Much of the book's middle is dedicated to finding a place where the modern divide between the literary and the scientific (Edelman is here borrowing from C. P. Snow) can meet. In order for the arts to meet the sciences the arts much respect the divide between "ought" and "is," and the "qualified realism" (pg. 154) where the scientific method (i.e.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on January 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Gerald Edelman grieves the "divorce" science and the humanities have experienced. Since there is no final decree in the proceedings, he wants to heal the breach. He has a mechanism to further the reconciliation - something he calls "Second Nature". That "Second" is the human's brain's extensive capabilities - capabilities that exceed what we see in the rest of Nature. With his long career in brain science and as a scholar well versed in the evolutionary background that makes us human, he may have an appropriate answer. In this book, he makes an excellent case for why the divorce need not be permanent. It's offered as a conciliatory gesture under the banner of his theory of "Neural Darwinism".

The label implies the obvious - our brains - hence, our minds - hence our "conscicousness" is the product of natural selection. It's not something separate from the real world in any way. Edelman, like all philosophers today, must face the still unfinished task of eliminating Descartes' "dualism" from consideration. "Dualism" effectively denies our evolutionary heritage. What is that heritage? Edelman enquires, and offers us his view of it.

Humans are distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom in one important way - our version of consciousness. As our brain developed, it created a unique form of neural pathways. Not only is the neural net highly complex - in a single human brain, the potential connectivity "far exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe" - the methods of connecting are unique. Our brain, which spends far more effort viewing itself and the rest of the body than it does dealing with incoming or outgoing signals, uses a host of internal feedback loops ["reentrant" processing] to do its job.
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