Why did you become a scientist?
I became a scientist out of curiosity about regularities in the world.
What are the key developments in your field?
I think the most important developments in science today for the future of science itself and for the future of applications as well have to do with the reunification of the sciences. Many centuries ago, science or natural philosophy was in a sense a unified enterprise. It hadn't yet become so specialized that you needed very different people to work on the very different aspects. Today, of course, specialization has gone a very long way and that's a good thing. There's so much information, so much knowledge, so much understanding available that it has to be parceled out into fields and subfields, but along with that specialization there has to be some scientific activity that's integrative. And I think that's occurring more and more, and people are recognizing more and more the interdependence of all the sciences and the need for some scientific activity, especially theoretical activity that's integrative. And we try to meet that need at the Santa Fe Institute, and I think that this partial reunification of the sciences is perhaps the most important phenomenon in science today.
What's going on in your field today?
There is so much going on in biology today that is going to impact our future that I hardly know where to start. The development of drugs, the development of prosthetic devices the development of new forms of imaging, the ability to diagnose disease. We're going to have a huge impact on cancer over the next few decades with a combination of new diagnostic methods and new treatment methods. We will not recognize the lives of people -- oh, say 30 years from now -- in terms of what they worry about as diseases. Because there'll be therapies for things that are today scourges.
What do you think will be the next big discovery this century?
The big discovery that I see coming down the track is the unraveling of the brain. The ability to understand what kinds of information are coursing around in the brain, how they're encoded and to tap into them. I believe that we will figure out how to listen to the brain. That I think will be transformational. The big discovery that I see coming down the track is the unraveling of the brain. The ability to understand what kinds of information are coursing around in the brain, how they're encoded and to tap into them. I believe that we will figure out how to listen to the brain. That I think will be transformational.
Can the brain imprint information into DNA?
The brain consists of neurons. Neurons are cells. Every cell in the body, no matter what kind of cell it is, has a nucleus and the nucleus has the chromosomes. That is all of the information that allows the organism and the cell to grow, divide and specialize. So the brain, like every other part of the body, is determined by DNA. And the issue that we still don't have closure on is whether any of what we call the information in the brai -- that is our knowledge of our past, our knowledge of problem solving, things like that -- is any of that encoded in DNA? Now when I started working in this business, I assumed that the knowledge in the brain was at least partly, maybe very largely, encoded in DNA. And the model that I worked on, and I wasn't alone in this, was the immune system. Because in the immune system, the knowledge that the immune system has of the outside world is encoded in DNA. So we had one system, a Darwinian system in fact, in which DNA encoded the answer. So if it can work in immunology, why couldn't it work in the brain? Everything that's happened in modern brain research has denied that solution. Everything we see is that the synapse holds memory. Now do I believe that that's going to be the last word? No, I don't. I think that the synapse does hold memory. I think we're going to have to understand how that happens. We're just beginning to understand that today. But I still believe that sooner or later the DNA's going to play a role. And that in fact memory will never be as simple as one level of organization of synapse. It will be many levels of organization that work together.
Will humans evolve into an unrecognizable species?
If you read human history, to the extent that we have knowledge that goes back a few millennia, you understand exactly what people were saying in ancient Greece. In fact, the myths of ancient Greece are the myths of today. The plays of ancient Greece are performed today. People haven't changed that much, and we have seen transformational technologies developed since the days of ancient Greece, many, many of them. None of that, as far as I'm concerned, has transformed human beings at all. We work faster now, we work more efficiently now, we move around more, we do all sorts of things. We're still the same people we were. I'm tempted to say the same flawed people we were.
Will we ever understand the basic laws of biology?
The basic laws and rules of biology are, I think, relatively simple. First of all, they're the laws of chemistry. In fact, maybe they're almost entirely the laws of chemistry. And so to the extent that we can understand how molecules interact with each other, how chemical reactions occur, we understand most of life. But there are other levels, particularly of interaction of different systems in living organisms that require a different kind of analysis -- they're not just one by one analysis, they're analysis of the activity of multiple inputs. So we need to put on top of our chemistry an understanding of a sort of systems organizations and things of that sort. But I don't think there's anything terribly profound in any of that. I mean the remarkable thing about the structure of DNA is that it's simple chemistry. When Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, what they discovered was the structure of a chemical. And it was in a sense no different than the structure of any other chemical. It's only that evolution has honed it to play a role. So what we learn when we go into biological systems is how powerful evolution is. How the ability to get small variations and select on those variations can lead to great tailoring of molecular behavior, to a particular end. But it's never particularly complex when you get down to it.
Talk about heredity vs. environment.
We know that an organism is not born as a clean slate. But we also know that we learn a lot over our lifetimes, and that learning modifies the behavior of systems that we have. In fact, the more we learn about how we visually process information, the more we realize that we're not simply looking at an image out in the world. We're taking all sorts of pieces, reconstructing the image, very much using our prior knowledge as a way of constructing the image that we're looking at. So prior knowledge, which we get from experience in our environment, is actually feeding into structure the way we deal with something as simple -- it's not simple -- as vision. We're learning more and more about these interactions between the way the system is wired and built, and what it knows intrinsically, and what it learns. And there will be debate for a long time about what percentage is this and what percentage is that. Probably not a meaningful debate because it doesn't lend itself to simple numbers like that. But there's no question that we have enormous capabilities built into us. They come out of our genes.
Why did you become a scientist?
I became a scientist because I discovered when I was a young kid that I did science well. And being smart enough to figure out that the way to at least some success in life is take the easiest route, that is do what you do well and take advantage of whatever endowments you have. I became a scientist.