Fabio De Sio – One, No-One and a Hundred Thousand Brains: J.C. Eccles, J.Z. Young and the Establishment of the Neurosciences (1930s-1960s)

HOS Colloquium
Event date: 
April 17, 2018 - 4:30pm
Fabio De Sio
University of Düsseldorf
Seminar Series: 
History of Science Colloquium
Princeton University

One, No-One and a Hundred Thousand Brains: J.C. Eccles, J.Z. Young and the Establishment of the Neurosciences (1930s-1960s)

Contemporary neurosciences seem to have grown beyond the limits of a natural science. To some of its most vocal advocates, the study of the human brain can provide nothing short of the basis for a new science of man – the link between the “natural” and “human” sciences. And this, moreover, as a simple consequence of the growing mass of facts on this most marvellous organ, accumulated in the last four decades. Although not entirely misleading, this straightforward picture of the growing import of the neurosciences dramatically simplifies and obscures the myriad different interpretations and images of “the brain” that have (at different times, in different ways) inspired the development of the Neurosciences.

Among them, this talk will consider two deeply contrasting early images of the brain: the cellular-physiological brain proposed since the 1950sby the Australian physiologist John Carew Eccles, and the model-“whole” brain championed in the same period by the British Zoologist John Zachary Young. Both research programmes spanned roughly the same period (1930s-1960s), and have been widely acknowledged as foundations of contemporary neurosciences. Eccles’ programme was focussed on the vertebrate synapse, Young’s on the whole brain of an “advanced” invertebrate (the octopus). The former was the programmatic extension of a long neurophysiological tradition, the latter an outspoken attempt at providing a revolutionary model for the organisation of an unprecedented research effort. One underscored continuity and scientific “soundness”, the other promised rupture and new, imaginative solutions to age-old problems. Nevertheless, they have been later lumped together into the one, marvellous and progressive history of the Science of the Brain.

By historically cutting through fundamental issues of the philosophy of science (reductionism; materialism; facts and values), and of the history of science (“big science”; organisation of the university; pure vs. applied research), the talk will show how the organising principle of these two opposed (if almost equally successful) research efforts was not the foggy, ever-changing and -improving image of an experimental brain-in-becoming, but the clear, fixed horizon of a promised brain, one incorporating facts, values and perspectives of two remarkable individuals and of a legion of different communities.