Know Yourself

Programs of the Brain

by J.Z. Young
Oxford University Press, 325 pp., $14.95

When it comes to contemporary studies of the human brain, Professor J.Z. Young is in the position of the Master in the famous Balliol Masque. “First come I, my name is Jowett. If it’s knowledge then I know it.” The book which he has now published is based upon the series of Gifford lectures which Professor Young delivered in 1975-1977 at the University of Aberdeen. A condition of Lord Gifford’s nineteenth-century bequest to the four main Scottish universities, which still serves to endow these lectures, was that they be devoted either to ethics or to natural theology, but with the passage of time and the waning of interest, if not in moral theory, at least in the claims of natural theology, this condition has come to be very laxly interpreted.

In Professor Young’s case, moral theory figures only in the form of a mild obeisance to aesthetic and spiritual values and in the insistence that man is programmed to be a social animal. Neither is anything said about natural theology. Professor Young is too tactful to make an explicit profession of atheism, though he does speak at one point of its being “degrading to use detailed beliefs that have become inconsistent with knowledge.” It is, however, clear that he does not regard the knowledge which he has acquired about the workings of the brain as lending any support to the notion of a divine creator. At the same time he shows respect for religion as a social institution and displays what one may fairly call a religious attitude toward life itself. There is also a shadow of the argument from design, in that the terms in which he speaks about the brain, and indeed about the human body as a whole, are uncompromisingly teleological.

In my frivolous comparison of Professor Young to Dr. Jowett, I meant only to stress his mastery of his subject, not at all to suggest that he comes forward as a pundit or that he overestimates the extent of his knowledge. On the contrary. One of the most impressive features of this book is its modesty, as expressed not only in the reluctance of the author to go beyond his evidence, but in his recognition of the enormous amount of work that remains to be done before the anatomist can match the assurance of the physicist in putting forward even statistical laws. For example, there is still no established theory about so fundamental a question as that of the neural base of human memory, though Professor Young develops a convincing set of arguments for holding that a memory record is established not, as has been suggested, by a change of some specific chemical molecules, but rather by a change in the pathways between neurons within the nervous system.

Let us suppose that this is the right answer. We still need to account for the distinction between short- and long-term memories: we still need to explain the very great variations in the capacities of different persons…

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