We Don’t Know How We Know that Genes Make Minds

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Posted on February 29, 2004 in Human Body

If the mind can be explained from the workings of the brain, and the brain develops by direction from our genes,” Anthony Monaco (Oxford) writes, “then presumably the mind can be explained from our genetic make-up.  But how can only 30,000 genes make a brain with billions of neurons and encode the particular aspects of cognition that make us human?”
    This question opens his book review of The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought by Gary Marcus (Basic Books, 2004) in the Feb. 19 issue of Nature.1  Monaco describes the book’s proposed answers to two paradoxes: (1) how a small number of genes codes for millions of neurons, and (2) how the brain can code for flexibility: “How does the brain of a newborn, with its complex structures and connections, have the plasticity to enable it to respond to environmental influences as it develops further?”
    He seems to agree with the view of author Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist, that “the brain is built by genes in a self-organized way before being reorganized and shaped by experience and the environment.  It is not a battle where one side wins, but a vital interaction.”  But how do we get from genes to mind, to cognition, thought and reason?

Having clarified these two paradoxes using our current knowledge of genetics and neuroscience, can we explain how genes make minds?  The story is only beginning.  This book shows that genes build brains and that brains are designed to be flexible and to learn, but the jump from genes to the mind is an indirect one.  The question cannot yet be answered, and it is not entirely clear where the answer will come from.

Cognitive psychologists and neurologists have some clues, aided by real-time imaging techniques, but Monaco warns that “The path ahead to integrate these disciplines to gain a fuller understanding is optimistically vague.…”  He warns readers about the “sheer complexity of the science”.


1Anthony P. Monaco, “A recipe for the mind,” Nature 427, 681 (19 February 2004); doi:10.1038/427681b.

A naturalistic explanation for the mind, soul and spirit does not seem to be forthcoming, does it?  (By “explanation” we do not mean a just-so story; those are always in plentiful supply.)

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