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Jesús Mosterín

The place of Culture URL:

2. The success of the brain

2.1 Genes and brain

All living beings are thermodynamically improbable entities that can only overcome the universal flux towards disorder and entropy through the exploitation of the information fluxes of our universe, thus, by accumulating and using information. Craniate animals have two powerful processors within us: the genome and the brain. The genome is housed within the nucleus of our cells, in chromosomes. The brain is housed in our skull, like a treasure protected in a safe box. We have millions of genome samples, but a single brain. The genome saves information in DNA sequences. The brain saves information in neuron connection patterns. The genome is a safe processor, although an extremely slow one. The brain processes much faster, being able to answer in real time to the challenges posed by a changing environment. The fundamental processor is the genome, as it is the genome who invented the brain, and not the other way around.

The brain is a system more complex than the genome by several degrees of freedom, which is the reason why it is much more difficult to understand. Until now we have been more successful in the exploration of the genome than in the exploration of the brain; we have managed to understand better the fundamental mechanisms of the genome than the brain. Nevertheless, the discovery and functional understanding of each of the genes involved in the development of the brains, and the biochemical circumstances of their activation and deactivation, will offer us new paths for the study of cerebral mechanisms and systems. In any case, the success in the discovery of the genome is the success in the discovery of the brain, a key milestone in the tortuous path toward self-understanding.

2.2 The place of culture

Human nature, our natura, is written inside our genome like culture is written inside our brain. Nature remains static throughout our life, our genes do not change. We die with the same genes with which we were born, and the same with which we were conceived a the time of fecundation (by the fusion of half genome from our mother and half genome from our father to give shape to an entirely complete and novel individual genome). Culture is dynamic, changing continuously. Each day we learn and forget things. Our natura is passed genetically, while culture is transmitted by social learning. Our natura, our genome, comes from our predecessors, while our culture can come from different individuals other than our predecessors. The fundamental study of cultural dynamics is awaiting a better understanding of the brain's functional plasticity: how is cultural information codified, how is it added, how it is erased, and how is it changed.

The cultural phenomenon exists in many species of animals. We have been witnessing a formidable explosion of human culture in the last five thousand years, withstood by the introduction of artificial support mediums and extra-cerebral cultural information. The invention of writing allowed us to register data, memories, and fantasies outside of our head, over a brick of clay or over a sheet of pressed papyrus. This way, we began to have cultural contents outside of our brain. The invention of the printing press only accelerated this phenomenon. The entire Espasa Encyclopedia has never been inside a brain, it has only existed in the 90 thick volumes of paper it is made of. New support mediums like vinyl gramophone records, photographic plates, and magnetic tapes have further broaden this process. In the last decades, the combination of computers and the Internet with its multiple servers, together with the rest of current IT paraphernalia, have created a huge space where not only cultural contents are saved, but they are also processed and modified. This is what we cal web-2, which has certain structural similarities with a "superbrain", whose neurons would be each of us. This is only a metaphor, but still shows us the success of the incredible potential of a real brain, the one we have inside our skulls.  

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