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7th EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2006

Panel discussion – 3 November 2006

Living organisms are genetically programmed to develop morphologically according to species-specific evolutionary design, equipping them with a limited range of means to respond to stimuli from the external environment. In that sense, the behaviour of all living creatures, humans included, is genetically determined. But what qualifies as "behaviour" ranges from automatic responses in micro-organisms to thought processes in cultured human beings, and the role genes play in determining such diverse phenomena is far from monolithic.

As expressed in the talks given at this conference, apart from some monogenetic diseases, the relationship between a genotype and a trait, or a phenotype, is seldom straightforward, but mediated and modulated by such dynamics as pleiotropy, epistasis, environmental influence, and alternative splicing. From the talks at this conference we have learned how multiple genetic loci determine complex traits in fruit flies, such as normal sex-specific innate behaviours, as well as abnormal, pathological drug addiction, and how at least some of the underlying molecular and neurochemical mechanisms are also conserved in human beings.

Here resides the primary interest among the public in the results coming out of basic research in behavioural genetics. The authenticity of solid scientific evidence for identifiable genes, or gene complexes, giving rise to specific behavioural traits is of course of primary importance, but so is the question of belief in such predictions. Social, health, educational and even economic policy is increasingly affected by our collective beliefs in the genetic underpinnings of normal as well as pathological states and cognetic abilities. Our human brain is the most complex of all biological organs as it gives rise to that most fascinating, but elusive phenomenon: consciousness.

How that happens is one of the central themes of study within the new neurosciences. The field is rife with competing theories on the subject, some of which will hopefully be aired during the discussion. Brain scientists assume that emerging properties such as consciousness are high-level effects that depend on lower-level phenomena in some systematic way. Cognitive neuroscience then refers to an interdisciplinary approach to the study of consciousness, where the biological and the physical sciences are integrated with psychological approaches to provide explanations of mental phenomena. There are certainly universal neurobiological processes at work across species.

For most social scientists and many philosophers, however, in the case of humans the physiological substrate of consciousness and its contents cannot be separated, and they assume that we always process the contents that enter our mind through socio-culturally constructed, and acquired, schemata. It would seem that we, both passively and actively, incorporate our changing environment through representations that get inter-subjectively imprinted on neuronal circuits in brains of people sharing an environment, allowing a continued perception of a subjective identity. In this respect, our species can be regarded as being relatively indetermined, or "open", in comparison to all other species.

As genetics and the neurosciences have in recent years made such spectacular progress in generating new knowledge about the structure and functioning of living organisms, the time seems fully ripe for a renewed dialogue between, and debate with, experts from different disciplines: cognitive scientists, philosophers, social scientists, historians, novelists, and all the other experts on "consciousness".