Why the father of neuroscience, toward the end of his career, preferred to study ants

By | May 8, 2022

Benjamin Ehrlich writes:

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the most influential neuroscientist in the world—the man who discovered brain cells, later termed neurons— published only one article, by far his lowest output ever. “The horrendous European war of 1914 was for my scientific activity a very rude blow,” Cajal recalled. “It altered my health, already somewhat disturbed, and it cooled, for the first time, my enthusiasm for investigation.” Cajal’s tertulia, or café social circle, was “overwhelmed with horror and abomination, erasing the last relics of our youthful optimism.” Science was supposed to be universal, but now, as mail became unreliable, telegraph lines were cut, trenches were dug, and borders were almost constantly closed, scientists could not even share their work internationally.

The year before, Cajal had published the second monumental book of his career, Degeneration and Regeneration in the Nervous System, a two-volume tome consisting of over 800 pages and 300 illustrations definitively summarizing 20 papers written over eight years. “In adult centers [brain areas],” he wrote, “the nerves are something fixed and immutable: everything may die, nothing may be regenerated. It is for the science of the future to change, if possible, this harsh decree.” The conclusion depressed him. In his 60s, Cajal was beginning to feel the effects of old age. Writing Degeneration and Regeneration left him “profoundly exhausted.” Then Europe itself, with its network of international alliances not unlike nerve fibers, spectacularly degenerated.

“I have to admit,” Cajal wrote in a new weekly newspaper, founded so that prominent intellectuals could share their views on the war, “I have a very low opinion of human beings.” As the “last hunter animal,” he wrote, we retain the “foul instincts” of beasts. “Our nerve cells continue to react in the same way as in the Neolithic Age,” he lamented. Because of “evolutionary resistance,” an “excruciating biological fact,” Cajal claimed that war will never be eradicated. All that civilization can hope to do is prolong the intervals of peace, but the “destructive phase” will always return, with each war becoming more horrifying. “In about twenty or thirty years, when the orphans of the present war will be men, the same stupendous massacre will be repeated,” he predicted with chilling accuracy. Suddenly, Cajal realized that the brain was not perfecting itself by evolution, as he had once believed. “Our descendants will be as putrid as we are,” he concluded. [Continue reading…]

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