Bright Air, Brilliant Fire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Gerald Edelman begins his preface with a forthright declaration: “I have written this book because I think its subject is the most important one imaginable.” His subject is the “neuroscientific revolution,” which promises to reveal “how the mind works, what governs our nature, and how we know the world.” Many people share Edelman’s conviction that we are on the verge of answering these questions; it would take pages just to list the recently published and forthcoming books on this subject, some of them written by working scientists, others by science journalists.

What distinguishes Edelman’s book from many others in the field—including Daniel Dennett’s widely praised EXPLAINING CONSCIOUSNESS (1991)—is his insistence on a biological theory of consciousness. To understand the mind, Edelman contends, we must approach it from an evolutionary perspective, building a detailed biological description of the brain: “The brain is not a computer and the world is not a piece of computer tape.”

Edelman, who won a Nobel Prize for work in immunology before turning to the study of the brain, has advanced his theory of mind—based on what he calls the theory of neuronal group selection—in several more technical volumes. Here he is writing explicitly for nonspecialists, yet he pays his audience the compliment of assuming genuine interest in his subject and a willingness to wrestle with difficult concepts. BRIGHT AIR, BRILLIANT FIRE is at once more demanding and more lucid than most of its competitors; throughout the book, exposition is supplemented and clarified by drawings and tables and enlivened by Edelman’s dry wit.