I am at a neuroscience conference right now. Sounds fascinating, but is actually pretty mundane most of the time.
What always amazes me is how bogged down in detail most of my colleagues have become. Yesterday I was at a session about human brain evolution – a fascinating topic. Well, one of the speakers was talking about his work on one of the genes which is important in cell migration in the developing brain. The work by him and his group seemed technically solid, and he wasn’t a bad speaker. The genes he investigated were involved in microcephaly, a medical condition where unfortunate humans have abnormally small brains. So, at the end of his talk, I asked him about his take on Homo floresiensis, the fascinating small-brained human fossil found in Indonesia a few years ago. I was sure he would have intriguing insights about this topic.
In fact, he hadn’t heard of Homo floresiensis at all.
How can you supposedly work on human brain evolution and not be aware of this most spectacular recent find? With all likelihood, the dude was simply not that much interested in human brain evolution, but only working on these few genes, and interested in publishing papers about them, and getting grants for this research. Any interest in the wider picture? It seems not. I’m sure he is an intelligent, hardworking person, and, by today’s standards, a more successful academic than myself, but is he an intellectual? Was this episode a fluke? No, unfortunately, this type of tunnel vision is very widespread in academic science. I don’t like it.