Evolution in the brain and what it might entail


Eörs Szathmáry
Darwinian natural selection can lead to cumulative adaptations. Qualitatively speaking, units of evolution should multiply, show inheritance and variability. If among the hereditary traits there are some that affect survival and/or fertility (the combination of which we call fitness), then in a population of such entities evolution by natural selection can take place. Importantly, evolutionary dynamics can be mathematized, an example of which is replicator dynamics. The famous psychologist William James raised the question whether Darwinian dynamics could explain functional adaptations arising during the operation of the brain. This idea has been kicked around by philosophers, neurobiologists and psychologists, but no full exposition of a detailed theory has been given. There are now reasons to believe that bona fide Darwinian neurodynamics might in fact happen in the brain. Different examples of neuronal replicators have been proposed, the variation and selection of which might underlie complex cognitive processes such as insight problem solving and language development in children. We shall investigate where we stand now and what are the challenges for the future.
Eörs Szathmáry is professor of biology at the Department of Plant Taxonomy and Ecology of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, where he is also the chairman of the PhD program in evolutionary genetic and conservation biology. He is Director of the Parmenides Center for the Conceptual Foundations of Science at the Parmenides Foundation in Pullach/Munich. Since 2011 Eörs Szathmáry is guest  professor at the Faculty of Biology, LMU Munich.
His main interest is theoretical evolutionary biology and focuses on the common principles of the major steps in evolution, such as the origin of life, the emergence of cells, the origin of animal societies, and the appearance of human language.
Together with his mentor, John Maynard Smith, he has published two seminal books which serve as the main references in the field (The Major Transitions in Evolution, Freeman, 1995, and The Origins of Life, Oxford University Press, 1999). Both books have been translated into several languages.
Eörs Szathmáry is on the editorial board of several journals (Journal of Theoretical Biology, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere and Biology Direct).
He was awarded the New Europe Prize in 1996 by a group of institutes for advanced study. He used the prize to establish the NEST (New Europe School for Theoretical Biology) foundation, whose task is to help young Hungarian theoretical biologists.. He was invited to prestigious institutions, including the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and the College de France. He is a member of Academia Europaea and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.