Colin Blakemore: You Ask The Questions

The Professor of Neuroscience at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick, answers your questions, such as Can humans be rational? And what would you ask Neanderthal man?
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Should the best universities discriminate in favour of the poor, or is your principal duty to uphold standards? Nigel holt, Rochester

What's important is surely to provide the best possible opportunities for young people to develop and use their talents, whatever their gender, their ethnicity or their social background. Universities have an important role to play in encouraging applicants from all backgrounds, and taking differences in educational background into account as they decide who to admit.

But what matters in the end is ability. I don't think that positive discrimination or simplistic quotas for university places are the way forward. What we need is a state school system that gives all children the opportunity to compete on equal terms for university places.

Was Professor David Nutt badly treated by the government? Charlotte Fordham, Canterbury

I don't know all the facts, but the way in which David Nutt was fired as chairman of the government's own advisory council on drugs has done as much harm to the government as it has to him.

The crucial question is whether the academic papers that he wrote (for instance, comparing the risks from horse-riding and Ecstasy) and the lectures that he gave (about how harm from drugs might be assessed better) stepped over a line between academic freedom and political campaigning. At the very least, we need a better and clearer definition of the rights of advisers to be free from political interference and to explain their views to the public as well as to politicians.

Do you think there is a danger that Darwinists try to explain everything in biology through their hero? Some of them seem to want to destroy free will. Samuel Campbell, Bolton

If there is a danger, I'm afraid you have to count me as part of it! Darwin's beautiful idea isn't just another theory. It simply can't not be true. All the molecules that make up every living thing are made directly or indirectly by their genes. Every organism inherits the genes of its forbears, but genes can change, slightly or even dramatically, during the process of reproduction. If a genetic change enables an individual to survive better and to reproduce more efficiently, it will pass on the altered gene and its advantageous characteristics to its offspring. Evolution isn't just a possibility; it's unavoidable.

However, there are certainly aspects of biological function that depend on more than genetic instructions alone. Take the height of a human being, for example. That's obviously partly influenced by genes: no people are as small as ants or as big as whales. But it also depends on what we eat. And the workings of our brain obviously depend on what we've experienced in our lives – all that learning, all those memories – as well as on the genes that build the brain to begin with.

You ask specifically, Samuel, about free will. I have to ask you in return what you really mean by that. Of course we all feel that we are in control of our own decisions – when to switch on the lights, which TV set to buy, what career to pursue. But what is the "we" in that sentence?

If all our actions result from activity in our brains (and I don't know a neuroscientists who doesn't believe that), then we are forced to the conclusion that the impression of free will is itself an invention of the brain. Evolution has given us a brain that not only makes decisions, but also creates the sense of self.

Is it possible for humans to be rational, or are we destined always to be predictably irrational? Paul Berensky, Stoke

Francis Bacon, father of the Enlightenment, wrote: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." Bacon was arguing for a method to establish truths, free from irrational expectation. The scientific method (making observations, putting forward a hypothesis to explain those observations, and setting up a critical experiment to test the hypothesis) does offer a way to escape from irrationality.

If you had five minutes with Neanderthal man, what would you say to him? Ursula Corrigan, Scunthorpe

Well, that would depend on whether he could reply! Not much point in having a conversation with someone who can't communicate in return. In order to use spoken language, you need to have not only the right kind of brain, but also the right kind of larynx, vocal cords and tongue. Neanderthals had big brains (actually slightly bigger, on average, than ours). But until the 1980s, the fossil record seemed to suggest that they didn't have the right kind of vocal apparatus to support a rich spoken language.

A tiny fossilised Neanderthal bone found in a cave in Israel challenged that opinion. It was a hyoid bone, previously thought to be absent in Neanderthals. This bone connects the larynx to the tongue muscles and plays an important role in human speech. Very recent analysis of DNA from a well-preserved specimen showed that Neanderthals had the human form of a gene, FOXP2, which is thought to play a part in the development of brain areas involved in language.

So, if my Neanderthal could speak, what would I ask him? I'd love to know what he thought of his neighbours, the Homo sapiens people who definitely lived in the same areas of Europe and the Middle East 40,000 years ago. I'd ask whether he liked them or feared them, why he didn't trade with them, exchange tools and ornaments with them. And why he didn't breed with them (that's what recent genetic analysis suggests). The extinction of Neanderthals, some 30,000 years ago, remains a mystery. Maybe a conversation with one of the few groups remaining then could teach us what led to their downfall.

Why do you think so many people are opposed to legalising drugs, when the case for doing so is so overwhelmingly clear? Nathan Dykhoff, Oxford

I do think that there's a strong case for treating drug abuse more as a medical and social problem than a crime. However, I'm not sure that total legalisation is the answer. After all, the two main drugs of potential abuse that are already legal (alcohol and tobacco) continue to cause huge problems for society. Whatever one's feelings about drugs – from the most liberal to the most conservative – there ought to be agreement on one thing. The War on Drugs, launched by Richard Nixon in the late sixties, hasn't worked.

Illegal drugs have never been more freely available, cheaper or more widely used than they are now. No other area of the Law is so widely flouted: according to government figures, more than one third of people in Britain have used illegal drugs, mostly Class B and A drugs, for which the maximum penalties for possession are five and seven years imprisonment, respectively. This surely tells us something about the lack of respect for this area of the Law.

I hope that whatever government comes into power, they will have the courage to undertake a thorough and open-minded review of the entire approach to drug control, including the way that drugs are classified and the resources devoted to education, prevention and treatment. The total cost to the UK of illegal drug use is estimated to be as high as £16 billion. So, it would also make economic sense to ask whether other approaches to control might be more effective.

Do you find that Home Secretaries are generally ill-equipped intellectually to pronounce on matters relating to drugs? Paula Frampton, Haslemere

It would be wonderful if all ministers were experts in science. But they don't need to be, because government is fortunate to have a well-developed system of expert advice. Hundreds of this country's leading academics give their time and knowledge with little or no payment, serving on advisory committees. Of course, this doesn't mean that there's no role for ministers.

Ultimately they have to decide what to do, and there can be good reasons for rejecting advice. But it's surely important that ministers should at least listen to what their own advisers say before making up their minds. Generally, the advisory system works very well, but drugs seem to have gone to the heads of the politicians (so to speak), and the system for drug classification is in real crisis.

Isn't the life of an academic intolerably frustrating and poorly paid? Trisha Davison, Manchester

Academics do seem to have more to grumble about than when I became one, 40 years ago. Paper-pushing, grant-hunting, box-ticking, and impact-making were not things that figured in my decision to become an academic. Academics were certainly not well paid then, and working conditions in research labs were much worse than today. But the kick that I got out of studying and doing science made research the most attractive profession in the world. Fortunately there are still young people who get that science bug.

Which party do you vote for in Britain? Shamit Mirza, London

That's an easy one to answer, without giving away too much of my political opinion. I vote for my local MP, Dr Evan Harris. He happens to be a Liberal Democrat, but I vote for him because he is one of the few MPs who has a real passion for science and who has the courage to fight for difficult and potentially unpopular causes. His majority isn't large and, in the current uncertain climate, his seat is by no means safe. So, if you live in his constituency and you think that science is important for the future of this country, vote for Evan!