DNA Pioneer Locates 'Cells Of Our Soul'

Jonathan Leake - Science Editor

The joint discoverer of DNA’s double helix has published research that explains away the soul and attributes human consciousness to a set of neurones in the brain.

Francis Crick claims he and his co-researchers have found the group of cells responsible for generating consciousness and an individual’s “sense of self”.

The announcement, in the science journal Nature Neuroscience, comes amid the build-up to next month’s 50th anniversary celebrations of the discovery of the double helix by Crick and James Watson, for which they won a Nobel prize.

Their discovery, that the blueprint for life and evolution lay in a simple molecule, is still seen as a threat to religion by groups such as creationists.

If proven, Crick’s new claim would represent another big triumph for science over religion. The apparent inability of science to explain where humans get their sense of self-awareness has long been used by religious leaders as evidence of an eternal soul.

For Crick it would also represent the culmination of years of research into consciousness, much of which has been targeted on disproving the notion of the soul. In earlier research he once said: “The scientific belief is that our minds - the behaviour of our brains - can be explained entirely by the interactions of nerve cells.”

Crick’s new research indicates he has proved his case. The paper is based on years of experimentation including studies, tests on animals and psychological research. Some of the most valuable data came from the therapeutic use of tiny probes put into the rains of people suffering from epilepsy to assess their seizures.

The paper describes how different parts of th brain mesh together to generate consciousness. It adds: “For the first time we have a coherent scheme for the neural correlates of consciousness in philosophical, psychological and neural terms.

“Actual consciousness may be expressed by only a small set of neurons, in particular those that protect from the back of the cortex to parts of the frontal cortex.”

Christof Koch, professor of neuroscience at California Institute of Technology, who co-authored Crick’s latest research, said: “It is clear that consciousness arises from biochemical reactions within the brain.”

Some see Crick’s attack on the soul as part of a wider attempt by scientists to undermine the fundamental beliefs of major religions.

The Rev Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the University of London, who is both priest and scientist, said Crick had only discovered the neuronal components of consciousness.

“It is like saying that the cathedral is a pile of stones and glass’” he said. “It is true, but too simplistic and it misses the point.”

However, Colin Blackmore, professor of neuroscience of Oxford University, supported Crick’s belief that consciousness arises from biochemical reactions.

He sid: “Science and religion conflict because they both try to explain physical world, but most religions suggest there is some grand intention - and there is no evidence for that. Religion is an untestable hypothesis.”

Baroness Susan Greenfield, a pharmacology professor who is director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, said it was important for scientists to show respect for other beliefs even when they disagreed with them. “Among some researchers science is becoming the new religion,” she said. “That is a silly attitude.”

Crick, who at 86 will discover the truth of his theories sooner than most other scientists, has said that one day all humanity will come to accept that the concept of souls and the promise of eternal life were a deception - just as they now accept that the Earth is not flat.