Rebel Genius

Rebel Genius

Warren S. McCulloch's Transdisciplinary Life in Science

By Tara Abraham

The life and work of a scientist who spent his career crossing disciplinary boundaries—from experimental neurology to psychiatry to cybernetics to engineering.





The life and work of a scientist who spent his career crossing disciplinary boundaries—from experimental neurology to psychiatry to cybernetics to engineering.

Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch's life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch's life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.

Abraham describes McCulloch's early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch's dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch's transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today's multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262035095 320 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 17 b&w illus.


  • Through its discussions of McCulloch in the round, Rebel Genius is an excellent portrait of the man and his time, and a significant contribution to the history of science.


  • Abraham's biography of McCulloch brings to life a fascinating group of individuals and the era in which they lived.



  • Obscured by the portly figure of Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch has long been an elusive enigma at the heart of American cybernetics. Rebel Genius is now the place to start. Tara Abraham traces out McCulloch's singular trajectory through brain science, engineering, and philosophy, casting valuable new light on all the places he passed through.

    Andrew Pickering

    Professor Emeritus, Sociology and Philosophy, University of Exeter; author of The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future

  • Over the last decade Tara Abraham has established herself as the leading authority on the life and work of the pioneer neuroscientist and cybernetician, Warren McCulloch. In this volume she follows McCulloch's productive commitment to transdisciplinary investigation, moving deftly between the histories of biology, medicine, engineering, philosophy, and mathematics to open up a new perspective on the sciences of mind, brain, and artificial intelligence that have shaped the modern age.

    Rhodri Hayward

    Reader in History, Queen Mary University of London; editor of History of the Human Sciences