Gerald Edelman was born in 1929 in Ozone Park, Queens, New York to Jewish parents, physician Edward Edelman, and Anna Freedman Edelman, who worked in the insurance industry. After being raised in New York, he attended college in Pennsylvania where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. from Ursinus College in 1950 and received an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1954.
After a year at the Johnson Foundation for Medical Physics, he became a house officer at the Massachusetts General Hospital and then practiced medicine in France while serving with US Army Medical Corps. Edelman joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research as a graduate fellow in 1957, receiving a Ph.D. in 1960. Rockefeller made him the Assistant (later Associate) Dean of Graduate Studies until 1966, when he became a professor at the school. In 1992, he moved to California and became a professor of neurobiology at The Scripps Research Institute. Edelman also serves as the founder and director of The Neurosciences Institute, a nonprofit research centre in San Diego that studies the biological basis of higher brain function in humans, and is on the scientific board of the World Knowledge Dialogue project
While in Paris serving in the Army, Edelman read a book that sparked his interest in antibodies. He decided that, since the book said so little about antibodies, he would investigate them further upon returning to the United States, which led him to study physical chemistry for his 1960 Ph.D. Research by Edelman and his colleagues and Rodney Robert Porter in the early 1960s produced fundamental breakthroughs in the understanding of the antibody's chemical structure, opening a door for further study. For this work, Edelman and Porter shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1972.
Edelman has asked whether we should attempt to construct models of functioning minds or models of brains which, through interactions with their surroundings, can develop minds. Edelman's answer is that we should make model brains and pay attention to how they interact with their environment. Edelman accepts the existence of qualia and incorporates them into his brain-based theory of mind. His concept of qualia attempts to avoid the pitfalls of the idea of special qualia with non-functional properties, which was criticized by Daniel Dennett.
Edelman expounds a biological theory of consciousness, based on his studies of the immune system, which he explicitly locates within Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection and Darwinian theories of population dynamics. He rejects dualism and also dismisses newer hypotheses such as the so-called 'computational' model of consciousness, which liken the brain's functions to the operations of a computer.
Edelman argues that the mind and consciousness are wholly material and purely biological phenomena, occurring as highly complex cellular processes within the brain, and that the development of consciousness and intelligence can be satisfactorily explained by Darwinian theory.
Edelman married Maxine M. Morrison in 1950. They have two sons, Eric, a visual artist in New York City, and David, a neuroscientist at the Neurosciences Institute. Their daughter, Judith Edelman, is a bluegrass musician and recording artist.