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Evolving the Mind: On the Nature of Matter and the Origin of Consciousness Hardcover – April 26, 1996

ISBN-13: 978-0074710920 ISBN-10: 3764366443 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (April 26, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 3764366443
  • ISBN-13: 978-0074710920
  • ASIN: 0521402204
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,924,213 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"A.G. Cairns-Smith is a brilliant explainer of difficult ideas, bringing to the task an imagination that is magnificently disciplined by detailed scientific understanding. He is also open-minded. His book will tantalize participants and onlookers of all persuasions...I have never encountered a clearer or more vivid account of the spectacular ingenuity of cellular design and operation..." Daniel C. Dennett, Nature

"Cairns-Smith's book is of interest to anyone who is thinking seriously about the problem of consciousness, but it also offers a good read for those who are merely curious about the subject. For anyone who has wondered how a physical system can give rise to consciousness, Cairns-Smith gives a great tour of our present knowledge and aptly demonstrates its limitations....[H]e writes about these difficult concepts with a clarity unmatched by most other authors." David L. Wilson, Quarterly Review of Biology

"Of course, Evolving the Mind is in no way meant to embody a theory of consciousness. That would have been miraculous. But what the book does achieve is in some sense no less miraculous. It is an extremely clear, engaging, and informative account of a vast topic, one that includes physics, evolution, biochemistry, neuroscience, and psychology...Evolving the Mind is the best kind of popular science: it goes far beyond mere description, to include much of the history of scientific progress, and to analyze what science is." John J. Kim, The Boston Book Review

"...an absorbing book...We know a lot about how [the brain] works via molecular biology, but none of that explains our consciousness, our mind. There are, of course, theories--and Cairns-Smith provides one of his own as well as discussing others, in an admirably clear style. It is an enjoyable and rewarding read: throw out a couple of thrillers and take it on holiday." New Scientist

"Cairns-Smith's speculations are often unorthodox, but they never lack grounding in the several fields of study he has mastered. Very few others could have provided such a comprehensive picture of this topic, especially in broad strokes that are remarkably accessible." Choice

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Craig Webster on March 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Cairns-Smith is a reader in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow and so understandably his approach to the topic of consciousness is a very chemical one. The book starts with a discussion of chemistry and physics, moves on to DNA and cellular mechanics, then primitive organisms, before discussing neural behaviour and consciousness itself. Everything is presented in a clear, fluent way with plenty of diagrams, so this book is easy to read and understand - but at the same time doesn't skimp on detail.
The author presents us with the idea that an increasing complexity of behaviour, the pinnacle of which is human consciousness, is a result of an increase in the complexity of the underlying chemical machinery. But when it comes to our brain Cairns-Smith claims that there is more going on here than merely massive interaction between a huge number of specialised neural cells. He claims that neurons are so precisely specialised that they are capable of tapping into some of the most basic physical properties of matter - namely quantum effects - bringing the book back to its opening chapters' discussion of the physical nature of matter. While this is an elegant argument, ultimately I believe it does not convince - it seems overly fashionable and lacking evidence. The history of the philosophy of mind is littered with metaphors for consciousness based on the topical technology of the day. The brain has been seen as a hydraulic device, a telephone exchange, a digital computer and now Cairns-Smith proposes the metaphor of the very latest quantum physical phenomenon - a Bose-Einstein condensate. This weak conclusion does not detract from the rest of the interesting discussion in the book and anyone with an interest in cognitive science or the philosophy of mind would enjoy it.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Michael Wiest on March 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
"Evolving the Mind" is an excellent book about the material basis of consciousness from an unorthodox but thoroughly clear-headed and scientific point of view. The style is conversational, accessible, and entertaining. The discussion focuses on the essential concepts and questions, avoiding various philosophical "isms" (e.g. functionalism, dualism, etc.) that tend to inflame intellectual prejudices and cloud the real issues.

There are many recent books about scientific theories of consciousness (some very good), but frankly many of them are saying nearly the same thing: consciousness is to be identified or associated with some particular aspects of computation (e.g. planning, decision-making, self-representation, etc.) among neurons in the brain. In these theories, while random noise is understood to affect processes at the sub-cellular level, the brain at the functional level is assumed to operate as a deterministic computing machine. This assumption is present even in current sophisticated theories involving chaotic dynamics, parallel distributed processing, or feedback (a.k.a. "re-entrant connections").

Because Cairns-Smith's writing style is conversational, open-minded, and non-confrontational, some experts (e.g. neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, computer scientists) are liable to miss the powerful challenge to mainstream approaches to a fundamental theory of consciousness running through his book. This main point has two parts. First, based on the correspondence between conscious experiences and evolutionary fitness (e.g. fire feels bad, food tastes good), consciousness must have evolved. If it evolved, that means (according to evolutionary theory) it must have some effect on the organism's physical body or behavior.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Hilliard McLamore on October 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
There was a joke about a student who summarized the knowledge of a course into a series of sentences such as "Read only your good books in vacation" (Colors of the light spectrum in order: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.) He then summarized these into words and continued this until one final word. It seems he got to final exams and forgot the word! Arrgh!
Well, I just finished reading this book and it managed to summarize and integrate all physics, evolution, chemistry and brain physiology into 300 pages without leaving out any detail however arcane. I will now reduce this to even less, so you will have something more convenient to forget.
The first 95% is background material starting with forces, fields, uncertainty, mass, etc. and leading up to electrons, atoms, water molecules, lipids, and arriving at life which, in the case of the E. coli, already has modest nerve-like capabilities so it can approach food and flee poisons. It goes on to show how nerve cells not much advanced from E. coli are constructed and act to assemble three dimensional images from eye signals, etc. This is to the painful detail of enumerating the parts of the brain and how they interact.
Now we are all familiar with nonsense philosophy where someone who has been exposed to little knowledge nevertheless comes to some fantastic conclusion such as "maybe the entire Universe is an electron in some larger scale Universe". Such speculation, although possibly true, is not interesting because it is not based on any evidence, however flawed and slight.
This book also proceeds to such a fantastic conclusion, but with evidence that is neither obviously flawed nor slight.
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