"We are primates who are experts in deceit, double-dealing, lying, cheating, conniving, and concealing." So says science writer Sanjida O'Connell, but we needn't take her word for it--she lets the facts speak for themselves. Citing research conducted with monkeys, apes, and both normal and autistic children, she creates a highly accessible introduction to theory of mind, the ability of most humans (and possibly some animals) to conceive of and infer the mental states of others.
Mindreading discusses research in such fascinating and controversial areas as animal communication, artificial intelligence, and education of autistic children. From remarkable displays of grief and deception in chimpanzees to the equally remarkable lack of such qualities in human sufferers of Asperger's syndrome, the facts presented in this book challenge the ways we think about ourselves and others and upset our notions of what it means to be human. Mindreading itself changes from a science fiction cliché into a perfectly ordinary faculty most of us perform unconsciously all day, every day.
Authors who write about subjects of such fundamental importance to us often also touch on the problems of morality, and O'Connell is no exception. Her closing chapter, "The Moral Mind," explores gender differences in moral reasoning and how they may be based on differences in perceptions of others. Amid further speculation about animal and robot morals, she expresses the belief (and hope) that morality arises from theory of mind and that improvement in the way we see others will lead to improvement in the way we treat them. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
The title of this debut by British science journalist O'Connell refers not to clairvoyance, but to the means by which we try to understand what lies behind other people's words and gestures and how we "respond to them." For the author, how we quickly get a fix on people and their motives underpins all human communication, empathy and deception. Beginning with attempts in philosophy and cognitive science to articulate our assumptions about such aspects of human nature, O'Connell quickly extends her scope to include our cousins, the primates; she considers extensive evidence as to whether they share our ability to suss each other out and analyzes traits we have in common in order to shed light on our possible evolutionary makeup. While the book sometimes reads like the Ph.D. thesis on the "Theory of Mind in Chimpanzees" that O'Connell says "formed the backbone" of this effort, she usefully examines differences in how autistic, psychopathic and normal people of various ages read each other, as well as the social behavior of brain-damaged individuals. Anyone interested in our increasingly biologically determined theories of behavior and ethics will benefit from this competent overview of how we think others think.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.