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The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates The Complexities of Human Thought Paperback – International Edition, November 30, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (November 30, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465044069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465044061
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 5.9 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #398,094 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The Human Genome Project has revealed that we possess a surprisingly small number of genes, especially in light of our fairly complex bodies. In The Birth of the Mind, NYU psychology professor Gary Marcus brings together current research on how our genetic code assembles that most mysterious physiological structure, the brain. Readers fascinated by the works of Steven Pinker and other mind theorists will be fascinated by Marcus' descriptions of strange--and sometimes disturbing--sensory experiments carried out on chimps, ferrets, and kittens that show how the brain organizes itself in the presence or absence of external stimuli. Further, Marcus writes that there's nothing particularly special about how the brain is built and maintained.

What's amazing is how little of the overall scheme for embryonic development is special to the brain. Although thousands of genes are involved in brain development, a large number of them are shared with (or have close counterparts in) genes that guide the development of the rest of the body.

With plenty of evidence supporting the notion of multi-function "housekeeping genes," Marcus concludes that our hopes for finding single genes responsible for various brain disorders are likely unfounded. The Birth of the Mind offers an engaging and often witty look at how our genetic code can be simple enough to make basic proteins and complicated enough to help us learn languages. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

NYU psychologist Marcus strikes a rare and delicate balance of scientific detail and layperson accessibility in this overview of an exploding field of inquiry. He traces a compelling story through the classic genetics and brain experiments of the past century up to present-day research, intriguingly illustrating how the human genome is intertwined with brain development, showing how the mechanisms that build brains are extensions of the mechanisms that build the body. Marcus dispels popular misconceptions of genes, showing, for instance, that most behaviors and disorders are much more complicated than headlines such as "gene for obesity discovered" would have us believe. Heavy explanations of complex results and abstract concepts are leavened by Marcus' upbeat, friendly writing style, which makes even the most arcane genetics principles a joy to read. Experiments with vision and language are particularly well-represented, with vivid descriptions adding color to the technical prose. If there is a fault here, it is that the book jumps around a bit too much, attempting to collect several decades of research and many threads of thought into a single slim volume. A lengthy glossary and bibliography, along with meticulous footnoting throughout, are helpful for those wishing to educate themselves further on the subject, but Marcus gives most readers more than enough to think about here.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

For anyone who has read very little about the topic but who wishes to get a well rounded idea of the subject, this is a good place to start.
Atheen M. Wilson
He explains how only 30000 genes can encode a huge and complex brain by showing how genes can have multiple roles and act in groups to perform complex functions.
Eric Baum
The writing is crystal clear, the style is engaging, and Marcus makes the cutting edge science he's discussing accessible to any intelligent reader.
Stephen Stich

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

103 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on February 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It's a great pleasure to be able to highly recommend this book. I was suspicious of it because of the hype sent from the publisher, and the extremely broad topic covered for a science book, but it turns out that this is really good science writing. Gary Marcus certainly knows his stuff and has a distinctive talent for making complex things crystal clear. More, he has an infectious positive enthusiasm for scientific exploration.
With most popular science books about the human mind, the author tends to allow the material to be organized by their political and moral thinking. By that I mean the way the author thinks about human reason, autonomy, free will, and the essential nature of humans in general. So we most often have authors interpreting scientific data to show how the mind is: hardwired (or flexibly changing during our lives); highly specialized (or a general purpose problem-solver), built from adapted computational modules (or is essentially a useful artifact or "spandrel").
Each of these different ways of selecting and interpreting the data reveals a different way of thinking about ourselves. A hardwired, specialized, modular brain gives a very different way of thinking about ourselves than does an autonomous reasoning agent, and the implications for morality and for politics are profound. While cognitive science and biology are our greatest allies in the physical understanding of the world, when we try to rely on science to understand ourselves, we have been forced to speculate and extrapolate from them heavily in trying to get an accurate picture of humanity.
I bring this up to illustrate why Gary Marcus' "Birth of the Mind" is such a notable book.
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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Atheen M. Wilson on March 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Although I found The Birth of the Mind by Gary Marcus to be a very well written book, I don't think that the author has added anything significantly new. Anyone who has read Penrose, Pinker or Dawkins is pretty much aware of the theory of mind as emergent property of brain function. Anyone who has kept abreast of research in genetics is aware that most of what we are as biological beings is dictated by our DNA. That the brain and the mind are part of that is hardly a surprise either. Of Dr. Marcus's illustrations of physical and cognitive dysfunction drawn from neurology and neurophysiology, few were new and most have been discussed in far greater detail in other volumes, the best known probably being Oliver Sac's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
What the author does do is put all of the most recent work together in a very cogent and readable manner for the average reader on the subject. His friendly, chatty writing style makes the subject very accessible. A youthful Associate Professor in the department of psychology at NYU, with a primary research focus in the brain and the mind in cognitive psychology, he is well placed to pull recent and germane literature together. For anyone who has read very little about the topic but who wishes to get a well rounded idea of the subject, this is a good place to start. It's current and well written even if the conclusions are not especially new.
For THOSE WRITING TERM PAPERS in psychology, history of science,or philosophy, this book might provide you with a large, very current collection of sources from which to begin your own literature search. Most of them come from 1995-2002.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on September 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Marcus says, "From a mind's-eye view, brains may seem awfully special, but from a gene's-eye view, brains are just one more elaborate configuration of proteins."

This book is a compilation of very recent research about how the brain as an organ puts itself together. This process is not unlike the process for any other organ, but results in a product that is highly malleable and ripe for environmental adjustment. The book has been explained very adequately by many reviewers, so I will mainly try to provide you with some representative quotes and add only a few comments.

About Nature vs. Nurture:

"The nativists are right that significant parts of the brain are organized even without experience, and their opponents are right to emphasize that the structure of the brain is exquisitely sensitive to experience."

" At the core of our story has been a tension between the evidence that the brain can - like the body - assemble itself without much help from the outside world, and the evidence that little about the brain's initial structure is rigidly cast in stone.....To an earlier generation of scholars, the evidence for innateness and the evidence for flexibility seemed almost irreconcilable. Most scholars simply focused their attention on the stream of evidence they were more impressed with....Both sides have their points. The brain is capable of awesome feats of self-organization - and equally impressive feats of experience driven reorganization. But the seeming tension between the two is more apparent than real: Self-organization and re-organization are two sides of the same coin, each the product of the staggering amount of co-ordinated suites of autonomous yet highly communicative genes.
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