174 of 183 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2001
Carl Sagan really does a great job of going step by step, through the brain, explaining the processes, and giving a clear understanding to the reader of how we can see the evolution of our brains from those of lowly worms, to fish, reptiles, mammals, and eventually us.
We are living proof of evolution. Carl Sagan is great at teaching us that. He is funny and interesting, makes his points clearly and concisely. He was (and continues to be) one of the greatest, most skilled popularizers of science ever, period. You'll laugh, you'll think, you'll talk about it with your friends. You will NOT be bored.
Reading this book really made me feel at one with science and myself -- the strange organic computer in my head which is my brain. I was overwhelmed. Even though this book was written over 20 years ago, Mr. Sagan speculates on theories that even now are being confirmed -- such as that structures inside the brain are responsible for spiritual or religious experiences or ecstasy. I knew it was true when I read it because I experienced this ecstasy while reading the book -- and it sure wasn't God pushing the buttons! Get this book!
On a last note, I also read Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan. It was a little more outdated and not quite as interesting. Much of the topic material is the same. You don't, therefore, need to read them both. Just get Dragons of Eden.
66 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2005
About nine years ago, in about an eight-month span, I read Cosmos, Demon-Haunted World, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Dragons of Eden, Pale Blue Dot, Contact, and Broca's Brain. That period of time changed my life forever. Recently, I decided to bring a more educated and critical mind to Dragons of Eden, and I now realize why I read it so fast the first time: lucid, thought-provoking ... this is the kind of book, if there is such a one, that you sprinkle salt on and gobble up in one bite.
Sagan was not anti-religion, he was pro-common sense. I challenge any intelligent, educated person to deny the essential truth of evolution after reading this (of course, the people who are most in need of reading this would never pick it up in the first place; Sagan, as they say, is preaching to the choir). He proceeds in his writing like he knows his general premise is correct (that humans DID evolve from lower life-forms) and he gently guides those who have doubts about evolution through valid arguments made simple, that appear to the critical and careful reader to be self-evident. But Dragons of Eden is not a polemic against creationism: in fact, the book is chock-full of biblical imagery and mythology, but is used for what should be its true purpose, to understand where humans have been, not where they are or are yet to go.
Brilliantly illustrated, the Dragons of Eden rewards all who read it with a sense of enlightenment. Only the segment on computer technology towards the end of the book seems dated (but humorously quaint). After 29 years, this is a stupendous feat! It just goes to show that in 1976, Sagan was so far ahead of nonscientists that we are still catching up to his vivid examples of the evolution of human intelligence.
I have two young children, my wife and I are full-time students, and we have been broke in both money and sleep for many years now. But Sagan, with this simple yet eloquent statement in Dragons of Eden, helps me cope: "The price we pay for anticipation of the future is anxiety about it." Amen, Mr. Sagan!
73 of 78 people found the following review helpful
This is a book that should be read by all psychologists, psychiatrists, explorers of Artificial Intelligence or basically just anyone with an interest in what human intelligence is. If there is one thing that research in AI has taught us, it is that we really don't understand what intelligence is. The scientific credentials of Carl Sagan are impeccable, as he is one of the premier astronomers of this century. However, in this book he engages in speculation about the organization and structure of the human brain. In doing so, he also demonstrates that he himself is possessor of a brain of the first magnitude.
The title is derived from his thesis that the innate mammalian fear of reptiles is a genetic endowment left over from a titanic battle. Independent of the reasons, mammals emerged victorious, at least temporarily, in the evolutionary struggle for dominance. The remnants of that struggle live on in our myths and subconscious fears. Sagan's recounting and descriptions of those fears have major ramifications for the development of artificial intelligence. Our brains are constructed of several sections, all of which are overlays of a core that could rightly be considered reptilian. It would appear from this that the construction of an artificial intelligence should begin with a simple core followed by the continued construction of advanced overlays.
One of Sagan's major fields of effort was exobiology, the informed speculation about life and intelligence in places other than Earth. At this time, it is still a theoretical field, but that does not mean that it is not based on hard science. The speculations that he engages in in this book are also based on hard science, and an honest reading will force you to reconsider the construction of the human brain. Our primitive pieces occasionally rise to dominance, perhaps showing us what those mighty reptiles were really like.
Sagan is no longer with us, and his presence is sorely missed. However, he has left one of the most compelling legacies that will continue to enhance the human perspective for a long time. This book is a major contribution to that legacy and it is a book that everyone should read.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2004
I had certainly heard of Carl Sagan, but only in terms of cosmology. I had no idea that he wrote extensively on the field of evolutionary biology-stimulated by his wife, the biologist Ann Druyan. My field is not science, so The Dragon's of Eden was my first encounter with the idea of the tripartite brain. The idea does not originate with Sagan, as he himself points out, but this slender volume makes the idea quite assessable for the lay person and, more importantly, it creatively explores the idea's possible implications. Although I read this book years ago, I have thought of it several times a week since then, as I speculate upon some of the biological causes of human behavior. Newer models of the brain have already proved some of the basic ideas in this book as a bit oversimplified, but if you are looking for an introduction to speculating about how the brain's evolution may shape human behaviors, this is great place to start. I found the book a "mind blower"-and I always pick it up used when I see it to give to friends. Prepare to have your perception of perception itself turned upside down.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2001
Now I definitely need to read more of Carl Sagan's books. This one is not very recent (he speaks of a new video game called "Pong"), but full of thought-provoking and interesting concepts concerning intelligence and evolution. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he had a chapter pertaining to dreamstates. ("Tales of Dim Eden") Also pertaining to Eden, he illustrates how the Genesis story of Man and his Fall can in some senses really be accurate, not (pseudo)scientifically (as in Creationism...obviously it is a book on evolution and phylogeny) but as a metaphor for several characteristics of the human races emerging onto the present scene of a civilisation stemmed from the frontal lobes. Which in the big picture has been very recent, to show this he condenses the life of the cosmos to a scale Cosmic Calendar of 365 days. Us Earthlings almost miss the New Year's party. Neurologically, the areas of the brain are explored and their respective functions as well as connections to mammallian and reptilian ancestors. (A triune model is used) Finally, he briefly touches on our search for extraterrestrial intelligence and, very appropriately to this setting, exposes the West's lack of appreciation for scientific knowledge the world which we inhabit and our irrational attraction to superstition and bogus claims of occult psuedo-science... something I just had to include somewhere in here.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2003
Carl Sagan is one of the select few prolific non-fiction writers who can manage to create a masterpiece each time. While much of _Dragons of Eden_ is dated, the book was way ahead of its time and probably remains on the cutting edge of theory in the evolution of human intellegence (at least in the popular realm).
Those areas in which the book is clearly a generation old (Sagan predicts that someday computers will have television like interfaces, that regular people may have access to them and that they someday may exist in peoples' homes), are endearing, yet they also exemplify Sagan's foresight and wisdom. Predictions like these, and others (such as the then-absurd notion that genetic engineering may someday become science fact), are what sets him apart. As a scientist, he is a skeptic in the purest sense, but that doesn't mean he lost his imagination and ambition. He was not a cynic.
I recommend this book to just about anyone who is a Sagan fan. However, it isn't his best work. I would certainly place either _The Demon Haunted World_ and _Billions and Billions_ above this.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2006
The topic of evolution is one of the more controversial subjects in science, even ignoring creationism, intelligent design and other religious-leaning dogmas. The branches of the tree of life, especially that branch where humans appear, are still in dispute. In this book, Dr. Sagan takes the reader along this tree from its very root and slowly upwards to humans. By taking this path, he can show how various characteristics that evolved aeons ago are still with us; that in some sense we and every other creature are living fossils. Along the way, he takes the occasional tangent onto other branches, and shows us what was, and what might have been if certain branches had continued.
Focusing on humans, the book makes the innovative suggestion that our dreams and subconscious feelings somehow link us to our past; that many of our shared instincts and much of what we think when we sleep was determined by our evolutionary history. The title of the book is one example. Humans evolved from smaller mammals who lived during the reign of dinosaurs. As the bottom layer of the food chain, these ancient mammals lived in the fear and awe of large reptiles. Any nightmares these creatures had probably included the threat of large reptiles. Hence the common fear shared by many humans of long, skinny reptiles such as lizards; fears that are wholly out of proportion to possible threat. These then are the dragons of our Eden.
All in all, this is a great book to read. Written by an astronomer and physicist, it offers insight into the life sciences that are worthy of attention. The strands that Dr. Sagan draws together make this work a good example of an interdisciplinary work. I recommend it.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 25, 2004
While this book is in many ways dated, it is also in many ways timeless. The ideas that Sagan presents are not only related to science and technology, but also spirituality and ideals. The scientific aspects of the book are dated, but of course they are. I found those areas of the book to be entertaining and nostalgic, particularly the section about the video game Pong. Still, aside from the retro appeal, the less tangible (less scientific) ideas are age-old, thought provoking, and I dare say, inspirational.
Yes, at times Sagan is not always as critical as he could (should?) be. That is not what this work is about. It is an open-ended exploration of ideas - one idea being the idea of the critical mind. This exploarion is not only based on facts, but also possibilities. Sagan speaks of the importance of utilizing both the left and right hemispheres of the human brain equally, and the cross-disciplinary discussions in The Dragons of Eden serve as a good example of the benefits of balanced thinking.
As is the usual, Sagan's sense of humor is subtle and always right on time.
36 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2001
When I first read The Dragons of Eden in 1980 I thought it was a fascinating piece of scientific speculation. On re-reading it in 2000 I found it to be somewhat dated. For example, in the chapter on dreams, Sagan cites two examples of creative thought supposedly inspired by dreams -- the chemist Kekule's dream of a snake biting its tail (which revealed the cyclic structure of benzene) and Coleridge's dream of the exotic east which prompted his poem "Kubla Khan." Both of these "dreams" have since been discredited. Researchers have shown that Kekule's dream never happened. His first reference to the incident mentioned a "musing" which he fell into while contemplating the problem of benzene's structure. Only much later did this musing turn into a dream, when he was making an inspirational speech to a group of chemistry students. Coleridge's dream is also a little suspect. He first wrote of "a sort of reverie brought on by opium." Only twenty years after writing the poem did he speak of a dream.
Although Sagan can be excused for not knowing all the facts concerning Kekule/benzene there are other times when he seems curiously uncritical. He countenances the idea that some individuals can remember their own birth, citing his son's earliest memory, "It was red and I was cold" as reflecting his delivery by caesarean section. No doubt some people do claim to remember their births. But some people also claim to remember former lives and abductions by aliens. I would have expected Sagan to have challenged his son's statement. Had the memory been planted? Could the boy have overheard his parents talking about the event?
Despite its occasional lapses, I would still recommend The Dragons of Eden for what it is -- scientific speculation, generally interesting and often thought provoking.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2003
Why is it that sometimes when you are just starting to fall asleep you "jerk" awake as if you were just about to fall - but you are safe in bed? This and other mysteries of the self are ruminated on in Carl Sagan's fascinating book, The Dragons of Eden. Yes it is a book about the evolution of the human brain, and it is informative. But is also really fun to read. Although non-fiction, you find yourself unable to put it down as the mystery unravels. Part facts, part speculation, part revelation, all intriguing. Not too difficult to read - Perfectly suitable for a summer afternoon.