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The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique Hardcover – April 21, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Puzzled by patterns of human culture, evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Dennis Dutton started looking at genes. But Lieberman rejects their logic of genetic determinism, arguing that far from binding us to DNA-driven behavioral scripts, our species’ improbable evolutionary history has given us a biologically unique creative freedom. Delving deep into evolutionary and neurological research, Lieberman adduces evidence that pivotal mutations transformed the human brain, endowing Homo sapiens with a capacity for unscripted innovation not found among the Neanderthals they displaced. Though readers see how this capacity revolutionized the making of stone tools and the hunting of large game, Lieberman focuses especially on the unique freedom evident in human language, rejecting as untenable Noam Chomsky’s theory of an innate universal grammar. Some readers may wonder why Lieberman justifies his rejection of genetic determinism with the empirical science of genetic mutations, entirely ignoring the metaphysical tradition of mind and spirit. But what reader can resist this compelling invitation to reflect on what it means to be human? --Bryce Christensen

Review

"His ability to marshal contemporary neuroscience to support his assertions is impressive, and his efforts to guide the field away from biological determinism (a 'stew of invented genes') are well-founded and important."--Publishers Weekly

"Those who enjoy reading about evolution, cognition, biology, and the brain will find this a compelling and enjoyable book. Recommended as a highly engaging and thought-provoking work of popular science."--Library Journal

"[W]hat reader can resist this compelling invitation to reflect on what it means to be human?"--Booklist

"Just got your head around evolutionary psychology's core idea, that our genetic code, designed in and for prehistory, dictates our behaviour? Well, Lieberman argues it's wrong, but not to worry, as you will adapt. . . . This expansive, erudite book argues our brains and the way they work are immensely complex. . . . [T]here is something appealing in his idea that no single theory explains us."--Stephen Matchett, Australian

"The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique is a delightful book. It is extremely well written, engaging, and a pleasure to read, as one might expect from a linguist. Author Philip Lieberman weaves throughout the rather extraordinary experiences he and his wife have had in the Himalayas, adding even more interest. The book is written for that legendary individual, the educated layperson, and is at the right level--informative and not too technical."--Richard F. Thompson, PsycCRITIQUES

"This book is a worthwhile addition to any collection that provides information about humans as a species."--Choice

"Lieberman creates an imminently readable text that is perfect for both general audiences and more established circles. This book should be considered as an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to delve into mysteries of the evolution of our unique brain."--Kate MacCord, Quarterly Review of Biology

"Lieberman's The Unpredictable Species . . . takes a fresh, insightful, sometimes resolutely critical, and fascinating stance toward the theme of the human uniqueness. The book is also rich in anecdotal accounts and examples that render its messages accessible also to the non-specialist, even though the course of the argumentation is not always linear."--Ivan Colagè, ESSSAT News & Reviews
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 21, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691148589
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691148588
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,064,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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This book nicely summarizes evidence for the role of the basal ganglia in flexible cognitive processes including language. Unfortunately the author offers only simplistic and emotional criticisms of Chomskian linguistics and evolutionary psychology. He seems to think that evolutionary psychology is a minor and idiotic offshoot of Chomsky's approach to linguistics, perhaps because he mistakes Pinker's trade books for research by evolutionary psychologists. (Pinker was originally a Chomskian developmental psychologist.) He does the same thing with the now-discredited Marc Hauser. It's odd to see this vitriolic, narrow focus on a few faculty members from MIT and Harvard when most of evolutionary psychology research has been done elsewhere by excellent primary-source researchers. The unexplained vitriol, combined with poor organization, odd repetitions, and typos make the book frustrating to read. Nevertheless, the first half of the book, dealing with the author's thesis and the evidence for it, is interesting and worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Thomas H. Lynch on November 20, 2013
Format: Hardcover
The Unpredictable Species: what makes humans unique, 2013, by Philip Lieberman, George Hazard Cooks University Professor Emeritus at Brown University. His outlook is that: "... the human brain evolved so as to allow us to choose between alternative courses of action and to create new possibilities –…" (p. ix). He has concluded scientific findings show our brains are not composed of independent modules or subsystems that control specific functions like a language module or vision module. Rather, we develop complicated circuits that can be brain-body wide that activate local areas of movement or perception. In this regard the basal ganglia of the brain is a very important element of such circuits even though the cortex may store instructions involved. And we have a high degree of cognitive flexibility and creativity in responding and adapting to our environment, both physical and social.

As to our being the unpredictable species, he says "... we possess the ability to change the manner in which we act towards each other and how we view the world around us." We are not ruled by a genes for this and other genes for that, but rather possess genes that develop the capacity for rich cognitive flexibility and learning cultural ways. We pass on these ways to our offsprings, giving them a leg up in creativity and expand possible alternatives in relating to each other and the environment. This indeed makes us unpredictable. He also acknowledges we are just set the starting point of understanding how our brains work and how they evolved.

Much of the book is polemical, as suits an emeritus professor. He slams many attempts that we can be explained in terms of innate knowledge and genetic determination.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 12, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It seems to me that the main thesis of this book is that the capabilities of humans cannot be predicted from their brains or their genes alone. Lieberman starts off describing how the basal ganglia helps us select among collections of actions, and as such is responsible for language as well. Indeed, language is not merely localised to Broca's and Wernicke's areas, as any good neurologist should know, but involves deeper structures like the basal ganglia. This then leads to the next point that there is no innate language instinct or Chomskian Universal Grammar. Good evidence and arguments are marshalled to that end.

However, what was dubious was the argument against Dawkins' Selfish Gene, which seemed to be based on a misreading. Lieberman gave the example of white fathers who sold children they had with their slaves into slavery. This was meant to show that culture overrides the selfishness of the gene's desire to replicate. But of course it does, this is the point where cultural evolution overtakes biological evolution. Obviously, genes of parents who do things like that are less likely to be passed on more than one generation. Yet if it does, then there is always a chance that the genes will continue to be passed on. Of course, since Lieberman further points out that our morality is not genetically determined, then there is no immorality in those genes to be passed on anyway. All the Selfish Gene means is that genes which favour their replication will tend to survive, which is an uncontroversial logical necessity.

Nonetheless, The Unpredictable Species was a decent read overall, with some interesting facts within, and will serve as a good introduction to the basal ganglia and language production for the uninitiated.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By James T. Ranney on February 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover
An astonishingly detailed history of the evolution of the human capacity for speech. Also the best book I've read in general re "brain science." Among the features: a devastating critique of Chomskian theories of origins of language, based on recent brain studies and evolutionary neurobiology; amazing information re evolutionary development of human ears, lungs, and speech. One page alone (p. 81) deals with the complex of mere physical actions required for what we all take for granted: talking. Also amazing story of a certain transcriptional gene (a gene regulating gene expression) that exists only in humans (starting about 260,000 years ago) and which differentiates us from chimpanzees, and is a key to human cognition and language. A book full of wonders!
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