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Essays of mixed quality, with a remarkably narrow focus
on July 14, 2009
The title of this book seriously overreaches. "Dispatches from the Future of neuroscience" would be more accurate, as 12 of the 18 essays deal with neuroscientific research. One article is about climate change, two are in the area of cosmology, two deal with evolutionary biology, and the final essay in the collection addresses the question "Why hasn't specialization resulted in the balkanization of science?"
In commenting on the neuroscience essays, I should acknowledge an upfront prejudice. I don't find it particularly surprising that more sophisticated imaging methods allow specific functions to be mapped precisely to particular regions of the brain, so I didn't find the three essays which do little more than report this kind of result particularly notable. Among the remaining essays, that by Deena Skolnick Weisberg, arguing that imagination is central to what makes us human, was little more than a statement of the obvious. Nick Bostrom's "How to Enhance Human Beings" was muddled, with no clear point, the essay by Sam Cooke on the process of memory formation was incoherent, made no mention of recent work related to the placement of "false memory", and had a Huxleyan focus on possible pharmaceutical enhancement that I found disturbing.
Essays by Joshua Greene on the organization of the brain along moral and cognitive dimensions and by David Eagleman on the way the brain perceives time were clear, but unexceptional.
The good news: Christian Keysers' lucid account of the link between mirror neurons and our ethical sensibility, Matthew Lieberman's thought-provoking discussion of the thesis that "big ideas are influential and enduring because they fit with the structure and function of the human brain" and - what was for me the best essay in the book - Lera Boroditsky's "How does our language shape the way we think", summarizing recent work related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
So I found about half the neuroscience essays worthwhile. Unfortunately, I found both cosmology essays completely incomprehensible (as I do most writing in this field). So that overall, I can't really justify more than three stars for this book.