Customer Review

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read, now available in paperback, January 22, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
This is a book about the evolution of intelligence. It raises an interesting question right away: Why, after humans suddenly sprouted big brains about 2 million years ago, did they do nothing in particular WITH these wonderfully big new brains until just 100,000 years ago? And then suddenly at some moment, 100,000 years ago, yesterday morning in effect, exploded into action. In other words there was vast lag between the appearance of a mature brain anatomy and any sort of vigorous, laudable mental activity. The observation makes it necessary for science to account for 1.9 million years of mental leisure, of cavemen and women just hanging out. It also calls into question the easy and commonplace assumption that we evolved a big brain in response to some extraordinary evolutionary challenge - a challenge that required us to think faster and more clearly than our near cousins, the chimps.
Books about brains are a genre, and they are as formulaic as detective novels. They always begin by setting up, in the sense of setting up bowling pins, the currently fashionable system of ideas about how the brain might work. Then comes the bowling ball - the blockbuster idea that is supposed to knock aside and supplant all of these fashionable but sadly flawed ideas. The opening critique of the fashionable ideas is usually the best chapter of a brain book, the sweet spot, perhaps because it is the most intellectually honest (ideas about the workings of the brain never add up to much) and because the hostile critique, just by the way, brings you up to date on what people have been thinking on this subject lately.
This is well written and intelligent book. There is too much coy academic nudging and winking and nodding, but when you get past it, it tells its story well. The writing is especially clear and compelling on the subject of mental development in children.
For a very different point of view read The Monkey Puzzle (Gribbin), which suggested that the big brain evolved long, long ago, probably long before we were primates - and secretly rode the genome down through the eons until it was simply re-expressed in humans, as a full blown brain, for whatever accidental biochemical reason, 2 million years ago. Per this line of reasoning Chimps have the same blueprint for a big brain written into their DNA. They just don't express it. In other words the code for a big brain does not print out as an anatomical structure in chimps, but it is in their genes. As are other ancient but silent structures, like gills and flippers.
If there is anything to this idea, then the brain has had a pre-pre-history, during which it evolved as a thinking machine, possibly underwater. And the hunter-gatherer human phase of its evolution is a trivial overlay, a scrim on the surface of this much longer evolutionary period, lost in the remote past. Texts on neurophysiology often include a famous and (once you have seen them, indelible) pair of photos of excised human and dolphin brains side by side. The structures are essentially identical. The dolphin brain is supposed to have emerged 22 million years ago, our very near replica of it, 20 million years later. This is not to say we are descended of a dolphin. Maybe we are both descended of who knows whom. Some v. sharp witted reptile.
There is a rival brain book in the current season called "How the Mind Works." The Prehistory of the Mind covers the same ground and does a better job of it. It is nice to see it out in paperback
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