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Evolving Brains (Scientific American Library Paperback) Paperback – March 27, 2000

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What's the big deal about big brains? They're a costly enhancement, says neurobiologist John Allman in Evolving Brains. "Animals with big brains are rare," he stresses. "If brains enable animals to adapt to changing environments, why is it that so few animals have large brains? The reason is that big brains are very expensive." He examines the whys and wherefores of large-brain evolution, and draws out the connections between large brains and long lives; shows why major evolutionary advances are often made by small predators; makes you appreciate why mammals, burdened by the cost of warm-bloodedness, were unable to unseat the dinosaurs; and more. So, while large brains such as the ones we humans enjoy may give survival advantages to individuals, some species have done (and did) just fine for millions of years with pea brains.

Rather than talking only about cells, circuits, neurotransmitters, and genes, or gliding up to the ethereal regions of psychology and philosophy, Allman looks at the whole organism--the "middle-sized, middle-distanced objects," as Willard Van Orman Quine said. Evolving Brains is full of interesting scientific tidbits, only rarely becoming tangled in the thicket of jargon. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

"Brains exist because the distribution of resources necessary for survival and the hazards that threaten survival vary in space and time," Allman writes. Even single-celled organisms such as bacteria have brainlike functions that enable them to find food and avoid toxins. Starting with the brainlike activity of Escherichia coli, the populous bacterial tenants of our intestines, Allman (professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology) traces the development of brains from small to large, simple to complex. His account focuses on three themes: "that the essential role of brains is to serve as a buffer against environmental variation; that every evolutionary advance in the nervous system has a cost; and that the development of the brain to the level of complexity we enjoy--and that makes our lives so rich--depended on the establishment of the human family as a social and reproductive unit." From that level of complexity he asks an intriguing question: Why has the human brain become smaller in the past 35,000 years? His answer: "The domestication of plants and animals as sources of food and clothing served as major buffers against environmental variability. Perhaps humans, through the invention of agriculture and other cultural means for reducing the hazards of existence, have domesticated themselves." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Scientific American Library Paperback
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. H. Freeman; New edition edition (March 27, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 071676038X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0716760382
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #183,735 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on May 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a sweeping examination of evolution's path leading to that mass of gray matter behind your brows. Allman has synthesized a wealth of research in producing this study. He explains in a clear, interesting style how natural selection has spent the last 500 million years tinkering with life to build complex systems from simpler ones. He is a forceful writer, supplementing a fine text with superb illustrative material to build his narrative. It's a refreshing view of natural selection's power of innovation.
Allman draws on the detailed research undertaken in recent years that has mapped the brain and detailed its operations. Like all life, beginnings were simple, but small variations among organisms had the potential for important roles. Deep in the Precambrian, floating cells developed appendages leading to hair-like structures we call "cilia". The cilia adopted dual roles: sensing the environment and responding to it. Allman explains how gene duplication led to opportunities for experiments. This process demonstrates how we can track many of steps leading to today's life forms. The original genes are usually still resident, with enhancements providing new functions added over the passing generations.
The author's explanation of the workings of chemistry in brain functions is worth close attention. Behaviour is the result of brain activity, but the interactions of various parts and functions of the brain elude simple analysis. One example is the brain chemical [neurotransmitter] serotonin which is found throughout the brain. It's impact gives monkeys their social structure while adding to the risk of suicide in humans. Neurochemistry alone doesn't explain the expansion of the human brain, nor does the author stop there.
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Format: Paperback
How has the emergence of the super-sized human brain depended on the evolution of a good set of teeth? Why are the stomach and brain closely linked across the brambles of genetic code? This book answers not only those intriguing questions but also many others concerning the emergence of the brain on this planet. Especially fascinating to me was the explanation of the homeobox phenomenon, a process by which very complex mutations can arise in an organism without the mutation risking certain disaster. Being a non-biologist, I found this homeobox material quite fascinating, for it opened my eyes to how evolution could generate incredibly complex features without requiring a hundred trillion years for all the right components to come together all at once. Equally interesting are the many vestiges of our evolutionary past that are still embedded in the way our brains process information. For example, the sectors into which our brains split each of our retinae today for the purpose of signal processing: these are left overs from the days when our ancestors were prey and not predators, back when our ancestors' eyes were mounted to the sides of their heads! In summary, I would like to say that in reading this book, while just sitting in my chair, I felt myself moving up another notch on the evolutionary tree. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the miracle that is the development of brains and conscious life on this planet. A very pleasant read.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book to savor, to read again and again. After reading it, I found myself looking at the world and our place in it in a new, expanded way. A lot of scientific advances have been made in the past decade or so, and this book brings the reader up-to-date and ties together the advances made in various fields in an interesting, understandable manner. This book was written by a Professor of Biology at Caltech, who obtained his doctorate in anthropology. It has some chapters that take concentration to read, and others that one can breeze through. The pictures and graphics are great (this book will look good on your coffee table). No prior background in biology or anthropology is assumed. Probably what was most useful to me was that I learned a lot about evolution that I hadn't known before. Before reading this book, I thought that I had a basic understanding of evolution, but now I realize that the part I more or less understood was simply that of natural selection (Darwin). By walking the reader through the recent advances in genetics, this book explains in a clear and understandable way HOW NEW SPECIES ARE CREATED. (In my informal polling of knowledgeable friends and relatives, I found no one else who understood how new species are created... of course, with my new knowledge, I explained it to them!) Speaking of which, this book has resulted in some lively and engaging conversations: I now have a seemingly endless source of fascinating insights about humans, about animals, about the brain that I can talk to others about. Take dogs, for example. I have never been much of a dog-lover, but now I more fully appreciate how dogs (having evolved from wolves with the help of humans) and humans have worked together to ensure each other's survival...Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this review of the current state of knowledge of the human brain, both its various functions and their evolution. Best of all, I shared some of the ideas in it with my 12 year old son. He went away and a day or so later came back to ask me the kind of question that the young inquiring mind frames so well: (referring to the appositional placement of reptilian eyes), "Dad, how can a reptile see two different scenes at the same time?". I had no good answer to this question which was prompted by the discussion of vision in Evolving Brains....so I called Prof. Allman's office. He kindly called me back within the hour to help me with this seemingly simple question. Turns out the answer is not simple. Just let me say that this book evinces the wonderful personality of the author throughout. Highly recommended for those interested in the latest knowledge on the functions of the human brain and how these functions evolved. Geoff Noyes knoyes@snapsystems.com
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