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How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then And Now (Science Masters Series) Paperback – September 6, 1997
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"Calvin is fizzing with ideas and this is a provacative, stimulating book." -- Sunday Times [London], 1997
"Nothing in showbiz right now is as thrilling as the debate surrounding consciousness. Darwinism decentred the body. The new debate is scarier: it decentres the mind. This goes down badly at dinner parties. Quote, say, Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" over dinner, within seconds your guests will have worked themselves up into an orgy about light bulbs having souls or Psion organisers writing Shakespeare.
Do not despair: William Calvin's "How Brains Think" will quickly ease your blood pressure.... This is a valuable introduction to the consciousness debate--a clever, exuberant work. It assumes no knowledge and pulls no punches. Nail it to the foreheads of dissenting dinner guests." -- Simon Ings -- New Scientist, 8 March 1997
"This book sets out what we know about our brains with remarkable skill." -- Financial Times [London], 1997
"[HOW BRAINS THINK], part of the Science Masters series, offers an exquisite distillation of his key ideas. He's a member of that rare breed of scientists who can translate the arcana of their fields into lay language, and he's one of the best. There are other, competing theories for explaining consciousness. But Mr. Calvin, so lyrical and imaginative in his presentation, draws you into his world of neural Darwinism and inspires you to read more." --Marcia Bartusiak -- The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1996
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are able to THINK by virtue of being "Darwin
machines," machines that emulate biological
evolution but on a much reduced time scale.
Calvin's Darwin machines possess six essential
1. Patterns are recognized and manipulated.
2. The patterns are copied and
4. Patterns are evaluated during their use
and compete for limited storage space.
5. The values assigned to the respective patterns
measure their success when used to control actions
of some agent in an environment.
6. The best patterns are retained for future
reuse while poorer ones are discarded.
Calvin attempts to show how these 6 processes
might be obtained with realistic biological
neural networks. I found these latter arguments
to be incomplete and unconvincing. To be fair
Calvin refers the reader to another of his books
THE CEREBRAL CODE for a more detailed discussion.
I need to read that book but have yet to do so.
I do believe, however, that modern artificial
intelligence software does qualify as a Darwin
machine according to Calvin's criteria (see,
for example my Asa H, Transactions of the Kansas
Academy of Science, vol. 109, No. 3/4. pg 159,
2006, R. Jones)
Piaget's comment reflects the growing knowledge of brain processes. Much of the brain's time is spent collecting, storing, retrieving and applying information. This means that both "unconscious" events and our expressions and actions only come about after numerous and complicated signal processing has already occurred. Calvin describes in both text and graphics how neurons are constructed, convey data, and interact within the brain. Clearly, nothing is instantaneous and many elements are competing for dominance during every moment awake. Clear, too, is the notion that while other primates have many talents to deal with their surroundings, none possess the powers evolution gave humans.
What drives these powerful mental abilities? He rebuffs the idea of the "quantum brain". It's too deep in the brain's structure - "in the subbasement of physics". That's too far removed from areas of vision, speech, and memory. There are certainly quantum events going on with all that chemical and electrical activity inside your skull, but Calvin sees these forces as far to deep to have direct impact on mental processes. Calvin is more concerned with the human level of analysis. One proposal he adopts wholeheartedly, but without attribution, is Daniel Dennett's concept of the "multiple drafts model" of thinking and expression. Calvin, to his credit, outstrips even Dennett's abilities of description in depicting this process. He shows, for example, how the brain's memory storage facility considers many images before it resolves that the round thing flying past is a tennis ball. It's an exquisite example, and you perceive clearly how many other daily occurrences are resolved in a similar manner.
The accumulation of evidence about our evolutionary roots, the environmental changes forced on us and the rise of language and use of syntax are all contained within a device Calvin labels the "Darwin Machine." The Machine has six "essentials" which cover topics like replication, mutation and success in adaptation. He demonstrates how the "essentials" provide a mechanism for complexity from simplicity. Where some creatures modified things like limbs, teeth or hair, it was our brain that evolved from simple to complex.
While evolution of the human brain isn't a new topic, Calvin presents a better summary of its roots and operations than most cognitive scientists. This is a fine book to start any study of the brain, but must be enhanced by other, more complete, works. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
The chapter about climate and global warming surprised me, and it increased my enjoyment of the book because Calvin treats the subject fairly without the hysteria and hype. I want the bottomline, not the hype of rentseekers looking to milk the government with junk science. If the Greenland icepack melts, the Gulfstream stops warming Europe, and hell is unleashed. But it happens anyway because of astronomical interactions no one can control. It's simply a question of which event occurs first.
So! What's this book about? What's the message?
Intelligence is evolution's response to chaos and tumult. When life is good for too long evolution whittles your brain to a size that meets your needs. Whales and cattle and horses arent great thinkers. They have plenty of food and stable habitats, and dont require smart brains.
People are smarter than dogs but function at the level of the average pup. A dozen tricks and 50 words generally do our necessary work, and most of our tricks are hardwired at the factory, like dogs. The average person needs intelligence to remember to shower or save some money for the rent. Dogs dont fret about baths or where theyre gonna sleep, and few humans do any serious thinking.
Our American lives are very stable. Mother Nature doesnt like stability. Consequently stability sets you up for extinction.