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The Lives of the BrainReview - The Lives of the Brain
Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind
by John S. Allen
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Jan 5th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 1)

John S. Allen is Research Scientist, Dornsite Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Drawing on recent techniques of imaging as well as insights and discoveries from paleoanthropology, microbiology, brain anatomy, and molecular genetics Allen provides an "exploration of the evolution of the human brain" as a biological organ, that is, " a collection of genes, cells and tissues that grows, eats, and ages, subject to the direct effects of natural selection and the phylogenetic constraints of its ancestry." The publisher's product description:

          Though we have other distinguishing characteristics (walking on two legs, for instance, and relative hairlessness), the brain and the behavior it produces are what truly set us apart from the other apes and primates. And how this three-pound organ composed of water, fat, and protein turned a mammal species into the dominant animal on earth today is the story John S. Allen seeks to tell.

          Adopting what he calls a “bottom-up” approach to the evolution of human behavior, Allen considers the brain as a biological organ; a collection of genes, cells, and tissues that grows, eats, and ages, and is subject to the direct effects of natural selection and the phylogenetic constraints of its ancestry. An exploration of the evolution of this critical organ based on recent work in paleo­anthropology, brain anatomy and neuroimaging, molecular genetics, life history theory, and related fields, his book shows us the brain as a product of the contexts in which it evolved: phylogenetic, somatic, genetic, ecological, demographic, and ultimately, cultural-linguistic. Throughout, Allen focuses on the foundations of brain evolution rather than the evolution of behavior or cognition. This perspective demonstrates how, just as some aspects of our behavior emerge in unexpected ways from the development of certain cognitive capacities, a more nuanced understanding of behavioral evolution might develop from a clearer picture of brain evolution.

Allen's book is comprised of ten chapters that collectively fulfill the promise of the introductory chapter to provide the reader with an in-depth exploration of the current knowledge of brain science.

        * The human brain in brief

        * Brain size

        * The functional evolution of the brain

        * The plastic brain

        * The molecular evolution of the brain

        * The evolution of feeding behavior

        * The aging brain

        * Language and brain evolution

        * Optimism and the evolution of the brain.

I should say from the start that as a non-scientist my interest in reading the book was curiosity about the state of the current thinking and research in the organ that strikes me as the indentifying feature of our species. As a philosophy student long ago one of my professors insisted that anyone who wanted to philosophize about mind should first spend a year studying the brain in a hands-on laboratory setting. If doing so is not possible then reading Allen's book is a good substitute. The complexity of the brain as a physical object cannot help but change the manner in which the philosopher considers the problems of consciousness, intention, and the relationship between the material and the immaterial.

We humans are the only species who are equipped to try to figure out why we are equipped to try to figure out why we are the way we are. We use our brains to study everything - including our brains. Such study is difficult since we are limited to indirect analysis (we cannot, e.g., cut open our head and observe our own brain directly to see which synapses fire when we have, say, a memory of mother) which includes images from fMRI, observations from non-human experimental animals, fossil analysis, as well as research gathered from injured or ill human subjects.

Armed with Darwin's theory of natural selection scientists have made enormous strides in brain science. The revolution in molecular biology has promised to unravel many of the puzzles in life science and in clinical practice, but we are at the early stages in this revolution. "There can be no doubt," Allen writes, "that genetic and molecular analyses have the power to provide us with the richest source of direct information we have about the order of events in human brain evolution." (176)

Allen provides a survey and analysis of a wide range of fascinating topics that shed light on brain evolution. He discusses the contributions of the French anatomist Paul Broca in a chapter on the plastic brain devoted to environmental determinism or the nature versus nurture debate.  Research findings from studies of IQ, music, ear wax, language development, and the occipital lobe debate are all presented to support the overall narrative of the evolution of the human brain over time. The ten chapters of the book do an admirable job of presenting the results of multi-disciplinary research into the puzzles of the organ that defines us as human. The research is current, the references rich, the many figures and diagrams instructive. And the book is readable; even for the non-scientist. In the final chapter "Optimism and the Evolution of the Brain" Allen writes:

First, it is a measure of the growing richness of the neuroscience literature that we can consider a mental state such as "optimism," relate it to a formal psychological analysis, and then place it in functional, evolutionary, and neurocognitive contexts. The expansion of neuroscience over the past twenty years really has seen the beginnings of the development of a truly holistic, synthetic approach to mental phenomena.

The Lives of the Brain provides the reader with a comprehensive picture of the state of the knowledge of brain evolution at the beginning of the twenty first century. Further information is available at the author's blog here.

© 2010 Bob Lane

 

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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