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The Origins of Minds sort of has the intriguing, poetic sensuality of Diane Ackerman's writing, but Minds feels by far more scientific. The sophisticated academic/medical/scientific language was worth the slight challenge it presented; the clarity with which the book's concepts and premises are laid out is awe-inspiring. Everyday metaphors are employed to make the most complicated concepts accessible, yet the authors let you know when they are oversimplifying, and why. The book is written with respect for the reader who perhaps studied biology a long time ago, or wants to nurture a recently born interest the incredibly interwoven workings and capabilities of body and mind.
The book describes some of the less complex formations and abilities of "mind" as it operates in E. coli bacteria with memories just 4 seconds long, and in bees who know to return to successful nectar-gathering sites yet know to adapt to a better segment of flowers when the previously rich source tapers off. You learn about instinct, reflex, and neocortical activity-- a person's uniquely personal history that archives the environment, inner state(s)-- the idiosyncratic `adaptive representational network' which provides you at every moment with access to memories of past situations similar to the present one, and a menu of past and present choices accompanied by how each past choice has worked out and how each choice you might make now is most likely to affect your hierarchically organized motivations and desires.
Living things are programmed to repeat behavior that assists in their survival and reproduction. The Origin of Minds explores and challenges this premise again and again, and it's quite elucidating and satisfying. What are our instincts and what ultimate purpose do they serve? How are instincts different from reflexes and why should it matter? How (and even why) does our DNA pass along certain physiological adaptations down through the generations? How is the hierarchy and intensity of our various and often competing goals organized in our psyches? What motivation underlies the development of a unique, individual personality and how does this conflict with or relate to our need for social cooperation for survival? You'll find it here.
Also, the book describes the workings of dopamine, seratonin, noradrenaline, depression and even antidepressant medication with tremendous clarity and detail. Having often seen those subjects treated by authors in a cursory, oversimplified way (to the point of being unhelpful) for the non-medical professional, I deeply appreciate this book's responsibly fleshed-out information. Very accessible. An extremely enjoyable read.
The authors are exceptional at relative comparisons. In order to place humans in a frame of reference with other creatures, they describe the environmental sensitivity of a bacterium, E. coli. They explain that its information retention capacity lasts a duration of but four seconds. In that brief span it must decide whether to pursue possible "food" or rest and wait for a change in condition. They show that such decisions must be made by every living creature - how much energy to expend on survival strategies? This pattern, with added ramifications as you progress through more complex life forms, particularly ourselves, requires increasingly intricate reasoning powers. In humans, many of these powers have been shown to be dependent on various neurochemical processes. To the authors, this rules out any
genetic "absolutes" driving behaviour at the molecular level. This "strawperson" has been built and scattered before. La Cerra and Bingham raise their stook, then destroy it gently - but a straw man remains a straw man.
A number of scholars and their findings in cognitive studies are addressed, but only someone with a rich knowledge of the field is likely to perceive this. Many ideas are presented, but you remain unclear of their origins. Antonio Damasio and Steven Pinker are listed in the Bibliography, but the text makes no references to their views. Careful reading suggests neither scholars had much impact on the development of the authors' ideas. Daniel C. Dennett is given thanks "after publication" [??]. One yearns to read that "correspondence." To a degree this book insults the reader they wish to reach - those wanting to understand human reasoning and behaviour. It is difficult to accept that an inquiring reader is going to be diverted by a few pointers to further information. The reader is left with the impression that the authors have a new, innovative concept of thinking and behaviour. Sadly, that's false.
The rich use of metaphor guides the reader over what might be otherwise difficult concepts. The issues in cognitive studies are not simple, however, and require more explanation than the authors' seem able to give. The metaphors, instead of aiding in the explanation, become roadblocks to legitimate understanding. The authors leave the impression that all the issues in cognitive science have now been resolved by their book. Confidence in your own work is admirable, but should rest on a firmer foundation than La Cerra and Bingham provide. If the topic is new to you, this book may open a few doors. However, don't stop here, but move on to those who explain the background to the metaphors with sound research instead of simply breezy writing styles. Other scholars can write well. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]