Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind

Book Review: The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind by John S. Allen

Price: US$32.04; NZ$79.97
Hardcover: 352 pages
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (October 30, 2009)

Dr Jaak Panksepp in Episode 65 of the Brain science Podcast commented “In order to understand the mind—especially the emotional mind, there’s no alternative but to take an evolutionary perspective. The only organ we have in the body that is clearly evolutionarily layered is the brain.” I guess we could also say that an evolutionary perspective makes it easier to understand the brain itself. And this is the perspective taken by John S. Allen in this book. As he says: “a thorough understanding of human brain biology requires an appreciation of it evolutionary history.”

However, Allen doesn’t present this evolutionary history as a simple account. Instead he explores evolution of the human brain using recent research in palaeoanthropology,  brain anatomy and neuroimaging, molecular genetics, life history theory, and other related fields. This provides a rewarding resource for the reader. Chapters include, Brain size, The plastic Brain, Molecular evolution of the Brain, Evolution of Feeding Behaviour, The Ageing Brain, Language and Brain evolution, and Optimism and evolution of the Brain.

The result is an extensive and balanced coverage. This provides a picture of the current status of understanding. There is no tidy story; rather he presents competing hypotheses with some evaluation of their standings. Original papers are referenced and there are 45 pages of references included.

This more direct linking to current research and some of the terminology used may provide difficulties for the lay person. However, most readers will find chapters which are closer to their interests. I found some chapters easier to follow than others – purely because of different levels of familiarity with the different fields.

For the student and the professional

The book begins with an outline – The Human Brain in Brief – which is ideal for the newcomer to this field. It’s basically anatomical but provides a foundation for later chapters covering the separate aspects.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone with only a passing interest in the subject. But even the layperson will find this useful if they wish to extend their knowledge in the overall subject or one of the specific fields covered.

I was intrigued to read how evidence for the evolutionary history of our brain is gained from diverse fields. Not just the fossil records, with all the problems it presents for soft tissues, but also molecular biology, feeding behaviour, aging and language. And the evidence is related. Allen says: “The expansion of neuroscience over the last twenty years really has seen the beginnings of the development of a truly holistic, synthetic approach to mental phenomena.” And this approach extends into related fields.

Summarising the subject, Allen says: “The cause for optimism in the study of the evolution of the human brain is not due to the fact that we have obtained a hardened, certain view of the past, but that there are so many fronts on which progress is being made.”

Sounds like an exciting time to be doing this sort of research.

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