"What is it like, to be a chimpanzee?" asks Calvin, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington, in the first chapter of this fascinating history of the mind. While humans and other primates share many cognitive abilities, an accumulation of qualitative differences in perception, learning and time sense add up to an unbridgeable gap, he says. Tracing human evolution from the first upright hominid through tool making and on to structured thought and hypotheses about the future, Calvin (How Brains Think; A Brain for All Seasons) offers readers a concise, absorbing path to follow. Trying to imagine the thoughts and lives of early humans is not much different than trying to know what it's like to be a chimpanzee, as it turns out. Eventually, Calvin reveals how our evolving brains might have developed such bizarre abstractions as nested information, metaphors and ethics, thus paving the way for consciousness as we know it. He postulates the "mind's Big Bang" as tied to the development of language, offering as support the nativist mind theories of Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky. Presented with a pleasing blend of philosophy, neuroscience and anthropology, Calvin's ideas are accessible for anyone interested in a scientific look at how our brains make us different from chimpanzees. He adds a cautionary note, too: as human brains get smarter-and as our guts stay primitive and our technology skyrockets-we must get better about "our long-term responsibilities to keep things going."
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Calvin ponders how humans' higher-level mental abilities may have evolved, explicitly avoiding the thickets of what constitutes consciousness. Instead he investigates the increments of intellect that can be inferred from the fragments of discovered fossils and artifacts. His observations about the separation from ape-level awareness that a hominid skull or an Acheulean hand axe represent don't stand alone; Calvin buttresses his observations with the evolutionary advantage that the hominid possessed or that the tool conferred. When he chronologically approaches the Homo genus (having started the story seven million years in the past), Calvin orients his readers toward two behaviors, the throwing of objects and protolanguage. Although these behaviors were probably manifest in earlier species, Calvin wonders why they flowered into recognizably humanlike abilities only several tens of millennia ago, and then long after the appearance of anatomically modern humans. His equally curious readers will weigh his explanation, which integrates syntax and the precocity of children, as they appreciate the author's adeptness in covering so much material in so brief a space. Gilbert Taylor
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