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HOW BRAINS THINK Evolving Intelligence,Then and Now

by William H. Calvin

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About Book

William Calvin, a neurophysiologist and author of The River That Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain, attempts to reclaim the study of human consciousness from physicists like Roger Penrose. Physicists, Calvin suggests, reduce the mind to subatomic particles and mathematical equations, whereas those in his specialty see the seat of consciousness and intelligence in higher levels of brain physiology--the neurons, synapses, and cortex. Calvin is a Darwinist who regards the unique level of human consciousness as the product of evolutionary forces that began with the ice ages two million years ago. The human response to this natural threat, he argues, was to develop mental faculties that allowed high-level communication and, thus, cooperation, leading to complex language capabilities and the distinguishing human characteristic of abstract thought.

Sunday Times [London], 1997
"Calvin is fizzing with ideas and this is a provacative, stimulating book."

The New York Times Book Review, Marcia Bartusiak
... an exhilarating intellectual journey ... [Calvin is] a member of that rare breed of scientists who can translate the arcana of their fields into lay language ... lyrical and imaginative in his presentation.

The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1996
"[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

From Booklist
Another solid contribution to the Science Masters series encapsulates for nonspecialists current knowledge about the human brain. Author of a half dozen books on the subject, Calvin distills his expertise with trusty Darwinian principles as his guide. Before making his argument that competitive processes in the cerebral cortex account for the content of people's thoughts, he builds a foundation by describing what intelligence is, how it might have evolved amid the ice ages of the past few million years, and the physiology of the brain's neurons and chemicals. Calvin narrows the scope of his subject by confining intelligence to the finding of novel solutions to problems, a stern test that excludes all animals but humans and, rudimentarily, primates. In the how of intelligence Calvin hits his stride, bringing readers along easily as he explains the anatomy of nerve cells, their bundling in groups, and firing of electric pulses. Still partially a mystery, intelligence's nature (and manifestation in language) gets a consummately clear summary in Calvin's hands. Gilbert Taylor

From Kirkus Reviews
Neurophysiologist Calvin (The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climate and the Evolution of Intelligence, 1990, etc.) continues to explore the human mind in a lively, erudite fashion, this time drawing on evolutionary biology, ethology, linguistics, and neuroscience. He begins by distinguishing consciousness, or awareness, from intelligence (``the high-end scenery of neurophysiology'' encompassing foresight, speed, and creativity) and then considers the likely evolution of human intelligence. He argues that syntax, the structuring of relative relationships in a mental model of things, is what human levels of intelligence are mostly about, and to understand why humans are so intelligent, we need to understand how our primate ancestors evolved syntax from the more limited communicative abilities of apes. Calvin argues that not only did a Darwinian process shape a better brain over two million years, but that the same process operating within the brain might explain how the brain gives shape to thoughts and makes decisions. An image emerges of cerebral codes that copy themselves, compete with other cerebral codes, and develop new variations. Calvin tries to help the nonscientist along with clever illustrations and analogies, such as his Rube Goldbergstyle mechanical ``Vacuum-Lifter Package-Carrying System'' to explain how sentences are understood, but close attention is required at all times. In his concluding chapter he considers some of the implications of artificial intelligence, i.e., a computer that simulates brain processes and is capable of abstraction, imagery, talking, planning, and decision making. What values would we want these silicon beings to have, and how would humans fare in competition with them? Challenging and rewarding. As always, Calvin's thinking about thinking gives plenty of food for thought. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Financial Times [London], 1997
"This book sets out what we know about our brains with remarkable skill."

New Scientist, 8 March 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

About the Author
William H. Calvin is a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He is the author of many books about brains and evolution and, with the neurosurgeon George A. Ojemann, "Conversations with Neils Brain." Calvin's most recent book is "Lingua ex Machina" with the linguist Derek Bickerton. Calvin's research on neocortical circuits, "The Cerebral Code," published in 1996 by MIT Press, is part of a long-term interest in how Darwinian processes in the brain can operate in mere seconds to shape up novel plans, such as sentences to speak aloud. Calvin is also the author of The Atlantic Monthly's cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop," which will become a book about abrupt climate change and the role it played in human evolution.



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