In 1977 Carl Sagan published "The Dragons of Eden". On the 25th anniversary of its publication, neuroscientist John Skoyles has teamed up with Sagan's son Dorion to write what can be thought of as its sequel. Like its predecessor, this work is an extended speculation on the evolution of human intelligence that attempts to explain what makes the crucial difference between our brains and those thought to be of our animal ancestors. Skoyles and Sagan assemble an array of hitherto-unconnected facts to reveal how our social evolution has endowed us with a symbol-using capacity that can override the genetically determined, physical density of the brain. They also demonstrate how the discovery that the human brain is enormously flexible changes the entire story of the evolution of culture, of perception and of man himself.
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One of the most exciting discoveries to emerge from the recent explosion in brain research is the phenomenon of neural plasticity. With the discovery of neural plasticity, the traditional view of the brain as a hard-wired collection of modules, virtually fixed for life by early childhood, is being replaced by a revolutionary new image of an amazingly versatile biocomputer able to quickly adapt and reshape itself in response to its external environment and, more significantly, to its internal, symbolic environment.
Now, in a book that is sure to have a profound impact on the contemporary discourse on consciousness and its origins, John Skoyles, a neuroscientist working at the cutting edge of brain-mind research, and coauthor, award-winning science writer, Dorion Sagan, explain how the discovery of the brain's remarkable flexibility changes the entire story of the evolution of human intelligence, consciousness, and culture. In the process they deal a devastating blow to currently fashionable concepts of genetically programmed minds promulgated by evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker.
Bringing together a vast array of hitherto unconnected facts from the fields of neuroscience, computing and artificial intelligence, cognitive science, developmental psychology, anthropology, art history, and more, the authors reconstruct the 100,000-year evolutionary odyssey of the human mind. Beginning with our simian forebears, they trace the parallel developments of the neocortexthe brain's symbol-using "conductor"and increasingly complex primate societies held together by symbolic bonds. Step by step, Skoyles and Sagan reconstruct the slow evolution of increasingly sophisticated symbolic systems and show how the process eventually led to the development of a set of evolution-accelerating, symbol-using programs called mindwarethe evolutionary equivalent of a Windows or Macintosh operating system, and the basis for consciousness. Drawing on startling new insights into the brain's workings yielded by new brain-scanning technologies, the authors reveal how mindware functions to provide us with the sense of an "I" and the world in which it resides, and how the neocortex deploys mindware to supersede genetically programmed behaviors and impulses and to alter the very structure of the brain.
Taking its cue from Carl Sagan's 1977 classic, The Dragons of Eden, Up from Dragons is a breathtaking account of the "unnatural" history of consciousness and human intelligence.
"This endowment, this changeling nature, this plasticity, makes us unique among animals. Other species, for the most part, remain as they were when they evolved; we instead broke that older pattern of nature and went on to discover new forms of life, thought and enjoyment. No other animal species before us has traveled so much evolutionary territory in so little time. And yet, the ticket for this immense trip is not genetic; genetically when you look in the mirror what you see could be a hunter gatherer who was living at the beginning of our species. Another kind of ticket existed that was to purchase the journey on this great evolutionary odyssey. What was it? In our view, this question is one of the greatest scientific mysteries. It can perhaps be answered simply, even glibly, with notions such as "culture " or "ideas." But until now science has not been able to provide any sort of detailed answer. Here we shall explore what happened to that hunter gatherer in the mirror. How did that person get here? What had evolved earlier in their brain to help them? And how did they get here so damned fast."
John Robert Skoyles, PhD, holds degrees from The London School of Economics and University College London and is a former MRC (British Medical Research Council)-funded neuroscience researcher. Working independently, he has made contributions to neural-network models, right hemisphere literacy, the alphabet and the brain, motor perception, and mirror neurons. He has written for esteemed scientific publications such as Nature, New Scientist, Trends in NeuroScience, American Psychologist, Psycoloquy, Journal of Memetics, and the Popper Newsletter. The son of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis, science writer Dorion Sagan has worked with some of the finest scientists writing today. He is the winner of the Educational Press Association of America Excellence in Educational Journalism Award and has contributed to Wired, The New York Times, The Smithsonian, The Sciences, Omni, The Environmentalist, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. A theorist, consultant, and sleight-of-hand magician, he has contributed to popular science anthologies such as Evolution Extended (MIT Press) and The Biophilia Hypothesis (Stephen R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson, eds.) Hometown: UK (Skoyles), Amherst, MA (Sagan)
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