The Brain

The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors, and Beliefs

Rob DeSalle
Ian Tattersall
Illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1njm5k
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  • Book Info
    The Brain
    Book Description:

    After several million years of jostling for ecological space, only one survivor from a host of hominid species remains standing: us. Human beings are extraordinary creatures, and it is the unprecedented human brain that makes them so. In this delightfully accessible book, the authors present the first full, step-by-step account of the evolution of the brain and nervous system.

    Tapping the very latest findings in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and molecular biology, Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall explain how the cognitive gulf that separates us from all other living creatures could have occurred. They discuss the development and uniqueness of human consciousness, how human and nonhuman brains work, the roles of different nerve cells, the importance of memory and language in brain functions, and much more. Our brains, they conclude, are the product of a lengthy and supremely untidy history-an evolutionary process of many zigs and zags-that has accidentally resulted in a splendidly eccentric and creative product.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18356-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Developmental & Cell Biology, Biological Sciences, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. 1 THE NATURE OF SCIENCE: Our Brains at Work
    (pp. 3-28)

    What does it mean to think about thinking? Only members of our species can ask this question. No other organism on this planet has the physical or neural makeup to come even close to posing it. And the answer involves a sometimes convoluted intellectual journey, albeit one with its destination steadily in the human brain. Understanding just how our unique modern human style of cognition was acquired necessitates looking at evidence of many kinds, much of it gathered from the study of a huge diversity of living organisms, but always in an evolutionary context. The evolutionary approach culminates in the...

  6. 2 THE NITTY-GRITTY OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
    (pp. 29-60)

    InThe Astonishing Hypothesis,Sir Francis Crick suggested: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Actually, one might reasonably find this hypothesis not so astonishing, given that our brains and nervous systems are unquestionably made up of cells, and atoms and ions are indeed the workhorses of the brain. Yet at the same time it certainly seems extraordinary that a mass of electrochemical signals inside the amazing organ residing...

  7. 3 HANGING OUR BRAINS ON THE TREE OF LIFE
    (pp. 61-100)

    To understand the long and winding route leading up to our modern brains, we need to understand how cells work in other organisms. This is no meager requirement, because the variety of organisms on this planet is daunting. But scientists have made a lot of progress toward classifying animals and, hence, toward making understanding the story possible. To get there, though, we need to examine the Tree of Life, because the general genetic conservatism of organisms means that a range of organisms alive today approximates many of the stages through which a succession of ancestors may have passed on the...

  8. 4 MAKING SENSE OF SENSES
    (pp. 101-140)

    From time immemorial people have wondered how other organisms perceive and interpret the world. And as is often the case, we find ourselves referring to Aristotle to get a glimpse of how the ancients viewed the living world around them. Aristotle wrote two treatises on organisms and their place in nature:On the Parts of AnimalsandThe History of Animals. In these astonishing works, Aristotle posed nearly every question in biology that natural historians would ponder over the next two thousand years. Among other issues, he was concerned about the senses, where these emanated from, and how they worked....

  9. 5 PROCESSING INFORMATION
    (pp. 141-172)

    How do our brains take the action potentials they receive from our senses and exchange this currency of the nervous system to respond to environmental stimuli? In chapter 4, we looked at how our senses work at the molecular level. But as the action potentials make their way to the brain, we need to start explaining how this massive amount of information is processed into the things we see, touch, smell, feel, and taste. When we see something, someone, or anything with our eyes, what is our brain actually doing? Is the image being projected onto the back of our...

  10. 6 EMOTIONS AND MEMORY
    (pp. 173-196)

    Emotions are an important innovation in the history of life on earth. The parts of the brain sometimes assigned to the limbic system are varied in their function, but in general they are involved in the processing and expression of emotions. These structures include the brain regions such as the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cingulate cortex, and the hypothalamus, which all form a kind of loop in the inner region of the brain. Because lizards and birds have limited versions of these regions, it is not surprising that major differences in behavior between them and mammals lies in the emotional...

  11. 7 BRAIN EVODEVO
    (pp. 197-216)

    Our brains and the brains of other organisms are continually changing, but how was the basic structure of the brain initially established? One way to approach this question is by examining the embryology of organisms, to understand the interplay of the genes and their environment in producing a fully developed brain.

    Remarkably, the embryos of all vertebrates show a high degree of resemblance. The nineteenth-century biologist Ernst Haeckel was the fi rst to notice this, and in 1874 he published a now-classic diagram of how similar vertebrate embryos are, from fish to salamanders to turtles to birds to mammals and...

  12. 8 WORDS AND MUSIC BY …
    (pp. 217-238)

    There are certain things the human brain does that are clearly unique. Among these are language and music. How do such important aspects of our so-called higher cognitive abilities work, and how did they evolve?

    Language is more than just communicating. If it were just that, then clearly a lot of species, if not every species on this planet, would have it. René Descartes actually recognized this conundrum when he suggested (rather judgmentally) that animals could not be conscious rational beings because they do not have language. But the fact is that numerous animals have the ability to communicate vocally...

  13. 9 DECISIONS, BEHAVIORS, AND BELIEFS
    (pp. 239-254)

    Insight into how the physical workings of the brain produce decisions, knowing how and why we have spirituality and depression, and explaining bizarre behaviors such as hallucinations are important aspects of understanding our brain’s evolution. One helpful avenue toward clarifying these matters is called neuroeconomics. This approach, looking at situations in which advantages and disadvantages are relatively easy to weigh, may well in the longer term provide us with a portal through which we may begin to understand the neural underpinnings of more personal decisions in which the parameters are much less clear-cut. Right now, though, we still have only...

  14. 10 THE HUMAN BRAIN AND COGNITIVE EVOLUTION
    (pp. 255-300)

    By now you should have a decent general picture of the brains of other organisms and of what brains in general do. In the previous chapters we have laid the groundwork necessary for a return to the task we laid out in Chapter 1: thinking about thinking. We are finally ready to tackle the question of how, in particular, the human brain evolved and how its special capacities were acquired. To approach this central undertaking it may help to summarize the intricacies of the human brain, so we begin with a brief recap of its structure.

    The human brain consists...

  15. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 301-308)

    The ultimate origins of our remarkable brains are remote indeed in time, and they recede in a near-infinite succession of levels of complexity. The physics that underwrites brain function at the most basic of those levels goes all the way back to the origin of our universe; the chemistry that characterizes brains as living tissues originated not so very long after earth itself; and the first intimations of something special about what were to become brain cells goes back at least to our common ancestor with sponges. Structures that members (like us) of a vertebrate species might intuitively recognize as...

  16. TIME LINE
    (pp. 309-310)
  17. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 311-326)
  18. LITERATURE CITED AND FURTHER READING
    (pp. 327-336)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 337-354)