Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Unpredictable Species

The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique

Philip Lieberman
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Unpredictable Species
    Book Description:

    The Unpredictable Speciesargues that the human brain evolved in a way that enhances our cognitive flexibility and capacity for innovation and imitation. In doing so, the book challenges the central claim of evolutionary psychology that we are locked into predictable patterns of behavior that were fixed by genes, and refutes the claim that language is innate. Philip Lieberman builds his case with evidence from neuroscience, genetics, and physical anthropology, showing how our basal ganglia--structures deep within the brain whose origins predate the dinosaurs--came to play a key role in human creativity. He demonstrates how the transfer of information in these structures was enhanced by genetic mutation and evolution, giving rise to supercharged neural circuits linking activity in different parts of the brain. Human invention, expressed in different epochs and locales in the form of stone tools, digital computers, new art forms, complex civilizations--even the latest fashions--stems from these supercharged circuits.

    The Unpredictable Speciesboldly upends scientifically controversial yet popular beliefs about how our brains actually work. Along the way, this compelling book provides insights into a host of topics related to human cognition, including associative learning, epigenetics, the skills required to be a samurai, and the causes of cognitive confusion on Mount Everest and of Parkinson's disease.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4670-2
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Philip Lieberman
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Chapter One Brainworks
    (pp. 1-24)

    My job was to alert the driver to the wood-framed carts pulled by one or two bullocks, usually one. None of the carts had tail lights, or for that matter, any lights! It was raining—monsoon time. We had been driving for about ten hours to New Delhi from the foothills of the Indian Himalaya, where we had walked for a month from one monastery to another, photographing Tibetan wall paintings. The wipers were oscillating, but the windshield was greasy. On the short section of “high-speed highway,” dusk was falling and the carts were becoming invisible. Sandwiched between the Tata...

  6. Chapter Two Brain Design by Rube Goldberg
    (pp. 25-59)

    In my youth, the cartoonist Rube Goldberg “designed” machines in the spirit of the giant motorized tricycle glimpsed on the road to New Delhi—odd assemblages that achieved an action by a set of ill-sorted steps that no one possessed of design logic would elect to build (figure 2.1).

    The functional organization of the human brain doesn’t include a parrot, but it is just as improbable. Neural structures that date back to the age of dinosaurs have been adapted in a manner as weird as any of Rube Goldberg’s machines. As I pointed out in chapter 1, our brains don’t...

  7. Chapter Three Darwin Got It Right
    (pp. 60-81)

    Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was attacked by virtually all of his academic colleagues when he publishedOn the Origin of Speciesin 1859. Darwin’s theory still remains controversial. When surveyed, about 40 percent of Americans and 25 percent of Britons still say that they don’t “believe” in evolution. The word “believe” is significant because a statement affirming belief may be relevant if the question concerns the Virgin Birth or the Tibetan deity Mahakala, but accepting any scientific theory—gravity, evolution, global warming—rests on whether it correctly predicts observable events. But Darwin would have been amazed, perhaps dismayed, by...

  8. Chapter Four Chimpanzee Brain 2.0
    (pp. 82-120)

    My wife Marcia’s mother, Mina Mazo, landed on Ellis Island in 1913. Her ancestors had lived in Spain for centuries before they migrated to Russia, but her face seemed to have a bit of Mongol. The Golden Horde invaded in 1251 and controlled large parts of Russia for centuries. So whenever Marcia reads about some celebrity’s DNA showing that she or he had a surprising ancestor, she wonders whether she has a trace of Genghis Khan!

    It is now commonplace to read of DNA genotyping being used to establish paternity, to identify criminals, or to absolve people falsely accused of...

  9. Chapter Five Stones, Bones, and Brains
    (pp. 121-155)

    As the studies reviewed in chapter 4 showed, the FOXP2 gene probably reached its human form about 260,000 years ago. But other transcriptional factors, which were touched upon in the previous chapter, most likely were involved in shaping the neural bases of human creativity. Can we bring other information to bear on the question of when and where the neural capacity for human creativity evolved?

    Some of the evidence is in the ground beneath you if you happen to be in the right place. If you were to rummage through someone’s home, the books, pictures, kitchen utensils, and clothes would...

  10. Chapter Six The Gene Game
    (pp. 156-188)

    Did you know that you have an insatiable desire to hang a painting on your wall of a grassy field with a few trees, maybe a pool of water? It is supposed to depict the African savannah where humans might have first evolved. On a summer evening, after the NPR news, I first heard Steven Pinker claim that everyone preferred such pictures. Pinker said that surveys of people’s preferences for art throughout the world showed that this was the case, though he didn’t identify any of these surveys. However, the NPR interviewer was entranced by Pinker’s theory.

    Dennis Dutton makes...

  11. Chapter Seven What Makes Us Tick
    (pp. 189-208)

    The previous chapters took into account a wide range of phenomena and experiments that provide insights on the nature and evolution of the brain bases of human unpredictability—the creative capacity that shapes human culture.

    Experiments-in-nature, studies of aphasia, showed that Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are not the brain’s language organ. Studies that took into account Parkinson disease and other instances of trauma to subcortical and cortical structures pointed to circuits linking different regions of the cortex and basal ganglia regulating motor control, including speech, and various aspects of cognitive acts, including language. Neural circuits linking prefrontal cortex and the...

  12. References
    (pp. 209-230)
  13. Index
    (pp. 231-256)