Saturday, April 27, 2013

Philip Lieberman's "The Unpredictable Species"

Philip Lieberman is the George Hazard Crooker University Professor Emeritus at Brown University. His books include Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language and Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique, and reported the following:
People can do, think of, or create the oddest things.

In language stripped of jargon, The Unpredictable Species introduces the reader to current research on how brains work and the evolution of the attributes that set us apart from other living species – enhanced cognition and cognitive flexibility. Darwin got it right. Natural selection acted on existing neural structures, some of which date back to the time of the dinosaurs, to craft the human brain.

Complex aspects of human behavior such as walking, talking, or comprehending this text are not regulated by localized “organs.” For example, Broca’s area is not the seat of language. Nor does the functional architecture of biological brains resemble that of digital computers. It instead reflects the opportunistic, Rube Goldberg, “logic” of evolution. Neural circuits linking activity in the cortex with the basal ganglia, structures usually associated with motor control, were modified to confer the enhanced cognitive flexibility that sets us apart from other living species. Ongoing research points to transcriptional genes that affect how other genes ultimately form muscles, bones and brains, enhancing information transfer and plasticity in human basal ganglia circuits about 250,000 years ago. In effect, mutations on transcriptional genes, such as FOXP2, supercharged existing neural circuits, creating brains that can form and learn new concepts, conceive and carry out novel acts, create new forms of art, and unpredictably turn on a dime.

The pace of human invention, expressed in different epochs and places in new stone tools, digital computers, new art forms or music, complex civilizations, or this season’s style of jeans, stems from these supercharged neural circuits. Fashion, ever changing, is a mark of human creativity Contrary to the theories proposed by Steven Pinker and in other recent books, there are no specific genes that make us moral, monogamous, or determine our taste in art. Culture is a potent force in shaping human behavior. Language does not entail having specific knowledge preloaded into one’s brain, as Noam Chomsky proposes. These new findings also provide insights on wide-ranging topics including Aphasia, Parkinson disease, associative learning, transcriptional factors, epigenetics, cognitive confusion on Mount Everest, developing the skills of a Samurai, and why we are susceptible to choking on food.

As is the case for the books of Ford Madox Ford's close friend, Joseph Conrad, no single page of my book will reveal its full message.
Learn more about The Unpredictable Species at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue