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by Gerhard Roth and Mario F. Wullimann (editors)
John Wiley, 2000
Review by Isabel Gois on Nov 25th 2001

Brain Evolution and Cognition

Perhaps the first thing that should be said about this book is that it does not make for light reading. All nineteen essays composing Brain Evolution and Cognition address cutting-edge issues in the evolution of brains and cognitive functions, and as one might easily expect the discussion is pitched at a high level. This is not to say that the book won't be accessible to non-specialists. For the most part, authors have been careful to explain less common technical jargon and all essays stand out for the clarity of argument. Still, the curious reader should be warned that the 'obvious' target-audience of this book falls more naturally among post-graduates and researchers in subjects like Evolutionary Biology, Neuroanatomy, Neurology, Zoology, and Cognitive Sciences. Lay readers should thus come to it with their science-encyclopedias refreshed in their minds (or close at hand).

Warning made, Brain Evolution and Cognition is one of the best testimonies to the liveliness and richness of the debate on brain evolution and cognition as it stands today. Some of the essays provide up-to-date reviews of what is currently known - and debated - on developmental and adult brain evolution (e.g., Demski and Beaver’s), others present case studies of vertebrate brain evolution (Macphail’s chapter is highly recommended), while the opening essays go through the hot topic of how-much-is-in-the-genes in connection to brain design. Considerable attention is given to comparisons between the avian and the mammalian brains, more specifically to whether there are comparable structures and functions, and what their common origin might be (see, for example, Delius and al.) Mention should also be made to the two essays specifically dedicated to the cognition in insects, both for the illuminating insights they bring into the discussion on the evolution of brains and the beautifully presented studies of insect cognitive architecture. For those more interested on the evolutionary details of particular cognitive systems, there are chapters dealing with motor systems (Donkelaar) and sensory systems in vertebrates. The last chapter by one of the editors - Gerhard Roth - on the evolution of consciousness provides a fine ending to this collection. It both reminds us of how the study of brain evolution has so often been tempted by convictions about the superiority of the human brain, and brings out the many difficulties (theoretical and practical) that attend research on this topic. In particular, Roth’s chapter should be recommended for it’s balanced analysis of the empirical data on what-may-count-as-awareness in animals, and his acute sense of where the arguments may run. In a subject (consciousness) where people so often speculate from thought-experiments and intuition, it’s particularly gratifying to read such rigorously grounded thinking.

All in all, this book offers a state-of-the-art view of a subject-field that is beginning to break through the many myths that still infect contemporary thinking about brain evolution and cognition. As most authors point out, the idea of a scala naturale (i.e., that nature aimed at perfection by successively adding to the brains of the lower up to the higher vertebrates) has been amply disproved by evidence of widespread commonalties in general brain organization and behavior of vertebrates. Likewise, the all too popular belief that human abilities and capacities are unique or far superior to those of other animals has received a heavy blow by the discovery that the human brain is a fairly ‘typical’ primate brain. As a last example, studies on insect cognition give clear indication that (sometimes) ‘smaller is better’. What will replace such myths is yet too early to tell. What this book leaves us with is the impression that a lot is being learned about brain evolution and cognition, and all we know for sure at this stage is that the results are surprising. As the debate goes on about what to make of these discoveries, this book is certainly a welcome contribution and a valuable read to all of those puzzled by that most amazing of organs - the brain. Difficult, but worth the effort.

© 2001 Isabel Gois

Isabel Gois is a PhD student at King’s College London working on Consciousness. Her research interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology and Mental Disorder. She has articles published on emotions, computationalism, and consciousness.