Monday, July 21, 2008

Pg. 99: M. Gazzaniga's "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga.

About the book, from the publisher:
One of the world's leading neuroscientists explores how best to understand the human condition by examining the biological, psychological, and highly social nature of our species within the social context of our lives.

What happened along the evolutionary trail that made humans so unique? In his widely accessible style, Michael Gazzaniga looks to a broad range of studies to pinpoint the change that made us thinking, sentient humans, different from our predecessors.

Neuroscience has been fixated on the life of the psychological self for the past fifty years, focusing on the brain systems underlying language, memory, emotion, and perception. What it has not done is consider the stark reality that most of the time we humans are thinking about social processes, comparing ourselves to and estimating the intentions of others. In Human, Gazzaniga explores a number of related issues, including what makes human brains unique, the importance of language and art in defining the human condition, the nature of human consciousness, and even artificial intelligence.
Among the early praise for the book:
"As wide-ranging as it is deep, and as entertaining as it is informative, the latest offering from UC-Santa Barbara neuroscientist Gazzaniga (The Ethical Brain) will please a diverse array of readers. He is adept at aiding even the scientifically unsophisticated to grasp his arguments about what separates humans from other animals. His main premise is that human brains are not only proportionately larger than those of other primates but have a number of distinct structures, which he explores along with evolutionary explanations for their existence. For instance, a direct outgrowth of the size and structure of the human brain, along with their origins in the complexity of human social groups, was the development of language, self-awareness and ethics. (Gazzaniga offers some surprising comments on the evolution of religion and its relation to morals.) Throughout, Gazzaniga addresses the nature of consciousness, and by comparing the intellectual capabilities of a host of animals (chimps, dogs, birds and rats, among others) with those of human babies, children and adults, he shows what we all share as well as what humans alone possess."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"One grand search engine for all the qualities that make Homo sapiens different from other species. Cognitive neuroscientist Gazzaniga (Psychology/Univ. of California, Santa Barbara; The Ethical Brain, 2005, etc.) knows his stuff-and a lot of other people's stuff too. The elegant popularizer trots out study after study in brain science, emphasizing evolutionary and developmental psychology as well as his own research on split-brain patients and others with neurological lesions. No surprise, then, to find him weighing human traits for their adaptive value in terms of safety, survival and reproduction, especially qualities that promote socializing and cooperation. Indeed, he sometimes argues too much for an adaptive value for well nigh every human feature he discusses. Gazzaniga describes how lesions reveal the brain's organization into myriad modules specialized for, say, recognizing faces (located in the right hemisphere). He argues for a left hemisphere "interpreter" who's in charge-making sense of all the inputs, but ready to make up stories if need be. This seems to put him in the camp of dualism, which supposes there is something else behind the physical substance of brain tissue that accounts for the mind; though the idea's been around since Descartes, it remains debatable. The author celebrates the unique richness of the human neocortex, more complex than in any other animal. By inference, the cortex and its extensive connectivity account for art, music, analytical thinking (and thus science), self-awareness, imagination and our ability to pretend and to evoke the past and future. Gazzaniga also declares that humans are unique in their ability to project the mental states of others:to understand that behind their behavior are minds like ours that have desires and beliefs. To his credit, he discusses controversies and conflicting studies in all these areas, as well as in the origin of language, consciousness, morality and religion. Credit him too with a wonderful final section on current research on robotics and gene manipulation. A savvy, witty guide to neuroscience today."
--Kirkus Reviews
Read an excerpt from Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique, and learn more about the book and author at the publisher's website and Michael Gazzaniga's faculty webpage.

Michael S. Gazzaniga is the director of the University of California–Santa Barbara's SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, as well as its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience. He serves on the President's Council on Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. His publications include The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas.

The Page 99 Test: Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique.

--Marshal Zeringue