Until now, my coverage of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden has been on a chapter to chapter basis presented in the “Read Along” section of the blog. As mentioned in my last post, I will be scrapping this in favor of exclusive reviews on selective books I wish to discuss, henceforth. So, without further delay, let’s bring the curtains down on The Dragons of Eden.
The premise of the book is clearly stated in the subtitle: “Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.” Sagan wishes to explore the various facets of human intelligence by calling to motion a simple question: why are humans, humans? He attempts to investigate, in what has been a shared effort by the academic community, a conclusive answer to this question from a purely scientific viewpoint while entertaining “occasional excursions into myths, ancient and modern.” The title of the book supports Sagan’s approach in a compilation of ideas on the “unexpected aptness” of various different myths when compared to scientific theories.
Beginning with time immemorial at the Big Bang, we ride the waves of time flowing toward the current epoch of human civilization. Human evolution is often described in the form of a metaphor, an “abstraction of beasts,” as Sagan uses various comparative arguments to build the foundation of his work in the earlier chapters, particularly in Chapter 2 – Genes and Brains (which I provided a full summary of in the Read Along), before settling into the pivotal point of his work which focuses on the evolution of human intelligence in the subsequent chapters describing the characteristics of the human brain and its evolutionary growth.
Following the footsteps of his predecessor in Jacob Bronowski, whose work in The Ascent of Man is an account of how human beings and human brains evolved, Sagan has presented his own unique approach to the same subject in his book. While we don’t necessarily discover an absolute answer on the origin of human intelligence, Sagan’s book is nevertheless an exhilarating journey that offers his insight into the brains of man and beast, the plethora of recent discoveries in science supporting the theory of human evolution, and most interestingly how they serve to be the function of our most familiar myths, and legends.
Sagan’s work doesn’t end there. His arguments and words serve as microphone toward the need for intellectual rigor, and a rejection of the absent skepticism prevalent in modern-day society. Altogether, The Dragons of Eden is an excellent book that talks about all kinds of things, from the reasons for sleeping and dreaming to the definition of death in what is a fascinating and delightfully short compendium of knowledge that should be read by everyone alike. Sagan was an influential science communicator (one of my favorites), if not one of the best; his works are well worth the effort of reading for anyone interested with or without a scientific background.
I was hoping to have this post up last weekend but unfortunately, I couldn’t get down to it. As a good friend of mine would often say,
On the heels of a cumulative three-year journey of writing and publishing my second book A Little Bit Of Everything, as well as the completion of my Masters degree and transition to my doctoral studies, it was inevitable that at some point I was going to burn out. That is indeed what happened over the last two weeks where I got lost on the path of life, all the while feeling apathetic on just about everything.
Thankfully enough, a refreshing long-weekend trip to the nearby dino-town of Drumheller followed by a boat load of procrastination mixed in with a vicious cycle of apartment shopping, movies, anime, and Age of Empires have got me back on track. All of which leads me back to where I’m right now.
I’m up for a long haul of work over the next four to five years comprising my doctoral studies. Being one to never look too far ahead into the future, for now, I intend to begin my grand plans on expanding this blog. While I’m still juggling various ideas on how to organize the content that I post on this blog (for example, I intend to scrape the idea of “Read Along With Me” exclusively in favor of book reviews), as well as setting up an author page, I will begin with going back to my regular routines of posts as usual.
For this week, I would like to lay down the hatchet by completing what has been a long overdue review of Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden. This will be followed by a discussion of my experiences with Amazon Kindle, and self-publishing. For those among my readers who aspire to become independent writers in their own stead, I’m hoping to share the resources I have used to find a measure of success in independent publishing.
The posts will be out by this weekend. Meanwhile, I will be continuing to run promotions on A Little Bit Of Everything, while setting the stage for the next triad of writing projects I have planned to develop over the course of my PhD studies. For all my readers who have had a chance to read my book, I really hope you enjoyed it.
Life is all about transitions. One moment, we find ourselves latched on to something, and the next instant there is something new around the corner that catches our attention. I have had to deal with my fair share of minute, but influential transitions owing to my absence over the last few weeks; ranging from decisions I have had to make on my academic career in pursuit of a PhD (which has incidentally become a wild-goose chase for funding opportunities), to my exodus in obtaining a driver’s license, and all the way to alighting upon the final stages of content editing my second book (Agent X)!
All of which brings me here today, back to my pensive reverie, during a stormy overcast in Edmonton that beckons me to take up the “keyboard” again, and get back to the blog posts I have been planning for a while. So without further ado, this is what we have to look forward to in the coming days!
Beginning with another recap of my “Adventures in Drawing” I will come full-circle as I complete my Drawing 101 course, and present a few more tricks I have learned over the past month.
Following this, we will shift gears, and in lieu with the current political “climate” (particularly with reference to the recent proceedings at the Paris Accords), I will provide a report on climate change, approaching the topic from a scientific, political, and socio-economic perspective.
I will also add another chapter to my review of Carl Sagan’s “Dragons of Eden,” as we explore the mechanisms of the human brain including the R-complex, the Limbic System, and the Neocortex.
Lastly, following up on a request from a reader, I will provide a learner’s review of Bitcoins, a crypto-currency, and modern digital payment system!
So, all in all, look forward to a good number of updates on the blog, and some healthy reading over the coming days everyone!
Biological evolution accompanies a linear increase in complexity. Look around you, it doesn’t take much time for us to realize that our world is quite complicated. The Earth hosts a variety of taxa (species, subspecies, and races), with the major taxa, which have evolved most recently, being the most complex. Humans, or homo sapiens, are in this bracket.
It is easy for us to identify, on the basis of our physical and mental attributes, functions and behaviors, factors that may set us apart from others, and contribute to our unique identity. By doing so, we have merely partaken in a significant evolutionary behavior, namely the ability to identify differences among ourselves, as opposed to other species, including members of our own taxa. Most often, we relegate our comparisons to distinctions based on the quantity, and quality of characteristics.
In this chapter, Sagan uses this notion as a medium towards the deeper understanding of our evolutionary history as a species by addressing the history of life in the gradual dominance of brains over genes.
The Book of Life
While a primitive notion on the complexity of an organism can be obtained by considering its behavior, and functions, we can do the same by considering the minimum amount of information contained within said organism. In other words, how much genetic material does the organism hold?
The book of life is written in the language of four alphabets, consisting of complex molecular structures called the nucleotides. DNA(Figure 1), or Deoxyribonucleic acid, the primary hereditary molecule, consists of about five billion pairs of nucleotides. In the nucleus of each cell, the DNA molecule is packaged into thread-like structures called chromosomes.
All the organisms on Earth share this genetic language composed of four alphabets, leading to the theory that we are all descended from a single ancestor, or a single instance of life some billion years ago.
“If there are approximately six letters in an average word, the information content of a human chromosome corresponds to five hundred million words. If there are about three hundred words on an ordinary page of printed type, this corresponds to about two million pages. If a typical book contains five hundred such pages, the information content of a single chromosome corresponds to four thousand volumes.” – Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden
Brains vs. Genes
The gradual dominance of brains over genes, the premise of this chapter, is shown to follow a practical necessity in the evolution, and survival of various species. The main working materials of evolution are mutations (Figure 2), heritable changes in the nucleotide sequences of our DNA.
Most mutations/genetic changes are too slow for any practical benefit (occurring over millions of years). Most mutations are also harmful, and in some cases recessive. In the end, what really counts are mutations in the gametes, the eggs and sperm cells, the agents of sexual reproduction.
“Large organisms such as human beings average about one mutation per ten gametes-that is, there is a 10 percent chance that any given sperm or egg cell produced will have a new and inheritable change in the genetic instructions that determine the makeup of the next generation.” – Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden
With such a high mutation rate to already cope with, a greater complement of DNA could suggestively result in unacceptably high mutation rates. Too much would go wrong, for anything to stay right! As Sagan postulates, there must be a practical upper limit to the amount of genetic information that the DNA of larger organisms can accommodate, thus by the same instance, necessitating the existence of substantial resources of extragenetic information to allow for their survival, and growth. Such information is contained in all “higher” organisms, except humans (who have invented extrasomatic knowledge, or information stored outside our bodies, like writing), exclusively in the brain.
Peering Into The Brain
The remainder of the chapter an exclusive tour de force of the brain. The corresponding questions, and their central arguments can be summarized as follows,
What is the information content of the brain?
There are two extreme opinions on brain function:
(a) The brain or the cerebral cortex (its outer layers) are considered to be equipotent; there is no localization of function, such that any part of the brain can substitute for another.
(b) The brain is completely hard-wired, and specific cognitive functions are localized in specific parts of the brain.
The actual answer lies somewhere between the two as has been portrayed by various experiments over the years. Modern-day neuroscience continues to address this question.
Is there a correlation between brain mass, and intelligence?
There isn’t a one-to-one between brain mass or size and intelligence in human beings, but there remains a statistical correlation nonetheless (namely in that there are upper and lower limits which may correspond to normal adult human brain function). It has been found that the correlation between brain size, and intelligence is much better than the correlation between intelligence, and adult body weight. Sagan presents the criterion of brain mass to body mass, with no consideration of behavior to provide an acceptable first approximation for intelligence.
What is the structure of the brain, or how is it packed?
The human brain contains about ten billion switching elements called neurons. There is contention among neurobiologists that neurons are the active elements in the brain, as evidence has been provided that specific memories and other cognitive functions are contained in certain molecules in the brain, like RNA or small proteins. An average neuron in a human brain is said to have been 1000-10,000 synapses. If we were to consider each synapse as equivalent to a on-off state, then the number of different states of a human brain is far greater than the total number of elementary particles in the entire universe. We are all truly unique!
The brain is basically a system of microcircuits, and a very dense on at that with an information content of ten billion bits per cubic centimeter. As Sagan points out, a modern computer able to process the information in the human brain would have to be about ten thousand times larger in volume than the human brain. Though the processing speed of a computer is far higher than the brain, the fact that our brain can do so many significant tasks so much better than the best computer is a testament to how tightly packed, and well-organized it is. We have yet to break this mystery, and come to a complete understanding of the brain, and its functions.
The End Game
Thus, having considered the quality and quantity of genetic material, and brain information in organisms, Sagan is able to compare the gradual increase through evolutionary time of both the genetic, and brain information of organisms, showing that somewhere around the Carboniferous period, a few hundred million years ago, there first emerged an organism with more information in its brain than in its genes. While Sagan refers this organism to be an early reptile, conflicting theories exist today in contention of this statement, and our earliest ancestor.
In conclusion, the evolution of the brain is a symbolic event in the history of life. The consequent bursts of brain evolution would result in the emergence of mammals, and of manlike primates. Nevertheless, there still remains much to the story.
“Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.”- Plotinus
As we will see in the following chapters, humankind’s naivety rests in its pride as the summit of the biological cycle, but while our authority on this Earth may be justified by the repeated insistence of our higher intelligence, and brain function, we are yet to realize that we are not so completely removed from the “beasts” themselves.
“…with all these exalted powers- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Hello everyone, it’s been a while since my last post. Life has kept me busy but what better occasion to return to my pensive reverie than Resurrection Sunday.
The past two weeks leading up to this day have involved a lot of work at my end as I have been gearing up for a productive summer of writing, publishing, and studying (Doctor of Philosophy in Robotics doesn’t sound bad). I’m now teeming with various concepts for discussion as blog posts in the near future. I can’t wait to get them all out soon enough, but for now, I will begin with a long overdue report on my read-along of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden. I finished the book a while back, and have brainstormed the ideas I wish to present on the blog.
Apart from this, I’m embarking on a grand new stage of adventure in my life as I immerse myself in the world of manga. I hope to retire as a writer one day, and my enormous interest in anime has motivated me to explore, and exploit the manga medium for my stories. With that in mind, I have begun my study of the arts, namely DRAWING! After a preliminary investigation of my neighbourhood, and a long haul at Michaels Arts & Crafts with a surplus list of required arts supplies, I’m ready to put pen to the paper, and crank out some really amateurish illustrations (which I may post on this blog too, as a beacon of my progress).
For anyone out there in my shoes, a great start would be the book by Bert Dodson, Keys to Drawing.
That’s all I have for today, and so I shall now take my leave, but before I forget, on this day of joy, celebration, new life, and a heck of a load of chocolate eggs, I wish everyone an amazing, and wonderful Easter.
Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts. – Plotinus
Plotinus’ quote is symbolic of a fundamental biological principle illustrating that man is descended from some lowly organized form, and which serves as the backdrop to the discussions Carl Sagan (Figure 1) presents in The Dragons of Eden. In order to provide a description of nature, and human growth, Sagan begins by discussing this principle, one that distinctly identifies the field from other physical sciences, evolution by natural selection.
Let’s digest that last bit, piece by piece. The word evolution is commonly used to describe the gradual development of something, from a simple to a more complex form. In scientific terms, evolution is the change evidenced in hereditary characteristics that are carried over successive generations in biological populations. It is the fundamental process that has led to biodiversity within species, and individual organisms.
Natural selection was the brilliant discovery of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (Figures2-3), detailed in the publication of their joint works in 1858. It is the theory that describes evolution, and is the preferential survival and reproduction of organisms that are by accident better adapted to the environment.
Natural selection is due to differences in the phenotypes of individual organisms. A phenotype is basically a composite description of an organism’s traits and characteristics including its physical and biochemical properties, as well as morphology, development, and behavior. An organism’s phenotype is a consequence of an organism’s genetic code, or genotype, along with environmental factors, and the collective influence and interaction of the two. It is important to differentiate natural selection from artificial selection, or selective breeding, where humans use animal and plant breeding to “select” for the development of particular characteristics by choosing which males and females of animal and plant species will sexually reproduce, and have offspring together.
In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan, much like Jacob Bronowski (Figure4), best remembered as the presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man, wants to provide an account of how human beings and human brains “evolved” or grew up together. By understanding the evolution of human beings and human brains, Sagan intends to provide a platform from which he can speculate on the nature of human intelligence, its evolution, and its future.
For starters, he addresses the role of knowledge and learning in a species’ ability to survive, and adapt to its environment. In order for an organism to survive, it must have the basic ability to extract and manipulate information from the environment. Most organisms depend on their genetic information to survive, but in their lifetime, they can also collect extragenetic information. On the other hand, humans and mammals exclusively depend on extragenetic information.
Mammals are warm-blooded (maintaining a constant body temperature compared to the temperature of the environment), vertebrate (have a backbone or spinal column) animals distinguished from other animal classes by their possession of hair or fur, the birth of live young, and the secretion of milk by the females for the nourishment of the young.
While our genetic history does exert a significant influence in our behavior, our brains allow for us to interact at a higher level with what we learn from the environment. This has drastically enhanced the chances of survival of the human species. Human beings have also invented extrasomatic knowledge, or information that can be stored outside our bodies, writing being a notable example. As Sagan points out, our dependence on extragenetic, and extrasomatic information is crucial to the survival of our species. Since the timescales involving evolutionary or genetic change is far too long, we cannot depend on a process that may take place over hundred thousands to millions of years in order to keep up with the changes that we encounter in the world. In fact, we now live in a time where our world is changing at an unprecedented rate. To deal with an unknown and perilous future, Sagan insists it will be necessary for humans to actively consider the changes in our environment, and learn to adapt, control, and adjust our lifestyles accordingly. Our survival relies on the evolution, growth, and sensitivity of human intelligence, which has been a solution and a cause to the many problems and changes that afflict our species (Figure5).
Sagan’s interests in addressing the evolution of human intelligence is also an extension of the work he accomplished at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as the insights we derive from an investigation of terrestrial intelligence will help in our search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Both the existence of those other civilizations and the nature of the messages they may be sending depend on the universality of the process of evolution of intelligence that has occurred on Earth. – Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden
Ultimately, his treatment of the evolution of the brain will assume that its workings, or what can be called the mind, are a result of its physiology and anatomy. His primary goal in addressing the evolution of human intelligence is to dissect the various aspects of a subject that touches base with various other scientific fields. By understanding the evolution of human intelligence, he stresses the insight that can be gained from the interactions between brain physiology, anatomy, and human introspection.
With this approach, Sagan considers the “mind” to be the result of collective processes of the components of the brain, and chooses to not entertain the hypothesis of what is called the mind-body dualism (Figure 6). The mind-body problem deals with various arguments about how mental states, events, and processes can be related to physical states, and likewise, with the governing assumption that the human body is a physical entity, while the mind is non-physical. (The Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy is a wonderful primer’s read-through of this highly detailed topic.)
And that’s all there is to the introduction! While it may read as a book review, the introduction is a concise summary of what we will see later in the book. Now, to reiterate, Sagan’s work in The Dragons of Eden is presented against the backdrop of the theory of evolution. Since its induction in science, evolution has garnered its share of controversy, and disagreement. To all my readers, by reviewing this book, I am in no way forcing these views, and arguments on you. Science is not dogmatic, neither should it be in its endeavor to discover the nature of our world, and our place in it. It is an open stage, and thus, I leave it to you, my readers,to decide on the views you wish to accept, and decline in my review of the book.
Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations On The Evolution of Human Intelligence. Ballantine Books, 1977.
The last two weeks have been quite eventful, and I had a lot to contend with including (takes a deep breath):
Finishing an online certification course in programming
Submitting an application for research funding (for my PhD in Robotics)
Finishing the last chapter of my second book
Starting my Research Assistantship in the Robotics lab at the U of A (very, very exciting)
Finish reading the The Silmarillion, and starting on Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden.
All in all, it was just about a lot of work and having fun whenever possible. I’m especially happy about #3. It was an amazing ride of feelings to write up the last few pages of my second book. The epilogue remains to be completed (this week), though it will be a short piece of work, followed by the more arduous task of content editing. As of now, I’m looking at a page count of about 120 or so, though given my past experience in editing Our Last Summer: A Personal Memoir, this number is bound to change.
Now that I’m nearing the completion of my second book, I can’t wait to get started on brainstorming my next three to four writing projects which will span various genres from politics, science fiction, and fantasy. I also intend to write a short story in my native language of Tamil (haven’t written in it for years, so it will be one hell of a fantastic mess) and which will serve as the third and final act of a trilogy of books that have been inspired from my personal life, including Our Last Summer, and my second book (call it Agent X). The coming week I will also begin my courses in manga art/drawing (a crucial aspect my upcoming writing projects, some of which will be in the form of manga/comics).
Apart from this, I’m keeping busy as we near the end of the year. Working as a research assistant in a robotics lab is exciting as heck, and I have lots to learn from my peers. My plans for this coming week are to post some promotional material for Our Last Summer as well as also provide for some new topics of discussion involving science and a slice of life.
I will keep you all posted in the coming days! For now, I’m going to sit back, relax, and just creep myself out with this beauty as for All Hallows’ Eve: