“Contains many rewarding thoughts about life and mind and their place in nature.”
“Unprecedentedly comprehensive. . . . Imagine the consequences for science and society of having a physical explanation for functional, meaningful and conscious behavior no less scientific and accessible than our explanation for lightning. I believe Deacon provides just that.”
Wall Street Journal
“In his approach to the question of how sentience emerged from ‘dumb’ and ‘numb’ matter, Mr. Deacon mobilizes some radically new ideas.”
“A stunningly original, stunningly synoptic book. With Autogenesis, Significance, Sentience, seventeen insightful and integrated chapters turn our world upside down and finally, as in the Chinese proverb, lead us home again to a place we see anew. Few ask the important questions. Deacon is one of these.”
Bruce H. Weber
“This is a work of science and philosophy at the cutting edge of both that seeks to develop a complete theory of the world that includes humans, our minds and culture, embodied and emerging in nature.”
“[Deacon] demonstrates how systems that are intrinsically incomplete happen to be alive and meaning-making. The crux of life—and meaning—is solved. It was worthwhile to wait for this book. The twenty-first century can now really start.”
Robert E. Ulanowicz
“A profound shift in thinking that in magnitude can only be compared with those that followed upon the works of Darwin and Einstein.”
In a tour de force encompassing biology, neurobiology, metaphysics, information theory, physics, and semiotics, Deacon, a neuroscientist and chair of anthropology at UC-Berkeley, attempts to resolve the issue of how life and mind arose from inanimate matter. As he did in his previous book, The Symbolic Species, Deacon asks a very big question and provides the framework for an answer. He argues persuasively that complexity can comfortably emerge as a higher order function from simplicity and extends this point to discuss how nonmaterial entities such as ideas and emotions can generate physical consequences. He believes that by bridging the divide between the material and the nonmaterial, a more robust understanding of the world will be developed and some of the largest shortcomings of science will be addressed. “It’s not just that we have failed to uncover the twists of physics and chemistry that set us apart from the non-living world. Our scientific theories have failed to explain what matters most to us: the place of meaning, purpose, and value in the physical world.” One caveat: although the topics covered by Deacon are important and fascinating, his language is so technical that the book is likely to be accessible only to experts. 12 illus. (Nov.)
“Starred review. Deacon's dense and breathtaking study of the relationship between conscious experience and physical processes offers a new framework to examine how phenomena that are not physically extant...can and do impact physical processes and how physical processes transform into conscious experience. ...Highly recommended.”
For all our emerging understanding of how the brain and body work, we still haven't grasped "what matters most to us: the place of meaning, purpose, and value in the physical world." Deacon (anthropology, Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain) offers a new, multidisciplinary approach—combining neuroscience, general philosophy, the philosophy of science, semiotics, anthropology, and a humanist worldview—to explore rigorously how we create meaning and how mind emerged from matter. Deacon's dense and breathtaking study of the relationship between conscious experience and physical processes offers a new framework to examine how phenomena that are not physically extant (e.g., thoughts, ideas, meaning, an understanding of conscious experience) can and do impact physical processes and how physical processes transform into conscious experience. He has worked to make the book accessible to nonscientists and nonphilosophers and largely succeeds, though a dictionary and encyclopedia are helpful to have at hand. VERDICT Appealing to those who enjoy Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida as well as physical science and neuroscience buffs. Highly recommended.—Candice Kail, Columbia Univ. Libs., New York
Deacon (Biological Anthropology and Neuroscience/Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, 1997) takes up the challenge of giving a physical, scientific basis for our perception of agency and selfhood.
With the development of fMRI and other scanning devices, scientists are able to correlate the activation areas of the brain to stimulus/response patterns involved in decision making, which precede conscious thought (the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink).While Deacon has no answer to the conundrum of the disappearing "I"—the inability of scientists to discover a neurological foundation for our subjective perception of our own agency—he believes that one does exist but requires a revolutionary shift in the present scientific paradigm. The author offers a prospectus for such a scientific revolution—"the qualitative outlines of a future science that is subtle enough to include us"—that would encompass a neurological basis for the emergence of creativity. He develops insights from complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics at extreme conditions to address the fundamental question of how cellular life emerged from the physical substrata as a precondition for evolution. "Life and sentience are deeply interrelated," he writes. "Sentience is not just a product of biological evolution, but in many respects a micro-evolutionary process in action...the experience of being sentient is what it feels like to be evolution.
A dense but intriguing book that demands close reading; for dedicated readers, it's well worth the effort.