The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique

Overview

The Unpredictable Species argues that the human brain evolved in a way that enhances our cognitive flexibility and capacity for innovation and imitation. In doing so, the book challenges the central claim of evolutionary psychology that we are locked into predictable patterns of behavior that were fixed by genes, and refutes the claim that language is innate. Philip Lieberman builds his case with evidence from neuroscience, genetics, and physical anthropology, showing how our basal ganglia—structures deep within ...

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The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique

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Overview

The Unpredictable Species argues that the human brain evolved in a way that enhances our cognitive flexibility and capacity for innovation and imitation. In doing so, the book challenges the central claim of evolutionary psychology that we are locked into predictable patterns of behavior that were fixed by genes, and refutes the claim that language is innate. Philip Lieberman builds his case with evidence from neuroscience, genetics, and physical anthropology, showing how our basal ganglia—structures deep within the brain whose origins predate the dinosaurs—came to play a key role in human creativity. He demonstrates how the transfer of information in these structures was enhanced by genetic mutation and evolution, giving rise to supercharged neural circuits linking activity in different parts of the brain. Human invention, expressed in different epochs and locales in the form of stone tools, digital computers, new art forms, complex civilizations—even the latest fashions—stems from these supercharged circuits.

The Unpredictable Species boldly upends scientifically controversial yet popular beliefs about how our brains actually work. Along the way, this compelling book provides insights into a host of topics related to human cognition, including associative learning, epigenetics, the skills required to be a samurai, and the causes of cognitive confusion on Mount Everest and of Parkinson's disease.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lieberman (Eve Spoke: Human Language and Human Evolution) pulls no punches in attacking what he perceives to be the flaws of evolutionary psychology in this imbalanced scientific treatise. He argues somewhat hyperbolically that under “a high-tech veneer... phrenology lives on today in studies that purport to identify the brain’s center of religious belief, pornography, and everything in between,” and he is equally forceful in debunking Chomsky’s notions that language is innate and that a hypothetical “language organ” might exist. His ability to marshal contemporary neuroscience to support his assertions is impressive, and his efforts to guide the field away from biological determinism (a “stew of invented genes”) are well-founded and important. He contends that we should instead focus on “understanding the interplay of culture and biology in shaping human behavior.” Unfortunately, Lieberman loses some credibility when he takes too literally Richard Dawkins’s concept of a “selfish gene”; equally troubling is the straw man Lieberman sets up to discredit Dawkins. Despite these missteps, his conclusion—what sets us apart from other primates is that our genes allow for cognitive flexibility and human creativity—is well worth considering. 12 line illus. (May)
Booklist
[W]hat reader can resist this compelling invitation to reflect on what it means to be human?
From the Publisher
"His ability to marshal contemporary neuroscience to support his assertions is impressive, and his efforts to guide the field away from biological determinism (a 'stew of invented genes') are well-founded and important."Publishers Weekly

"Those who enjoy reading about evolution, cognition, biology, and the brain will find this a compelling and enjoyable book. Recommended as a highly engaging and thought-provoking work of popular science."Library Journal

"[W]hat reader can resist this compelling invitation to reflect on what it means to be human?"Booklist

"Just got your head around evolutionary psychology's core idea, that our genetic code, designed in and for prehistory, dictates our behaviour? Well, Lieberman argues it's wrong, but not to worry, as you will adapt. . . . This expansive, erudite book argues our brains and the way they work are immensely complex. . . . [T]here is something appealing in his idea that no single theory explains us."—Stephen Matchett, Australian

"The Unpredictable Species: What Makes Humans Unique is a delightful book. It is extremely well written, engaging, and a pleasure to read, as one might expect from a linguist. Author Philip Lieberman weaves throughout the rather extraordinary experiences he and his wife have had in the Himalayas, adding even more interest. The book is written for that legendary individual, the educated layperson, and is at the right level—informative and not too technical."—Richard F. Thompson, PsycCRITIQUES

"This book is a worthwhile addition to any collection that provides information about humans as a species."Choice

"Lieberman creates an imminently readable text that is perfect for both general audiences and more established circles. This book should be considered as an excellent introduction for anyone who wants to delve into mysteries of the evolution of our unique brain."—Kate MacCord, Quarterly Review of Biology

"Lieberman's The Unpredictable Species . . . takes a fresh, insightful, sometimes resolutely critical, and fascinating stance toward the theme of the human uniqueness. The book is also rich in anecdotal accounts and examples that render its messages accessible also to the non-specialist, even though the course of the argumentation is not always linear."—Ivan Colagè, ESSSAT News & Reviews

Library Journal
Traditional evolutionary psychology teaches that humans maintain predictable behavior patterns based on genetics. Lieberman (biology, Brown Univ.; Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language) argues against this assertion and refutes the argument that language is innate. He uses evidence from physical anthropology, neuroscience, and genetics to demonstrate how human language has enhanced human evolution. He surmises that information transferred through cultural contexts is responsible for the variety of human inventions rather than just through biological triggers. Lieberman reasons that human creativity, not genes, gives humans the ability to change and maneuver—that our very "unpredictability" makes us unique. A recognized expert on the evolution of human language and the relationship of language to the brain, Lieberman successfully conveys his ideas and intention. While this book will likely arouse controversy, it is also likely to generate great support for its viewpoint. It's relatively easy to read but requires basic familiarity with the scholarly concepts involved. VERDICT This reviewer is not aware of another book quite in this category. Those who enjoy reading about evolution, cognition, biology, and the brain will find this a compelling and enjoyable book. Recommended as a highly engaging and thought-provoking work of popular science.—Gloria Maxwell, Metropolitan Community Coll.-Penn Valley, Kansas City, MO
Kirkus Reviews
Lieberman (Emeritus Linguistics/Brown Univ.; Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language, 2006, etc.) examines the unique creative potential of the human brain. While fully supporting natural selection, the author argues against a narrow approach that overemphasizes genetic determination, a shortcoming that he attributes to evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Lieberman seeks to establish the basis for the superiority of human cognitive abilities over those of chimpanzees, although 99 percent of their genes are similar to our own. "The human brain has evolved in a way that enhances both cognitive flexibility and imitation, the qualities that shaped our capacity for innovation, other aspects of cognition, art, speech, language, and free will," he writes. In his zeal, the author sometimes creates straw men out of his chosen opponents, exaggerating and misrepresenting their points of view. Describing himself as an evolutionary biologist rather than a psychologist, Lieberman deconstructs the complex nature of human speech, which depends on unique biological features. A fascinating example is the human tongue, which descends into our throat in the first years after birth, allowing us to enunciate clear vowel sounds while also conferring the disadvantage that we are at risk of choking on food. Offering evidence from CT scans, Lieberman dismisses the notion that language ability is localized in the brain. He calls attention to the role of neural circuits and basal ganglia buried deeply in the brain, which link cortical areas "that act as the brain's sequencing and switching engine." These circuits, controlled by a specific gene, are present in other primates. Lieberman suggests that it may be the specifically human variant (the FOXP2Human gene), that "supercharg[es] the circuits that confer [our] cognitive flexibility." A fascinating though occasionally crotchety scholarly presentation of the relationship among biology, genetics and culture. May be difficult going for some general readers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691148588
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 4/21/2013
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,422,417
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

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."

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xiii
Chapter One - Brainworks 1
Chapter Two - Brain Design by Rube Goldberg 25
Chapter Three - Darwin Got It Right 60
Chapter Four - Chimpanzee Brain 2.0 82
Chapter Five - Stones, Bones, and Brains 121
Chapter Six - The Gene Game 156
Chapter Seven - What Makes Us Tick 189
References 209
Index 231

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