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Longlisted for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
A leading neuroscientist offers a history of the evolution of the brain from unicellular organisms to the complexity of animals and human beings today
Renowned neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux digs into the natural history of life on earth to provide a new perspective on the similarities between us and our ancestors in deep time. This page-turning survey of the whole of terrestrial evolution sheds new light on how nervous systems evolved in animals, how the brain developed, and what it means to be human.
In The Deep History of Ourselves, LeDoux argues that the key to understanding human behavior lies in viewing evolution through the prism of the first living organisms. By tracking the chain of the evolutionary timeline he shows how even the earliest single-cell organisms had to solve the same problems we and our cells have to solve each day. Along the way, LeDoux explores our place in nature, how the evolution of nervous systems enhanced the ability of organisms to survive and thrive, and how the emergence of what we humans understand as consciousness made our greatest and most horrendous achievements as a species possible.
The eons-long development of the mechanics of thought and other aspects of life are covered in this sprawling, sometimes indigestible treatise from NYU neuroscientist Le Doux (The Emotional Brain). Surveying the rise and evolution of life-forms out of the primordial soup, he highlights such milestones as the acquisition of neurons by jellyfish and the arrival of mammals with their structured brains. Le Doux then focuses on the neuroscience of how brains process information and control behavior, elaborating on two themes: that, contrary to conventional wisdom, one's emotions do not cause one's behaviors and that, contrary to anthropomorphism, nonprimate animals may not have emotions, or even consciousness. The book contains provocative, sometimes unsettling descriptions of experiments, by Le Doux and others, that demonstrate how much seemingly conscious, willed behavior is actually unconscious and automatic, along with detailed discussions of the complex interactions of perception, memory, emotions, and cognition that underlie consciousness. However, Le Doux's writing tends to bog down in impenetrably dense terminology: "The dorsal and ventral lateral prefrontal cortex regions also receive inputs from the multimodal convergence zone in the neocortical pareital and temporal lobes." Though this exhaustive study brings up some fascinating concepts, the often arcane presentation will deter all but the most devoted of lay readers.