Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Summer Book Suggestions

Below are three candidates for our summer reading group. Let me know if there are other suggestions. I'll post a survey soon with which we can select a book and a meeting time.

Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior (Blumberg) [Amazon, $11.66]
This is a passionate (and at times polemical) survey of what contemporary neuroscience has to say about the nature of instinct. Actually, as it turns out, it might be more accurate to say the "nurture" of instinct, since Blumberg firmly argues against the perspective that what we think of as instincts are innate—he reframes "instincts," ranging from a baby's tendency to mimic faces to monkeys' fear of snakes, as a consequence of reflexes rather than innate knowledge. Though initially a bit dense with scientific jargon, the book picks up midway through, and the then generally accessible prose skillfully unpacks behaviors that seem instinctive, ranging from the mundane (getting thirsty) to the astonishing (androgenital licking in newborn rats). The writing is as persuasive as it is rich in intriguing detail, and a reader may well find that, by the end of the book, the word "nativism" (the perspective that animals and humans are born with cognitive instincts in place, which Blumberg at one point calls "an intellectual and experimental red herring") has become a dirty word.

Why Choose This Book?: How We Make Decisions (Read Montague) [Amazon, $16.47]
From Publishers Weekly:
Why do we choose chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream? Why do we select one lover rather than another? Baylor University neuroscientist Montague (now a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study) deftly marries psychology and neuroscience as he probes how we make choices. On one hand, decision making boils down to simple computation. Montague argues that our brains are efficient computational machines. But unlike computers, our brains fix on the goals of survival and reproduction, realizing that every hasty decision can be costly to the survival of the species. Our brains also harbor experiences (memories) that foster the choices we make. On the other hand, we can make choices that go against survival: for instance, we can choose to die for an idea. Why is that? Because, says Montague, human computations involve valuation, choosing between one value and another, requiring computation of cultural and psychological qualities. Although the notion of the brain as a computational machine can be traced at least as far back as Descartes, Montague adds new ideas to our understanding of how our brains compute. But his sometimes engaging and sometimes plodding book doesn't always explain the complex science for general readers. (Nov.)

Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Peter J. Richerson, Robert Boyd) [Amazon, $19.00]
Humans are a striking anomaly in the natural world. While we are similar to other mammals in many ways, our behavior sets us apart. Our unparalleled ability to adapt has allowed us to occupy virtually every habitat on earth using an incredible variety of tools and subsistence techniques. Our societies are larger, more complex, and more cooperative than any other mammal's. In this stunning exploration of human adaptation, Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd argue that only a Darwinian theory of cultural evolution can explain these unique characteristics.

Not by Genes Alone offers a radical interpretation of human evolution, arguing that our ecological dominance and our singular social systems stem from a psychology uniquely adapted to create complex culture. Richerson and Boyd illustrate here that culture is neither superorganic nor the handmaiden of the genes. Rather, it is essential to human adaptation, as much a part of human biology as bipedal locomotion. Drawing on work in the fields of anthropology, political science, sociology, and economics—and building their case with such fascinating examples as kayaks, corporations, clever knots, and yams that require twelve men to carry them—Richerson and Boyd convincingly demonstrate that culture and biology are inextricably linked, and they show us how to think about their interaction in a way that yields a richer understanding of human nature.

In abandoning the nature-versus-nurture debate as fundamentally misconceived, Not by Genes Alone is a truly original and groundbreaking theory of the role of culture in evolution and a book to be reckoned with for generations to come.