Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Brief History Of Mind

Book Review : A Brief History Of Mind
Author : William H. Calvin
My Rating : 3 out of 5

The complete title of the book is "A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond".

With a provocative title (obviously inspired by Stephen Hawking's blockbuster "A Brief History Of Time"), I was very enthusiastic about reading this book. But I came out much underwhelmed after reading it.

The book starts off well. The author is trying to trace the chain of events that must have led to the evolution of our mental abilities. It's mainly anthropology, with some neurobiology sprinkled in. Obviously, we start with investigating behavior of primates and then move along the evolutionary branches.

There is a wealth of information here. The author is trying to explain what must have been the "Big Bang" for our mental abilities. This turns out be the development of language, which seems a very logical conclusion. And it's also one which author arrives at by presenting a strong case.

So why am I not so happy about this book ? I am not a student of anthropology, but it does seem to involve a lot of speculation. That's not a problem to me, because even a lot of cutting age theoretical physics seem speculation to this layman. My problem is about the style of presentation. After reading many chapters, I was wondering, yes, the discussion is interesting, but how exactly does it help the argument move forward ? After reading a chapter, I would go back and read the summary of it in the contents pages, and then would I understand, "Oh, so that's what the point is of this chapter". Considering how short these chapters are, summaries should not be needed, but ironically, it was these summaries that made me understand the point of some chapters.

In many cases, the author presents what we think must have happened, only to discard it quickly, without presenting an alternative. I was not sure, if I was following the chain of reasoning correctly. Hence I didn't always detect a coherent theme and was getting lost once in a while. This reduced the enjoyment of such a nice idea for a book.

As a result, I am very much interested in reading and learning more about anthropology. I remember reading "Guns, Germs and Steel" written by Jared Diamond a few years ago and was extremely impressed with it. I yearn to read a book like that again.

I can only tentatively recommend this book. It's quite good, but it could have been so much better.

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