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The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind

By: John S Allen(Author)

338 pages, 39 b/w illustrations

Harvard University Press

Paperback | May 2012 | #241078 | ISBN-13: 9780674064058
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £15.95 $21/€18 approx
Hardback | Oct 2009 | #181331 | ISBN-13: 9780674035348
Out of Print Details

About this book

Though we have other distinguishing characteristics (walking on two legs, for instance, and relative hairlessness), the brain and the behaviour it produces are what truly set us apart from the other apes and primates. And how this three-pound organ composed of water, fat, and protein turned a mammal species into the dominant animal on earth today is the story John S. Allen seeks to tell.

Adopting what he calls a "bottom-up" approach to the evolution of human behaviour, Allen considers the brain as a biological organ; a collection of genes, cells, and tissues that grows, eats, and ages, and is subject to the direct effects of natural selection and the phylogenetic constraints of its ancestry. An exploration of the evolution of this critical organ based on recent work in palaeoanthropology, brain anatomy and neuroimaging, molecular genetics, life history theory, and related fields, his book shows us the brain as a product of the contexts in which it evolved: phylogenetic, somatic, genetic, ecological, demographic, and ultimately, cultural-linguistic. Throughout, Allen focuses on the foundations of brain evolution rather than the evolution of behaviour or cognition. This perspective demonstrates how, just as some aspects of our behaviour emerge in unexpected ways from the development of certain cognitive capacities, a more nuanced understanding of behavioural evolution might develop from a clearer picture of brain evolution.

"Allen does a remarkable job in providing an insightful and a timely synthesis of current knowledge about brain evolution [...] He successfully highlights the controversies that surround the 'big' issue of human brain evolution and manages to integrate findings across different levels and from various fields. The style of writing is clear and the book makes a comprehensible reading for anyone with an interest in brain evolution."
– Lambros Malafouris, American Journal of Human Biology

"The Lives of the Brain is a wonderfully engaging book. Because of its wide scope, even experts in the field are certain to make new discoveries in its pages. Because it is written in a style that is accessible and does not presuppose a specialized background in neuroscience, it will also serve as an excellent entry point for the uninitiated reader who is interested in knowing more about the human brain and its evolutionary history."
– Chet C. Sherwood, American Journal of Physical Anthropology

"Allen, a neuroanatomist and anthropologist, has provided a lucidly comprehensive intellectual account of the human brain's developmental processes."
– J.N. Muzio, Choice

"The scope and scholarship of this book is impressive [...] There is much to learn, even by the experienced investigator, from reading this book, which is also a treat for any science-loving reader."
– Jon H. Kaas, Journal of Clinical Investigation

"Allen pieces together the puzzle of brain evolution. No stone is left unturned as Allen mines such fields as paleontology, anthropology, comparative anatomy and physiology, and the cognitive sciences. Allen's contribution is his interdisciplinary melding of theories, disclosing their strengths and weaknesses while squeezing them for evidence on brain evolution [...] His material on brain evolution is fascinating."
– Scott Vieira, Library Journal

"A very good introduction to recent research on cognition, especially cognition and language. An antidote to many things you have read in Pinker."
– Tyler Cowen,

"Allen's book is comprised of ten chapters that collectively fulfill the promise of the introductory chapter to provide the reader with an in-depth exploration of the current knowledge of the brain [...] Anyone who wanted to philosophize about mind should first spend a year studying the brain in a hands-on laboratory setting. If doing so is not possible then reading Allen's book is a good substitute [...] The Lives of the Brain provides the reader with a comprehensive picture of the state of the knowledge of brain evolution at the beginning of the twenty-first century."
– Bob Lane, Metapsychology

"In The Lives of the Brain, John S. Allen explores the many influences that anatomy, molecular biology, aging, development and culture have on the evolution and functional organization of the human brain. He provides the perspective and foundation to start thinking about brain evolution in a more sophisticated, multidimensional fashion."
– Asif A. Ghazanfar, The Times Literary Supplement

"An extremely valuable addition to a topic which has attracted such attention and passionate debate. As both an anthropologist and a neuroanatomist, when Allen writes about the human brain he knows what he is writing about."
– Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes' Error, Looking for Spinoza, and The Feeling of What Happens

"Let me be short and sweet: this is a terrific book. There wasn't a chapter I didn't enjoy reading, or from which I did not learn something new. John Allen provides a fine, wide, and comprehensive sweep of all of the areas that concern a more thorough understanding of human brain evolution."
– Ralph L. Holloway, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

"An indispensable overview of the study of human brain evolution."
– Katerina Semendeferi, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego


1. Introduction
2. The Human Brain in Brief
3. Brain Size
4. The Functional Evolution of the Brain
5. The Plastic Brain
6. The Molecular Evolution of the Brain
7. The Evolution of Feeding Behavior
8. The Aging Brain
9. Language and Brain Evolution
10. Optimism and the Evolution of the Brain


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John S. Allen is Research Scientist, Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.

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