The Accidental Mind: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 4th, 2012 by bobmorris

The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God
David J. Linden
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2007)

A lively explanation of the beneficial neural functions in that “cobbled-together mess” between our ears

The mind is what the brain does. Fortunately, throughout a process lasting several thousand years, evolutionary improvement of the brain has expanded and increased substantially the mind’s capabilities. To the best of my knowledge, no computer has as yet been constructed that can duplicate what the mind does. Think about this: Until now, the finest human minds have been unable to improve on a design that David Linden characterizes as “a cobbled-together mess.” Later in the book, he refers to the brain’s systems as a “Rube Goldberg contraption.” Note: Reuben Lucius Goldberg (1883–1970) was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor who gained renown for inventing immensely complicated machines that could perform the simplest of tasks, such as filling a spoon with sugar.

What he offers in this book is to serve as his reader’s guide to a “strange and often illogical world of neural function,” pointing out during the guided tour “the most unusual and counterintuitive aspects of brain and neural design and explaining how they mold our lives.”  To what does the book’s title refer? Linden offers an explanation (of sorts) on Pages 240-242 when explaining accidental design. What about intelligent design? “The idea of intelligent design is an assertion,” not a reality.

I wish I had known about Figure 9.2 on Page 244 when I began to read this book. “The Main Evolutionary Constraints on Brain Design” encapsulates Linden’s main arguments. Brilliant distillation, what some would say is “the soul of wit.”

Others have shared their reasons for holding this book in such high regard. I agree with those reasons, of course, while adding two of my own: First, to the extent possible, unlike Rube Goldberg, Linden explains even the most complicated terms and processes in layman’s terms. He does NOT dumb down the material. Rather, he uses a nomenclature that creates access to much of the material for those who such as I who took only the required science courses and refuse to remember anything about them.

Also, I really appreciate Linden’s wit. He immediately establishes and then sustains a personal, almost (not quite) collegial rapport with his reader. There is a playful, sometimes irreverent tone to his many of his comments. He obviously enjoys learning and seems to enjoy helping others to learn at least as much.

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