Gregory WieberWriting
The Dragons of Eden (review)


When archaeologists recently announced the discovery of cave paintings by neanderthals, I was not the least bit surprised. I had just finished reading Carl Sagan's, "The Dragons of Eden", a pulitzer prize winning book from the 1970s on the evolution of the human mind, and came away with the impression that while our brains are one of the most sophisticated structures in the known universe, we also share a great deal in common with our animal cousins.

In fact, despite our incredible capacity to reason, we spend an awful lot of time operating out of the tribal, ritualistic, reptilian parts of our brain. The question of whether we will one day sail the galaxies, or blow ourselves up in a nuclear shooting match (or make our planet uninhabitable through environmental damage), is one that Sagan asked for the rest of his life. It's a question that's just as pertinent today.

I picked up Sagan's book while browsing the neuroscience section at the Library. I was brought there by a desire to dig deeper into what drives our habits, our creativity, our problem solving abilities. If you know me, than you know I'm generally a big fan of Sagan's work — but I'd never read "Dragons". Despite being written forty years ago, the book holds up as a work of art, and presents a beautiful hypothesis on how the human mind came to be.

Why aren't there other primates with human-like intellect? It's possible we killed them all, says Sagan. Also, we tend to tragically underestimate the mental capacity of other animals, because of our bias towards language. When scientists began teaching apes to sign, it became clear that our linguistic abilities might have more to do with having the right muscles and anatomy to support vocalizations than it has to do with superior intellectual abilities. Similarly, we often imagine that our sophisticated brains led us to invent tools, where a more accurate description might be that it was the opposite: our ability to physically grasp tools may have shaped our evolution as tool inventors. And our emotional capacity stems from our lower brain functions, shared by other mammals. Meaning that while animals might not be able to reason at a high-level about being put in cages, or mistreated in our industrial agricultural system, we can empathize with the emotional weight they carry in such circumstances.

At the time of writing, the right / left split of the brain factored heavily into theories of the mind. The left being the seat of analytical and linguistic functions, the right the center of creativity and dreams. More recent neuroscience points to a more modular brain with specialized areas throughout. What's consistent with theories of Sagan's time and today is that much of our brain activity is subconscious, and the sensation that we are actively directing our behavior is largely an illusion. We are indeed creatures of habit, following sometimes ancient patterns, written in the mysterious language of our genetic code.

"Dragons of Eden" is a beautiful book, worth reading even though some parts are outdated. Science may have advanced greatly in the past 40 years, but it's also become more compartmentalized. Today it's rarer today to see someone with knowledge both deep and wide in so many subjects — from mythology, to art, to molecular biology and astronomy — form theories and opinions on some of our biggest questions as a species.

A central theme of Sagan's book is the idea that what makes humans special is how we harness the split in our minds. The ability to dream wildly, but also to apply logic and reason to those wild thoughts. The book itself is a vivid example of this capacity. It ends with a firm conviction that the survival of our species depends on education, and shows how the same technologies that threaten our survival can be harnessed to allow children to understand concepts at a young age that were once the purview of accomplished 18th century scientists and mathematicians. And while Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are just now experiencing an explosion of interest, Sagan writing in 1977 showed a clear understanding of the ways in which those technologies could someday augment our ability to, among other things, search the galaxies for intelligent life beyond our pale blue dot. (Like most 20th century writers, Sagan didn't fully grasp the effect smartphones would have on our society.)

Libraries feature heavily in all of Sagan's work, from his books to the original award-winning PBS series Cosmos. They surface as analogues to the amount of information contained in our genetic code, or symbols of scientific freedom and discovery and the persistence of our collective memory. And while I'm grateful for the web and its utility, I'm glad that libraries still exist — places where I can stumble upon a dusty old paperback, and hear the voice of someone we wish was still around.

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(Views expressed here are my own)