Book Review: The Runaway Brain


Did you ever wonder how we got to where we are as a species?  Have  you ever wondered why it is we humans who are here and so successful, and not Cro-Magnon man or some intelligent ape? If you would like to better understand human evolution, the question of whether both the sophistication of our brains and the size of our population will become a detriment to our survival, and the history of related genetic research  you will find The Runaway Brain by Christopher Wills both interesting and rewarding.  While it is deeply scientific in nature, the book is written in an accessible style and made up mostly of the accounts of the author’s and other scientists’ challenges and accomplishments in the study of the evolution of humanity and, more specifically, the human brain.  Dr. Wills provides an integrated scientific and historical view of how the human brain, like the peacock’s tail, has been an evolutionary advantage that has spurred it to grow larger and larger.  After describing the intricate web of factors that have created our “runaway brain” he provides us with these final, telling insights:

The unique nature of runaway brain evolution is that it has the capability of releasing us from the prison of our genes.  Surely we are now too smart to go on breeding ourselves into extinction, destroying most of the rest of the species on the planet in the process.  Surely we are too smart to blow ourselves up with the nuclear weapons that have been provided by our runaway brains.  The long saga of the human species has been one of selection for intelligence, not stupidity.  It is time we woke up to that fact.

If you have any interest in the evolution of humanity you will find this an interesting and rewarding book.  Dr. Wills has subsequently written several other works, Children Of Prometheus, The Accelerating Pace Of Human Evolution (1999), The Spark Of Life: Darwin And The Primeval Soup (2001) and The Darwinian Tourist: Viewing the World Through Evolutionary Eyes (late 2010) which you might also find interesting.  Dr. Wills also received the 1999 Award for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  For the complexity of the material I have found Dr. Wills’ work a surprisingly easy read, and I hope you will, too.  As always, I appreciate your comments, and thanks for reading.  — Tim

The Runaway Brain: The Evolution of Human Uniqueness, Christopher Wills, Ph.D., HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 1994, ISBN: 0 00 255275 2

 

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