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Archive for 'human evolution'

new book – ‘The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think’ by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius

August 28, 2013

Rational Animal

The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius (Basic Books)

(kindle ed.), (amazon.co.uk)

Book description from the publisher:

Why do three out of four professional football players go bankrupt? How can illiterate jungle dwellers pass a test that tricks Harvard philosophers? And why do billionaires work so hard—only to give their hard-earned money away?

When it comes to making decisions, the classic view is that humans are eminently rational. But growing evidence suggests instead that our choices are often irrational, biased, and occasionally even moronic. Which view is right—or is there another possibility?

In this animated tour of the inner workings of the mind, psychologist Douglas T. Kenrick and business professor Vladas Griskevicius challenge the prevailing views of decision making, and present a new alternative grounded in evolutionary science. By connecting our modern behaviors to their ancestral roots, they reveal that underneath our seemingly foolish tendencies is an exceptionally wise system of decision making.

From investing money to choosing a job, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, our choices are driven by deep-seated evolutionary goals. Because each of us has multiple evolutionary goals, though, new research reveals something radical—there’s more than one “you” making decisions. Although it feels as if there is just one single “self” inside your head, your mind actually contains several different subselves, each one steering you in a different direction when it takes its turn at the controls.

The Rational Animal will transform the way you think about decision making. And along the way, you’ll discover the intimate connections between ovulating strippers, Wall Street financiers, testosterone-crazed skateboarders, Steve Jobs, Elvis Presley, and you.

Book trailer:

See also: Book website

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new book – ‘Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict’ by Ara Norenzayan

August 24, 2013

Big Gods

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict by Ara Norenzayan (Princeton University Press, 2013)

(kindle ed.), (amazon.co.uk)

Book description from the publisher:

How did human societies scale up from small, tight-knit groups of hunter-gatherers to the large, anonymous, cooperative societies of today–even though anonymity is the enemy of cooperation? How did organized religions with “Big Gods”–the great monotheistic and polytheistic faiths–spread to colonize most minds in the world? In Big Gods, Ara Norenzayan makes the surprising and provocative argument that these fundamental puzzles about the origins of civilization are one and the same, and answer each other.

Once human minds could conceive of supernatural beings, Norenzayan argues, the stage was set for rapid cultural and historical changes that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods–powerful, omniscient, interventionist deities concerned with regulating the moral behavior of humans. How? As the saying goes, “watched people are nice people.” It follows that people play nice when they think Big Gods are watching them, even when no one else is. Yet at the same time that sincere faith in Big Gods unleashed unprecedented cooperation within ever-expanding groups, it also introduced a new source of potential conflict between competing groups.

In some parts of the world, such as northern Europe, secular institutions have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies with atheist majorities–some of the most cooperative, peaceful, and prosperous in the world–climbed religion’s ladder, and then kicked it away. So while Big Gods answers fundamental questions about the origins and spread of world religions, it also helps us understand another, more recent social transition–the rise of cooperative societies without belief in gods.

Google Books preview:

See also: Author’s website

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new book – ‘Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution’ by Matt J. Rossano

August 14, 2013

Mortal Rituals

Mortal Rituals: What the Story of the Andes Survivors Tells Us About Human Evolution by Matt J. Rossano (Columbia University Press, 2013)

(kindle ed.), (amazon.co.uk)

On December 21, 1972, sixteen young survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 were rescued after spending ten weeks stranded at the crash site of their plane, high in the remote Andes Mountains. The incident made international headlines and spawned several best-selling books, fueled partly by the fact that the young men had resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Matt Rossano examines this story from an evolutionary perspective, weaving together findings and ideas from anthropology, psychology, religion, and cognitive science. During their ordeal, these young men broke “civilized” taboos to fend off starvation and abandoned “civilized” modes of thinking to maintain social unity and individual sanity. Through the power of ritual, the survivors were able to endure severe emotional and physical hardship. Rossano ties their story to our story, seeing in the mortal rituals of this struggle for survival a reflection of what it means to be human.

Google Books preview:

See also: Author’s Mortal Rituals blog at Psychology Today

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new book – ‘The Long Evolution of Brains and Minds’ by Gerhard Roth

June 24, 2013

The Long Evolution of Brains and Minds

The Long Evolution of Brains and Minds by Gerhard Roth (Springer, 2013)

(kindle ed.), (amazon.co.uk)

Book description from the publisher:

On the basis of evolutionary and behavioral biology, neuroscience and anthropology, this book investigates to which extent it is possible to reconstruct the evolution of nervous systems and brains as well as of mental-cognitive abilities, in short “intelligence”, and to which extent we can correlate the one with the other. One central question is, whether or not abilities exist that make humans truly unique, or whether the evolution of the human mind was a gradual process. Exactly which neural features make animals and humans intelligent and creative? Is it absolute or relative brain size or the size of “intelligence centers” inside the brains, the number of nerve cells inside the brain in total or in such “intelligence centers” decisive for the degree of intelligence, of mind and eventually consciousness? Which are the driving forces behind these processes?

Here, many different answers exist. For some experts the driving force for brains and minds are the conditions for biological survival: the more complex these conditions, the more effective need to be sense organs, nervous systems and brains, and the stronger is the tendency to an increase in learning abilities, behavioral flexibility and innovation power of animals. This is the ecological intelligence hypothesis. Other authors believe that the true driving force is the challenge from social life of an animal: the more complex the social conditions, the more sophisticated are abilities such as social learning, imitation, empathy, knowledge transfer, consciousness and the development of a theory of mind and meta-cognition. This, again, needs progressive changes inside the brains. This is the social intelligence hypothesis. Again other authors distinguish physical intelligence as a third form of cognitive functions mostly related to tool use, tool fabrication and understanding of the principles of how things work. Finally, some experts believe that the decisive factor in the evolution of brains and minds consisted in an increase in the speed and efficacy of information processing in cognitive brain centers. This is the general intelligence or information processing hypothesis. It is discussed, which of these hypotheses is the most convincing one. At its end, the book deals with the eminent question of whether we can arrive at a naturalistic concept of mind and consciousness. Is it possible to explain mind and intelligence within the framework of the natural science, or do mind and intelligence as found in humans, transcend nature?

See also: Table of Contents with more information at publisher’s website

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new book – ‘Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind’ by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower

June 4, 2013


Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower (Twelve, 2013)

(kindle ed.), (amazon.co.uk)

Book description from the publisher:

The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually proven true. Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s “Mind over Reality” theory is poised to be one such idea-a concept that runs counter to commonly-held notions about human evolution but that may hold the key to understanding why humans evolved as we did, leaving all other related species far behind.

At a chance meeting in 2005, Brower, a geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Varki that he believed could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world’s species: Why is there no humanlike elephant or humanlike dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone can understand the minds of others?

Haunted by their encounter, Varki tried years later to contact Brower only to discover that he had died unexpectedly. Inspired by an incomplete manuscript Brower left behind, DENIAL presents a radical new theory on the origins of our species. It was not, the authors argue, a biological leap that set humanity apart from other species, but a psychological one: namely, the uniquely human ability to deny reality in the face of inarguable evidence-including the willful ignorance of our own inevitable deaths.

The awareness of our own mortality could have caused anxieties that resulted in our avoiding the risks of competing to procreate-an evolutionary dead-end. Humans therefore needed to evolve a mechanism for overcoming this hurdle: the denial of reality.

As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.

Presented in homage to Brower’s original thinking, DENIAL offers a powerful warning about the dangers inherent in our remarkable ability to ignore reality-a gift that will either lead to our downfall, or continue to be our greatest asset.

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