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With Style, Grace, and Wit

  • Jan 11, 2000
In Chapter 1 of How Brains Think, William H. Calvin recalls Piaget "who used to say that intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do." Throughout the balance of this immensely readable as well as informative book, Calvin attempts to explain what is so difficult to understand: the interaction between the brain and the mind, and, the interaction of the mind with the physical world in which it exists. "The big issue for understanding intelligence isn't who has more but what intelligence is, when it's needed, and how it operates. Some of what intelligence encompasses are cleverness, foresight,, speed, creativity, and how many things you can juggle at once."

Although Calvin is an eminent theoretical neurophysiologist, How Brains Think is not a textbook in which he explains in mind-numbing detail the brain, the mind, and their interaction. Calvin has written How Brains Think for the reasonably intelligent non-scientist. As Calvin concludes How Brains Think, he observes:

It behooves us to be a considerate creator [of superintelligent machines], wise to the world and its fragile nature, sensitive to the need for stable footings that will prevent backsliding -- and keep the house of cards we call civilization from collapsing.

Near the end of his book, Calvin quotes from Lewis Thomas' masterpiece The Medusa and the Snail: "We need science, more and better science, not for its technology, not for its leisure, not even for health and longevity, but for the hope of wisdom which our kind of culture must acquire for its survival." Albert Borgmann, Eric Drexler, Thomas Friedman, and Joel Mokyr (among others) rise to their feet to join William Calvin in applauding Thomas' comments.

If intelligence is "what you use when you don't know what to do", then "more and better science" must help to provide the "wisdom" of knowing precisely what to do...and what not to do. That's how brains should think. And will, Calvin believes, but if only we have courage and determination sufficient to the task.

Calvin helps an interested layman (at least this one) to understand a rather complicated body of phenomena...doing so with style, grace, and wit. This is a book I re-read at least twice a year. Are Calvin's ideas that stimulating? Yes.

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Robert Morris ()
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Professionally, I am an independent management consultant who specializes in accelerated executive development and breakthrough high-impact organizational performance. I also review mostly business books … more
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About this book


William Calvin, a neurophysiologist and author ofThe River That Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain, attempts to reclaim the study of human consciousness from physicists likeRoger Penrose. Physicists, Calvin suggests, reduce the mind to subatomic particles and mathematical equations, whereas those in his specialty see the seat of consciousness and intelligence in higher levels of brain physiology--the neurons, synapses, and cortex. Calvin is a Darwinist who regards the unique level of human consciousness as the product of evolutionary forces that began with the ice ages two million years ago. The human response to this natural threat, he argues, was to develop mental faculties that allowed high-level communication and, thus, cooperation, leading to complex language capabilities and the distinguishing human characteristic of abstract thought.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10: 046507278X
ISBN-13: 978-0465072781
Author: William H Calvin
Publisher: Basic Books

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