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Thursday, January 10th, 2008

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Well ...
I guess I can't love 'em all ... this was one of those books that never quite engaged me ... it was "interesting enough" but (for the most part) didn't bring anything new up, just a different angle of looking at the evolution of the human brain. Now, I will admit that I have read quite a number of books on this and related subjects over the years, so there's a reason that I might be more blasé about this than were I to be hitting it "cold".

Certainly, Michael C. Corballis' The Lopsided Ape: The Evolution of the Generative Mind is a solid effort. The author is willing to air conjecture and to admit the points where it's pretty much "anybody's guess". You can tell that he's a classroom instructor, as about every 10 pages or so he'll drop some wry bit of humor ... no knee-slappers or belly busters, but something that is clearly there to amuse the reader. This was, frankly, somewhat irritating initially (I kept wondering if the editor assigned the project had "gone to the mat" to get those excised and lost), but as they kept coming one came to expect them, even though the feeling was that the author was attempting to manipulate his readers into liking him by being "cute", a stratagem no doubt useful in the classroom, but somewhat questionable in this setting!

The one thing that most impressed me here was that Corballis was open to the "Aquatic Ape" hypothesis, which is a very gutsy stand to take these days. I've always found Elaine Morgan's (admittedly, spottily supported) theories of humanity's ancestors going through a semi-aquatic phase fascinating and certainly a plausible explanation of our various notably non-chimp-like morphologies, despite sharing 98% of our DNA with our closest ape cousins.

As one would gather from the title, most of The Lopsided Ape deals with the various language-processing areas on the left side of the brain. Looking back into the deep recesses of the evolutionary past, the author seeks clues to when this "specialization" began and how it might have shaped the course of our development. Much space is spent on various proto-human lines, as on the function and inter-relation of various portions of the brain. There are some very interesting bits in here that I had not previously encountered, however. One theory which he presents is that of "geons" which are the "shape recognition" equivalents (perhaps in the right brain) of the left-brain's language building block "phonemes". The concept that the brain has two sets of basic bits of data, one spatial, one verbal/linguistic, that are then assembled in a recursive, rule-structured, generative manner leads to the book's other hypothesis, that of a G.A.D., a functional area of the brain which acts as Generative Assembling Device.

One wishes that The Lopsided Ape dealt more with these latter concepts, as the material leading up to them was fairly mundane (again, in the context of my having read many books on the general subject ... "your mileage may vary"), but I suspect that there hasn't been any "hard" laboratory research done on this, at least when the book was written (back in 1991, this being another of the books of "that vintage" which has been kicking around my library for the better part of 20 years!).

As a cursory over-view of brain evolution, function, and specialization, this is certainly not a bad choice, but it's also not a book that has a lot of "wow!" moments in it either. It is still in print in a (fairly expensive) "new edition" paperback, but copies of the hardcover can be had in "very good" condition for well under a buck, before shipping, from the Amazon new/used vendors, so I'd certainly recommend that route were you looking to add this to your collection.

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