Please note: I have written a companion article to accompany this review
When the Right Brain Doesn't Know What the Left Brain is Doing.
Points that are highlighted in this review are expanded in that article.
Carl Sagan was one of my modern heroes. His death in 1996 at the all-too-early age of 62 was a crushing blow, as was Michael Crichton's a decade later. There are some people who seem to have mastered the art of being human. One can only imagine how much more these two masters could have contributed to the race had they lived a full life.
This is one of those books that I found in one of my boxes that must have come from my mother, who read only trashy Harlequin Romances and put the quality reading materials aside for me. However I obtained it, I was delighted to find that I owned it. I have Sagan's PBS series Cosmos on tape, from way back when I had a TV and VCR, but this one, as he candidly admits, goes outside his usual scientific realm. And of course it is infused with his typical humor, including several belly-laughs, which cannot be said for most scientific writing!
The book is about the evolution of human intelligence, although had Sagan lived into 2018, he may have had to write another on the devolution of human intelligence. However he does recognize, even back in 1977 when the book was written, that humanity is heading into a precarious situation which could have catastrophic consequences if we do not learn how to use technology wisely. Well, we haven't and it is.
There is SO much information in this book, I will not even attempt to cover it all, but I took profuse notes, and will share odds and ends. And the book really is lots of odds and ends, and tons of fascinating facts, reflections, and possibilities for the future. Sagan, like myself, seemed to be curious about everything. One can say that about few people these days.
Carl Sagan, as described by Wikipedia, was an astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences. He was funny, extremely intelligent, and absolutely beloved by the public. He brought science down to where everyone could understand it. He was a believer in extraterrestrial life, and sought to find it, and though he came from a Jewish background, spiritually, he was an agnostic. He wrote lots of books, but his best known, other than Cosmos, was probably Pale Blue Dot, its sequel.
Probably the best way to review this book is to just share Sagan's thoughts and humor from the notes I took. So we will go here and there, beginning with the Big Bang, of which most people are familiar. He says that it may have been the beginning of the universe, or, "it may be a discontinuity in which information about the earlier history of the universe was destroyed." I found that thought provoking. Then he goes on to present graphics of the "cosmic calendar," in fact that is the name of the first chapter. I have seen those before, and they are fascinating. All of recorded history occupies the last ten seconds of the year, in other words, that gives one an idea of how long it took the planet to evolve intelligent life.
The second chapter is entitled Genes and Brains. He begins by talking about biodiversity, and how certain animals can cross-breed. For instance, dogs of two different breeds can produce offspring that will be fertile, which obviously we know, and we also know that a horse and donkey can breed, but their offspring, a mule, is not fertile. But early people believed any animals could mate and produce offspring. The Minotaur in ancient Greek legend was supposedly a cross between a bull and a woman. And he says the Roman historian Pliny said about the newly discovered ostrich that it was a cross between a giraffe and a gnat!! (Sagan points out that the giraffe would have to have been the female.)
But then he gets to talking about DNA and the amount of information it carries. This is right up my alley, because I have always had an interest in DNA. When I was in 6th grade, I did a science project on it, all by myself, reading college-level books. I won 7th place in the district! Anyways, the numbers are really fascinating here. One single chromosome contains twenty billion bits of information, which would amount to approximately four thousand volumes of books containing about five hundred pages each. Our bodies are amazing.
Sagan spends a great part of the book discussing the development of the brain, especially each different part, and what function that part specializes in. People with epilepsy were mentioned quite often in the research that had been done. Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon did experiments with patients after a craniotomy, when they were conscious. He found that electrical stimulation would bring back memories or flashbacks or a feeling of familiarity. In one case, while the occipital lobe, which is concerned with vision, was being stimulated, the patient saw a fluttering butterfly and reached out to catch it.
Sagan spends quite a bit of time on brain size, particularly compared with body weight, and this is a subject that keeps returning. Larger brained people tend to be more intelligent, but not always. Einstein did not have a particularly large brain, and Sagan also gives examples of people with larger brains who were not more intelligent than others with smaller brains. And so, brain mass, for the most part in humans does not make that much of a difference.
However, when comparing brain mass among the species, there is a great difference. It is not the brain mass as much as the ratio of brain mass to body size. Sagan includes diagrams which illustrate this. He points out that "there is a remarkable separation between fish and reptiles from birds and mammals." Dinosaurs were, for the most part, particularly stupid, however, there were exceptions, such as a "small ostrich-like theropod class of dinosaurs from the late Cretaceous Period, whose ratio of brain to body mass places them just within the regional diagram otherwise restricted to large birds and the less intelligent mammals. As might be expected (or not), Homo sapiens has the largest brain mass to body ratio of all the animals, followed by dolphins!
Later on he discusses neurons in the brain and spinal cord and synapses that connect them. And the numbers are once more impressive. The human brain, except for the cerebellum, has about ten billion switching elements called neurons. Each neuron in the brain has between a thousand and ten thousand synapses, which are the links with other neurons, and the neurons in the spinal cord have about ten thousand synapses. He then gets into really incomprehensible numbers as he says that the human brain contains about ten trillion bits of information. By the way, he compares the operation of the brain with a computer, using a binary system where the answer to everything is derived from a series of yes-no questions.
I really should quote several paragraphs from the page on which this information is found, but I won't. Let it suffice to say that the immensity of possibilities of the human brain is unfathomable. I will quote this much:
These enormous numbers may also explain something of the unpredictability of human behavior and those moments when we surprise even ourselves by what we do. Indeed in the face of these numbers, the wonder is that there are any regularities at all in human behavior. The answer must be that all possible brain states are by no means occupied; there must be an enormous number of mental configurations that have never been entered or even glimpsed by any human being in the history of mankind.
I will take a detour for a second here and mention that there was much in this
book about the physical state that enlightened me on the non-physical state. That, of course, is the crux of this monumental transition we are amidst.
Quantum physics has brought together physics and metaphysics so that what those of us, such as myself, are investigating now no longer seems that way off the
edge. And I absolutely believe it is the mind/brain that contains the untapped potential, or rather the potential we had eons ago, but lost.
(See accompanying article)
One of the main points Sagan makes is that earlier life forms relied on their DNA, a built-in "intelligence" that provided for the organism, supplying the mechanisms for body functions and instincts for food gathering and basic survival needs. But with the development of a complex brain, that replaced much of what had previously been relied upon for the organism to live, which greatly expanded to thoughts and decision-making.
Somewhere in the steaming jungles of the Carboniferous Period there emerged an organism that for the first time in the history of the world had more information in its brains than in its genes. It was an early reptile which, were we to come upon it in these sophisticated time, we would probably not describe as exceptionally intelligent. But its brain was a symbolic turning point in the history of life. The two subsequent bursts of brain evolution, accompanying the emergence of mammals and the advent of manlike primates, were still more important advances in the evolution of intelligence. Much of the history of life since the Carboniferous Period can be described as the gradual (and certainly incomplete) dominance of brains over genes.
In the next chapter, The Brain and the Chariot, Sagan discusses the
specialization of the parts of the brain, (which he does throughout the book). He also makes the point that as more complex parts developed, the simpler ones
shrunk and became less important. He says, "After each evolutionary step, the older portions of the brain still exist and must still be accommodated. But
a new layer with new functions must be added."
He tells of the work of Paul MacLean of the Laboratory of Evolution and Behavior of the National Institute of Mental Health, where he studied the behavior of different animals.
I want to point out VERY CLEARLY that I am against the use of animals for scientific experiments. I am not opposed, however, to observing animals in a natural or humane setting, or even setting up tasks for them, provided there is no abuse or pain inflicted, including surgery or "alterations" (no Dr. Moreau allowed), and the animals are provided for all their needs and treated with kindness. Anyways, Sagan shares some interesting observations, along with some humor. And incidentally, Sagan, too, questions the ethics of using animals for abusive scientific experiments.
Squirrel monkeys with their "gothic" facial markings have a kind of ritual or display which they perform when greeting one another. The males bare their teeth, rattle the bars of their cage, utter a high-pitched squeak, which is possibly terrifying to squirrel monkeys, and lift their legs to reveal an erect penis. While such behavior would border on impoliteness at many contemporary human social gatherings, it is a fairly elaborate act and serves to maintain dominance hierarchies in squirrel-monkey communities.
Below: Some happy and well cared-for squirrel monkeys, now an endangered species, at the Auckland Zoo. Gothic indeed!
Sagan mentions that humans, while developing inside the womb, go through, what seems to me, a flash through the evolutionary cycle. He says:
And indeed in human intrauterine development we run through stages very much like fish, reptiles and nonprimate mammals before we become recognizably human. The fish stage even has gill slits, which are absolutely useless for the embryo who is nourished via the umbilical cord, but a necessity for human embryology: since gills were vital to our ancestors, we run through a gill stage in becoming human. The brain of a human fetus also develops from the inside out, and, roughly speaking, runs through the sequence: neural chassis, R-complex, limbic system and neocortex. [The R-complex or Reptilian complex: The evolutionarily most ancient part of the forebrain.]
I found this next part interesting, describing the Reptilian complex. Of course, Sagan was referring to actual animal reptiles and probably dinosaurs, but, I dunno, I think many of us may take it differently.
MacLean has shown that the R-complex plays an important role in aggressive behavior, territoriality, ritual and the establishment of social hierarchies. Despite occasional welcome exceptions, this seems to me to characterize a great deal of modern human bureaucratic and political behavior.
I want to be very clear about the social implications of the contention that reptilian brains influence human behavior. If bureaucratic behavior is controlled at its core by the R-complex, does this mean there is no hope for the human future.
That question now is so much more relevant than in 1977 when this book was written.
Sagan then discusses the limbic system which "seems to generate strong or vivid emotions." It is also where the "master gland," the pituitary, resides, which "dominates the human endocrine system." This and the amygdale greatly affect our sense of fear, aggression and emotions. The pituitary protein ACTH can affect visual retention, anxiety and attention span.
I am going to limit myself to how much of this information I include in this review. Obviously people need to educate themselves and reading this, or the many other related books available will give us further insight to the brain and its functions. Please be aware that this is so extremely important now, in the age where our government and military is blatantly spraying us with toxic heavy metals that we KNOW are affecting the functions of our brains, I don't think even the most aware of us have a clue to the entire picture of what is going on, but five minutes of reading the daily news will tell you that something is desperately wrong. Read more about this in the article above.
Here are two humorous, but accurate descriptions of sex in the insect world that I just had to include. Incidentally, whenever I come across an insect that I like and usually speak to, I always assume it's a female and with good reason! I love praying mantises, but, yeah, I realize their lifestyles are pretty gross. Ditto with spiders.
The heads and bodies of anthropods can briefly function without each other very nicely. A female praying mantis will often respond to earnest courting by decapitating her suitor. While this would be viewed as unsociable among humans, it is not so among insects: extirpation of the brain removes sexual inhibitions and encourages what is left of the male to mate. Afterwards, the female completes her celebratory repast, dining, of course, alone. Perhaps this represents a cautionary lesson against excessive sexual repression.
He later discusses the unusual sex life of a certain South African beetle with a species of orchid which gives off an aroma identical to the sex attractant of the female beetle. The males beetles emerge from the ground in the spring, preceding the emergence of the females:
The male beetles turn out to be exceedingly nearsighted; and the orchids have evolved a configuration of their petals that, to a myopic beetle, resembles the female in a receptive sexual posture. The male beetles enjoy several weeks of orgiastic ecstasy among the orchids, and when eventually the females emerge from the ground, we can imagine a great deal of wounded pride and righteous indignation. Meanwhile the orchids have been successfully cross-pollinated by the amorous male beetles, who, now properly abashed, do their best to continue the beetle species; and both organisms survive.
Incidentally, as an owner of an organic farm, I observe quite of bit of the sex
life of plants. Cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, etc.),
have distinctive male and female blossoms. Cucumber blossoms, which are quite small, can be differentiated by the fact that the females are connected to a
tiny cucumber before they even open. With the big squash, however, one does not need to look for baby fruit. One look at the center of the blossom, and there
is no doubt whatsoever, which are male and which are female!
Sagan also speaks about the sense of smell, which has been repressed in humans, to a point, or so we think. But not really. A whiff of my spicy petunias will immediately set me staring, as a little girl, in front of our large oval flower bed that took up a good deal of the north yard. A sniff of tomato plants always puts me walking through the northeast field on an autumn evening. But animals, of course, make greater use of their sense of smell, with no embarrassment. In the winter, when odors do not evaporate quickly. Molly will drag me across the farm every time we go for a walk, in order to sniff every single turd. Sagan speaks of the olfactory sense in silkworms:
The male silkworm moth is able to detect the female's sex attractant molecule if only about forty molecules per second reach its feathery antennae. A single female silkworm moth need release only a hundredth of a microgram of sex attractant per second to attract every male silkworm in a volume of about a cubic mile. That is why there are silkworms.
In Sagan's discussion of the neocortex, he says that "the frontal lobes may be involved with peculiarly human functions in two different ways," that is, controlling anticipation of the future and worry. He says:
The price we pay for anticipation of the future is anxiety about it. Foretelling disaster is probably not much fun; Pollyanna was much happier than Cassandra. But the Cassandric components of our nature are necessary for survival. The doctrines for regulating the future that they produced are the origin of ethics, magic, science and legal codes. The benefit of foreseeing catastrophe is the ability to take steps to avoid it, sacrificing short-term for long-term benefits.A society that is, as a result of such foresight, materially secure generates the leisure time necessary for social and technological innovation.
(Incidentally, Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy, who was taken back to Argos as a concubine by Agamemnon after they won the war. She was gifted for accurately foreseeing the future, but her curse was that no one ever believed her.)
In the next chapter, Eden as a Metaphor: The Evolution of Man, Sagan talks more about brain volume in early forms of humans, both Homo, and those not considered "man" but were very human-like and intelligent. He supplies a chart comparing brain mass vs. height and weight, and the ratio of brain to body weight.
The first interesting species he discusses is one I had never heard of. Springing forth out of East Africa six million years ago were the gracile Australopithecines, small (3 1/2 feet tall) bipeds with a body to brain ratio of 50, not too bad, seeing that early Homo sapiens had a ratio of 45. Later on came the Australopithecus robustus, much larger but less lithe and not nearly as smart, with a ratio of 90. Interestingly, the graciles had developed the use of tools, while the robustus did not.
A little earlier than robustus came the first true human, Homo habilis, 3.7 million years ago, with a ratio of 60, perhaps not quite as smart as gracile, but having a slightly larger brain mass, and much larger body. Homo erectus emerged on the scene about 1.5 million years ago, and for the first time, had a brain mass which overlapped those of Homo sapiens (750-1250 cc vs. 1100-2200 cc).
Sagan makes an interesting point about graciles and their use of tools, which, according to archeological findings, burst onto the scene in great quantities all of a sudden.There is no way to explain the discontinuous appearance of stone tools unless the Australopithecines had educational institutions. There must have been some sort of stonecraft guild passing on from generation to generation the precious knowledge about the fabrication and use of tools—knowledge that would eventually propel such feeble and almost defenseless primates into domination of the planet Earth.
Sagan also mentions Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, neither of which were Homo and probably not our ancestors. They had a larger average brain mass than we do, and were also very large-bodied. But, he notes, the shape of their heads were different than modern humans, and wonders if they developed different skills.Might the brain growth exhibited by Neanderthal man have been in the parietal and occipital lobes, and the major brain growth of our ancestors in the frontal and temporal lobes? Is it possible that the Neanderthals developed quite a different mentality than ours, and that our superior linguistic and anticipatory skills enabled us to destroy utterly our husky and intelligent cousins?
In The Abstractions of Beasts, Sagan spends quite a bit of time on chimpanzees and sign language. I won't go into it here, but it was very fascinating and humorous, too. But I will quote his final sentence on that subject:The cognitive abilities of chimpanzees force us, I think, to raise searching questions about the boundaries of the community of beings to which special ethical considerations are due, and can, I hope, help to extend our ethical perspectives downward through the taxa on earth and upwards to extraterrestrial organisms, if they exist.
In Tales of Dim Eden, we once again return to dinosaurs, and Sagan gives us information on their brain masses, which varied widely, and most were really stupid, but not all. Stegosaurus had a brain mass of only 30 cc!! Sagan says, "Stegosaurus, which weighed two metric tons, was probably far more stupid than a rabbit. But not all were stupid. One, called Saurornithoides had a brain mass of 50 grams with a body weight of 50 kilograms, making them comparable to an ostrich. Sagan wonders:They are interesting beasts to speculate about. If the dinosaurs had not all been mysteriously extinguished some sixty-five million years ago, would the Saurornithoides have continued to evolve into increasingly intelligent forms. Would they have learned to hunt large mammals collectively and thus perhaps have prevented the great proliferation of mammals that followed the end of the Mesozoic Age? If it had not been for the extinction of the dinosaurs, would the dominant life forms on Earth today be descendants of Saurornithoides, writing and reading books, speculating on what would have happened had the mammals prevailed?
This chapter also includes information on sleep and dreaming, and Sagan wonders if perhaps there was a form of human that actually overlapped the existence of dinosaurs. He wonders if children's fears and dreams of monsters is something inherited from ancient, ancient times, of human encounters with something like Tyrannosaurus rex. I have to mention that he raises questions such as this all through the book, which is what makes it such thought-provoking reading.
Later in the chapter, Sagan spends quite a bit of time talking about dreams and the dream state and recurring dreams he has had. One of the possibilities he mentions is that the brain may be undergoing a "memory dump"—getting rid of all the day's stuff that it didn't need. Incidentally, throughout the book, Sagan makes the comparison between human brain functioning and computers, what has become so commonly known now as AI, I believe, and I doubt that would have been a familiar term back in 1977, WAY before the internet.Much more plausible is the computer-based explanation that dreams are a spillover from the unconscious processing of the day's, experience, from the brain's decision on how much of the daily events temporarily stored in a kind of buffer to emplace in long-term memory.The buffer-dumping and memory-storage functions of dreams have some interesting social implications. The American psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann of Tufts University has provided anecdotal but reasonably persuasive evidence that people who are engaged in intellectual activities during the day, especially unfamiliar intellectual activities, require more sleep at night, while, by and large, those engaged in mainly repetitive and intellectually unchallenging tasks are able to do with much less sleep.
As regular readers know, I have my own theories about dreaming, but I also know that what I believe is not the whole picture of anything. Yet. This is one of the areas I discuss in my article.
I know this review is getting quite lengthy, but there are two more areas I want to touch upon, that have given me more insight into our predicament, that is, the fact that we have been "disabled" at some point in our history, and are not able to do what we could do, way back eons ago. My goal has been, for decades, to recover my lost functions, as we need to do right now as we watch our old paradigm collapse before our very eyes. I know that many say we must become more "spiritual," and while I agree that our connection to the non-physical world was severed, we have still remaining, the most powerful computer that will ever be created and it sits right inside our skull. We only use a tiny fraction of it, and I always wonder why. Not only do I wonder, but I constantly work to unleash my brain power and free the forbidden knowledge that it holds. If anyone is to survive what is coming fast, this is imperative.
Sagan discusses the function of the two brain hemispheres in the chapter Lovers and Madmen. He speaks of a pianist being able to memorize a piece of music, (a skill of which I am quite familiar). He says:This is a good example of the cooperation of left and right hemispheres in many of the most difficult and highly valued human activities. It is vital not to overestimate the separation of functions on either side of the corpus callosum in a normal human being. The existence of so complex a cabling system as the corpus callosum must mean, and it is important to stress again, the interaction of the hemispheres is a vital human function.
But we are losing our vital human brain functions, and it is happening through the deliberate activities of those who would keep us non-functional. The spraying, 24/7 now of toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium, barium and aluminum nanoparticles found in geoengineering sprays is having a catastrophic effect on our brain's ability to function normally. Even before this, we were by no means running on all four cylinders, but now—just look at young people who cannot hold a conversation for more than a couple minutes unless it is about something totally mundane. Seat yourself in a public area and count the number of people who are not walking around like zombies with their faces in their cell phones. The count will not take up ten fingers. Of course, none of this was even remotely apparent when Sagan wrote this book, but his comments throughout lead me to believe he worried about the future effect of technology.
This chapter spends quite a bit of time on people who truly have split-brains, and experiments done on them. The right hemisphere controls the left hand, foot etc. and vice versa. Though it is very complex, a summary of brain hemisphere functions could be summarized thus:The first evidence that these two modes of thinking are localized in the cerebral cortex has come from the study of brain lesions. Accidents or stroke in the temporal or parietal lobes of the left hemisphere of the neocortex characteristically result in impairment in the ability to read, write, speak, and do arithmetic. Comparable lesions in the right hemisphere lead to impairment or three-dimensional vision, pattern recognition, musical ability and holistic reasoning. [Intuition, I believe is what he means.]
An experiment done with split-brain patients presents the word BOOK, flashed into the left visual field, (right brain function). With the left hand out of view, the patient writes in script the correct word. However, when asked what word his left hand wrote, he replies CUP.
A while back, a book came out entitled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I actually own it but never read it. I guess I need to. This section brought up so many interesting points, that I have begun doing experiments on myself, which I speak of in the article. We have been programmed, especially in the last several decades to dismiss our sense of intuition. In this age, technology has gained control of many people's lives, and that is not good, because it is intuition that we need, more than ever, to free us from this mess. I discuss this, too in the article.
Later on, Sagan points out that during the day, the stars are still out, but we just cannot see them, and makes the comparison that our left-brains may be suppressing what is still there in the right-brain, of which we are simply unaware. He writes about the effects of marijuana on right-brain/left-brain functions. Please note that I do not condone the use of marijuana or any other drugs, period, however, it seems that there is an energetic/holistic way for us to access this treasure trove of knowledge we have hidden in that part of the brain. I believe that people who are naturally creative, especially those like myself who steer clear of as much of the programming and destructive technology as possible (and some technology is very beneficial when used wisely), probably are using more of their right brains that most others these days. The fact that we are very aware of what is going on behind the scenes while most are clueless is an example. However, I believe there is an incomprehensible amount of information that we have not accessed, that we desperately need in these desperate times.Marijuana is often described as improving our appreciation of an abilities in music, dance, art, pattern and sign recognition and our sensitivity to nonverbal communication. To the best of my knowledge, it is never reported as improving our ability to read and comprehend Ludwig Wittgenstein or Immanuel Kant; to calculate the stresses on bridges; or to compute Laplace transformations. Often the subject has difficulty in writing down his thoughts coherently. I wonder if, rather than enhancing anything, the cannabinols (the active ingredients in marijuana) simply suppress the left hemisphere and permit the stars to come out. This may also be the object of the meditative states of many Oriental religions.
Meditation I do agree with.
In the penultimate chapter of the book, The Future Evolution of the Brain, Sagan speaks, obviously, of what is to come, and, as I mentioned earlier, though not designated with the term AI, that is in fact what he speaks of—a merging of the human mind with computers. I am not saying that is wrong, but what it has evolved into in the forty years since the book was written is NOT good, because a small portion of the wealthy population has used it to gain control of the population at large. Used to benefit life on Earth would be OK, but that is distinctly NOT what is happening. And Sagan was very aware of that probability. He says:In general, human societies are not innovative. They are hierarchical and ritualistic. Suggestions for change are greeted with suspicion: they imply an unpleasant future variation in ritual and hierarchy: an exchange of one set of rituals for another, or perhaps for a less structured society with fewer rituals. And yet there are times when societies must change. "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present" was Abraham Lincoln's description of this truth. Much of the difficulty in attempting to restructure American and other societies arises from this resistance by groups with vested interests in the status quo. Significant change might require those who are now high in the hierarchy to move down many steps. This seems to them undesirable and is resisted.
Whew! Is that an understatement, or what!!
This next quote sums up where we are as a "civilized society." Not very civilized at all. I cover this more in my related article.There is no right to life in any society on Earth today, nor has there been at any former time (with a few rare exceptions, such as among the Jains in India). We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there, hunt deer and elk for sport, leopards for their pelts, and whales for dog food; entwine dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; and club seal pups to death for "population management." All these beasts and vegetables are as alive as we are. What is protected in many human societies is not life, but human life. And even with this protection, we wage "modern" wars on civilian populations with a toll so terrible we are, most of us, afraid to consider it very deeply. Often such mass murders are justified by racial or nationalistic redefinitions of our opponents as less than human.
He then gets into more disturbing aspects of AI and gene manipulation, which, to our horror, are coming true. In my notes, I had written next to it, "that is a chilling paragraph.". . . it may be possible, by brain surgery, to improve those components that may be responsible for some of the perils and contradictions facing mankind. But the complexity and redundancy of brain function make such a course of action impractical for the near future, even if it were socially desirable. We may be able to engineer genes before we are able to engineer brains.
OMG! I wonder if Sagan would be one of the rare scientists to recognize the reality of geoengineering/GMOs and other horrors and speak out against them. Somehow, I think that would have been a possibility.
He also makes another very humorous comment on what the possibilities could be by altering our brains:Perhaps some day it will be possible to add a variety of cognitive and intellectual prosthetic devices to the brains—a kind of eyeglasses for the mind. This would be in the spirit of the past accretionary evolution of the brain and is probably far more feasible than attempting to restructure the existing brain. Perhaps one day we will have surgically implanted in our brains small replaceable computer modules or radio terminals which will provide us with a rapid and fluent knowledge of Basque, Urdu, Amharic, Ainu, Albanian, Nu, Hopi, !Kung, or delphinese; or numerical values of the incomplete gamma function and the Tschebysheff polynomials; or the natural history of animal spoor; or all legal precedents for the ownership of floating islands; or radio telepathy connecting several human beings, at least temporarily, in a form of symbiotic association previously unknown to our species.HAHAHA!! Just what we all need !
I was astounded as to how developed computers were back in 1977. Of course, there was no internet, and PCs were much more complicated to use. He says a desktop computer cost about $4,900, and a hand-held one, $145. HA! ENIAC, the first large electronic computer built in 1946 used 18,000 vacuum tubes and took up an entire room. I believe there were no mice until much later. It is a subject I should probably pursue. Anyways, Sagan repeatedly compares the working of our brain to that of a computer. He also mentions many uses of computers back then which we don't really think about today, as they are so common place, for instance, aircraft safety, cardiac pacemakers, electronic games, smoke-actuated fire alarms and automated factories.
He spoke of computers programmed to be psychiatrists, and when put to the test, they provided typical answers. However he also points out that they lack "sophistication, training, sensitivity, human intuition; it is mechanical (of course!), inflexible and relatively unresponsive to emotional nuance and nonverbal cues. And yet is has produced a conversation more intelligent than many."
I will conclude this very long review with one more humorous quote, and this supposedly really happened. The few other things I wanted to mention are integrated in the accompanying article.
He speaks of a computer that was programmed to translate languages, for instance input in English, output in another language. The story goes that a U.S. senator was taken for a demonstration. He was asked to produce a phrase for translation, and the chosen language was Chinese. He suggested "Out of sight, out of mind." And so, the machine translated it, but since no one could speak Chinese there, they had it translated back to English. The computer's result was "Invisible idiot."
And on that very funny anecdote, I will end this review. Be sure to read the accompanying article.
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