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Book Review - The Birth of the Mind
The Birth of the Mind
by Gary Marcus
Basic Books, 2003
Review by Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D.
Apr 30th 2004

   This is a wonderful book which I heartily recommend to any interested readers who want to explore either genomics or the workings of the mind/brain.  In fact, I loved this book and think that many readers will view it similarly.

   Throughout the book, which is written for reasonable well-educated lay-readers, Marcus points out the misconceptions which are rife in most peoples' views of genomics and especially psychogenomics and explains how just 30,000 genes can and do encode the incredibly complex brains of human beings, with billions of neurons and trillions of neuronal connections.   He makes the major point that "what is good enough for the body is good enough for the brain", and that the genes which build the body overlap with and work in the same way as the genes which build the brain, using many examples throughout the book from ocular dominance columns and other areas.

   In nine short chapters he covers a great deal of ground, and the chapter titles themselves keep us reading - "Born to Learn", "Brainstorms", Aristotle's Impetus", "Copernicus' Revenge" and "Paradox Lost", among others.

   He begins with a quote from Richard Dawkins:  "The genetic code is not a blueprint for assembling a body from a set of bits; it is more like a recipe for baking one from a set of ingredients.  If we follow a particular recipe, word for word, in a cookery book, what finally emerges from the oven is a cake.   We cannot now break the cake into its component crumbs and say:  this crumb corresponds to the first word in the recipe; this crumb corresponds to the second word in the recipe, etc."  Genes "work" with one another, and they have major interfaces with the environment as well.   Thinking and behavior are not completely determined by the genes, which are necessary but not sufficient conditions.

   Marcus uses MIND rather than BRAIN in his title, but immediately cites Pinker's definition of mind as "what the brain does."  He is a fan of Crick's fascinating book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, so this is not a dualistic book, and the author dismisses dualism without really considering its arguments.   He extends Crick's thesis, arguing that the mind has its origin in the brain, and the brain has its origin in the genes, and he points out that consideration of genes has been very deficient even in recent work on theory of mind.  At the same time, he is very careful to point out that genes do not control our destiny - they contribute importantly, as do all kinds of internal and external environmental factors.

   After this introduction, Marcus turns to the question of the mind/brain of human neonates and argues about what is encoded and what is plastic.  He next turns to the structure of the brain and its flexibility.  He provides a wonderful description of genes and proteins and develops the concept of "genetic recipes".   He argues well that the role of genes in the brain is the same as in all other organs.  He moves on to the interaction of genes and the environment in brain function - an excellent and well-informed discussion.  He follows with a wonderful chapter on evolution which clarifies more than anything I have read why, with 98.5% genomic similarity to chimpanzees, human beings are so different.   Finally, he argues that vague concepts such as "nature and nurture" are truly on the verge of being replaced by "a synthesis of biology and the cognitive sciences".

   Throughout the book, he downplays a special role for genes in the brain vs other organs, and he is very convincing.  "In fact, I use the term 'mental gene' as a bit of a joke.  Although many genes affect our mental life... 'mental genes' are pretty much the same as other genes:   self-regulated instructions for building parts of a very complex biological structure... Many of them ... are the same.  From the perspective of the toolkit of biology, there is little difference between a gene expressed in the brain and a gene expressed elsewhere.   A gene is a gene is a gene."  And this, for Marcus, is an organizing principle.  Our genes lead to our sense of self, and our sense of self realizes that it shares its genes with others throughout the animal kingdom:  he (and I) find this unifying, gratifying - solace, in fact.

   The chapter on evolution is the heart of the book, in some ways, and a truly outstanding discussion.  Our genes add to survival value by making our brains and our selves flexible enough to adapt and care for ourselves.  Marcus considers many important topics but has an especially fascinating view of   the role and place of language in our evolutionary development, which is central, crucial, and certainly imperfectly understood and still very controversial.  The author presents the arguments of Fodor, who believes that formal language is distinct from a "language of thought" in the brain, and Gleitman, who points out the lack of cognitive differences in people who speak different languages and argues that a pre-existing conceptual component of the brain produces what we view as language as its mental representation.   (There are many opposing arguments about this issue, of course.)  Marcus points out that the "genes for language" reported by the media are not unique to language, and that our "language genes" do not just come from the 1.5% of genes we do not share with chimpanzees but from the other 98.5% as well.   He also makes explicit the roles of many genes in determination of mental traits and downplays the idea that we shall find one gene for depression, for example.

   He provides a very brief but fascinating overview of real and potential ethical issues, especially in regard to "designer babies".

   Marcus provides an excellent appendix providing interested readers with a good account of methods used in genomic research - an excellent introduction to this topic.  There is an outstanding glossary, seventeen pages long, defining common terms of molecular biology and genomics for the general reader.   The chapter notes which follow are useful and are annotated in many cases.  There are thirty pages of references which really provide a major resource for scientific and medical readers who wish to pursue the book's topics in more detail.

   I cannot find any significant aspect of this book to criticize.  It is well written, and the author has a sense of humor, which can be very helpful in a book like this.  For example, he alludes to a "study" allegedly finding that human infants are stupid, which is a wonderful, satirical piece in The Onion.   He realizes that psychogenomics is in its infancy and makes an occasional delightful comment such as, "Scientists are a lot better at 'finding' genes for complex mental traits than they are at replicating their findings."  This is a superb book, and I recommend it most highly.


© 2004 Lloyd A. Wells


Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN