Reviews of The Birth of the Mind

Publishers Weekly - 11/17/03

NYU psychologist Marcus strikes a rare and delicate balance of scientific detail and layperson accessibility in this overview of an exploding field of inquiry. He traces a compelling story through the classic genetics and brain experiments of the past century up to present-day research, intriguingly illustrating how the human genome is intertwined with brain development, showing how the mechanisms that build brains are extensions of the mechanisms that build the body. Marcus dispels popular misconceptions of genes, showing, for instance, that most behaviors and disorders are much more complicated than headlines such as "gene for obesity discovered" would have us believe. Heavy explanations of complex results and abstract concepts are leavened by Marcus' upbeat, friendly writing style, which makes even the most arcane genetics principles a joy to read. Experiments with vision and language are particularly well-represented, with vivid descriptions adding color to the technical prose. If there is a fault here, it is that the book jumps around a bit too much, attempting to collect several decades of research and many threads of thought into a single slim volume. A lengthy glossary and bibliography, along with meticulous footnoting throughout, are helpful for those wishing to educate themselves further on the subject, but Marcus gives most readers more than enough to think about here.

(c) 2003 Publisher's Weekly

Booklist - 11/15/03

Psychologist Marcus provides an accessible discussion of genetic history and current research. Along the way, he disabuses readers of some common misconceptions about genes and alters the groundwork of the nature versus nurture debate. Marcus accomplishes these goals by reaching down to the molecular level of DNA, giving a crystal-clear explanation of how its information is manifested through cascades of protein activation and regulation. Marcus impresses upon readers the fact that there is only a tiny genomic difference between humans and primates, but an immense one between their minds. Marcus also convinces his audience that there isn't one gene "for" some attribute, such as intelligence, which is implied when the human genome is compared to a blueprint. Instead, Marcus asserts, genes act in "exquisite harmony." A lucid, pleasing chronicle of how genes construct the human mind."

(c) 2003 Booklist

Genome News Network - January 23, 2004

When the world learned a few years ago that humans have only twice as many genes as fruit flies, some news reports said the finding was an insult to our species. After all, aren’t humans more than twice as biologically complex as flies?

The point seems to be exactly the opposite: Humans get by with relatively few genes, so we must have picked up some marvelous biological innovations over the course of evolution that help us make the most of what we have.

These biological innovations presumably have their roots in our genome. The connection between genes and the brain is the subject of an interesting and accessible new book, The Birth of the Mind . Author Gary Marcus writes that progress in genomics means that we are now ready to learn about the mind by understanding how genes build the brain.

Scientists need to know a lot more about the roles of individual genes to tell the full story. But Marcus brings together recent research on genes and the brain, and he provides a useful framework for thinking about the organ that does our thinking.

The brain is really no different from other organs in its construction, according to Marcus, a research psychologist at New York University. Like the heart and the liver, the brain is basically a collection of proteins, and its abilities stem from its physical properties—which in turn are the products of genes.

Genes generally do in the brain what they do elsewhere in the body, switching on when they’re needed. In Marcus’s view, nature and nurture are equal partners as the brain is built because a cell’s internal genetic program is influenced by what happens outside the cell.

The brain of a newborn is partially organized, or “prewired,” and ready to learn. It is not, however, “hardwired,” which implies a kind of inflexibility that could prove disastrous if errors occur.

“Nature has been very clever indeed,” Marcus writes, “endowing us with machinery not only so fantastic that it can organize itself but also so supple that it can refine and retune itself every day of our lives.”

The second chapter, called “Born to Learn,” may be of particular interest to new parents. It describes how newborns pick up differences in language and how infants make sense of the world so early in life.

“It’s not all there at birth,” he notes. But “children are born with sophisticated mental mechanisms (nature) that allow them to make the most of the information out there in the world (nurture).”

The book picks up steam once some basic biological principles have been covered and the author turns to questions about what it all means. For example, how did humans develop language? He recounts the story of the discovery a few years ago of the first gene linked to language in humans.

This and other material may be familiar to newspaper readers, but Marcus weaves together stories nicely and his arguments often rely on common sense.

For instance, he makes a welcome plea for people to stop talking about the genome as a blueprint for the body. Instead, he writes, “We have come to understand the genome as a complex, dynamic set of self-regulating recipes that actively modulate every step of life.”

The book is timely. It’s now possible to compare the genomes of people and chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, and the search is on for the genes that make us human. So far no smoking gun has been found, and there probably isn’t a smoking gun.

But some of our uniquely human abilities may be due to the duplication or modification of a single gene. (There is evidence for this from research on seeing colors.) Our species may have acquired new mental abilities because a modified gene regulates a collection of existing genes in a novel way.

This could help explain why the human and chimpanzee brains function so differently, despite our genetic similarities. It also suggests that our descendents, many generations from now, may have wondrous mental abilities that we cannot imagine today—all because of small changes in the genome.

-- Edward R. Winstead

Curled Up with a Good Book - February, 2004

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The subtitle of The Birth of the Mind, tells the basic story: how a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. Once you delve into this fascinating book, you will be amazed at just how powerful those tiny number of genes really are. Powerful enough to shape our realities, and create our experiences. Powerful enough to make body parts do what they are supposed to do, and to adapt accordingly when our environment demands we do so. Powerful enough to make us think, and to drive us to behave in the ways we do as human beings.

Marcus, who is an associate professor of Psychology at NYU and an award-winning cognitive scientist, writes in a down-to-earth style about an out-of-this-world subject matter – namely, the world of the genome, and the constructive abilities of genes that literally create the brain. Using plenty of cutting-edge research as a backdrop, as well as his own studies with child development, the author leads us on a journey into the brain and into the deepest realms of the biology that shapes our mental thought processes.

Marcus first takes on the nature-versus-nurture debate, showing how the Human Genome Project is drastically altering our sense of how the brain works with the most recent discoveries of just how much our genes influence human intelligence. The author then, in language completely accessible to the lay reader and science novice, tells us what these things called genes really are, what they do, and how they come to effect the mighty brain and all its infinite abilities and complexities. Starting with research into childhood development, and covering decades of animal research up to the most current human brain studies, this awe-inspiring book shows the intricate relationship between our genes and our thinking patterns and learning styles. It also shows what is in control, and clearly, the genes win hands down.

In fact, we come to understand that our brain’s origin is genetically mapped, and that all we perceive is directly related to the genes operating like thousands of busy little computer programmers in our bodies. We learn that mental evolution is tied directly into the world of geneticly programmed codes that influence how we think and how we view our world. We also learn about the amazing adaptability of the brain and body, and how our genes help us to survive in a constantly changing world. We also realize, through the remarkable research being done today, that our ability to learn and grow and experience new things is connected to our genetic makeup, but that we still have the tools to trigger greater mental capacity. Destiny may be in our genes, but we still have some say in the matter of how we use our grey matter. In fact, this book shows that the more we use our brains, the more brains we seem to have to use.

Although I did get bogged down in some of the heavy research and technical talk about the various parts of the brain and which does what, and I was occasionally put off by the emotionless descriptions of brutal animal experiments (we do some pretty awful things to other sentient beings in the name of “learning” more about ourselves), I found The Birth of the Mind totally mind-boggling, pardon the pun. It is a page-turner that is all nonfiction, based upon the growing body of factual evidence that points to a human brain so complex and intelligently designed, it is breathtaking.

© 2004 by Marie D. Jones for Curled Up With a Good Book