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What is so astonishing, Dr. Crick?
on 3 April 1998
The problem with Crick's book--a rather common problem these days--is that it does not do what it sets out to do. According to Crick, there is this revolutionary and "astonishing" hypothesis that most people either do not know or cannot accept, namely the century-old idea that neurons, as individual and independent units of the brain, are solely responsible for all the higher functions that most people attribute to God, to mind, or to some mysterious agent. Well, if you tell this to any neuroscientist, you probably won't astonish him; if you tell this to a lay man, you won't astonish him any more than, say, the god hypothesis. So Crick, who is a reductionist in need of a little sophistication, really isn't telling us anything extraordinary. His arguments neither shock nor enlighten. The primary merit of this book lies in a solid, if technical, summary of some interesting research in recent years. It is handy as reference, but not particularly a pleasure to read. Crick is not much of a writer; nor is he competent enough in other fields to talk about some of the issues that he does talk about. The more entertaining part of the book, for me, is the delightful bibliography, in which Crick briefly describes each book that he recommends. His remarks are sometimes sharp and witty. Overall, though, this is merely an average book on a most popular subject.