Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the self, by John C. Eccles, Routledge, 1989, 300 ff.
A theistic interpretation of evolution By Howard Jones
As the title of this book indicates, this is a story of human evolution, especially of mind, presented in highly readable and story-book fashion. Various aspects of evolution are knitted together here in a more cohesive way than I have met before. The author was an Australian-born neurophysiologist who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research into the synapse. The synapse - the gap between communicating neurons in the central nervous system - was defined by Eccles and his mentor at Oxford, Charles Sherrington. He studied at Oxford University, worked in Australia, New Zealand and America and died in 1997.
This book by a devoted theist and sometime Catholic is an endorsement of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which might give some creationists pause for thought. The first two chapters give us a general overview of evolution and how it works through DNA replication. There is some biochemistry and much anthropology woven in here. Chapter three begins with the anthropology of the brain, a theme that is continued over the next few chapters and includes a discussion of the development of language, learning, memory and artistic creativity.
With Chapter eight we reach the main focus of the book - the mind-brain problem in evolution, a subject that occupied the mature Eccles' research efforts and to which he contributed much. First, as a theist, he was prepared to acknowledge the existence of an entity called soul. Using the `brain as computer' analogy he says: `the Soul or Self is the programmer of the computer', a computer whose software and hardware we develop throughout life. While Eccles supports Darwin, he also endorses the views of David Lack and Alfred Russel Wallace that materialist evolutionary theory cannot account for the human ability to form such concepts as truth, beauty and moral responsibility. These aesthetic qualities these authors say are metaphysical concepts outside the scope of biology but rather lie within the fields of the philosophy of ethics and of science. Eccles quotes the views of quantum physicist Henry Margenau in support of the contention that mind-brain interactions involve quantum processes and do not violate the first law of thermodynamics - a criticism that is frequently levelled at attempts to provide explanations.
As a scientist and non-Christian theist myself, I support the notion of a cosmic spiritual `life-force' as being totally in accord with 21st century physics and cosmology. I therefore have no problem with the conclusions of the final chapter of this book that so troubled other reviewers. One important contention by Eccles is that mind events do not necessarily correlate always with brain events.
Readers will need to be prepared to get involved in some detailed biology and anthropology, but it's all clearly explained and I found it an inspirational story. There are over 20 pages of References and a good detailed Index to conclude the book. I withheld one star in the rating only because I think the readership is likely to be rather limited.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, U.K.; and The World as Spirit published by Fairhill Publishing, Whitland, West Wales, 2011.
I remember not being able to put the book down, reading it everywhere. Eccles entertained me up till the last chapter, with topics raning from the big bang to primordial soup to the geneology of apes, evolution of the brain to the consciousness of man. I guess I was expecting this book was going somewhere, guided towards a conclusion by a scientist pur sang, so the last chapter totally took me by surprise. Trying to fit in God's doing in all of this was totally unnecessary, it wasn't convincing at all and it spoiled the good experience I had with this book.
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Eccles provides an amazingly detailed and thorough look at the evolution of the human brain, reflecting perfectly his life's work. It is a fascinating and scientific tale of hominid evolution, demonstrating the impact of Darwinian natural selection on the brain's of primates. Towards the end however, he began to cover the topic outlined in the second half of the books title, "Creation of the self", and this turned its back on the scientific rigour that had dominated the account of brain evolution. Clues came when he started to adopt a form of dualism in the consciousness discussion, ironic given the strict focus of the material world that evolution adpots. The final chapter however is the most disappointing. Eccles admits that he believes that an intelligent creator put the big bang into motion and the material world cannot account for the phenomenon of human consciousness. He even speaks of an 'immortal soul', which god plants in every human at a very early stage in their development. On reading this, I had to check the cover of the book, to make sure I had not picked up some intelligent design book instead. Eccles claim is that God (coming from where?) created the big bang and then rested for a few BILLION years before popping souls into one of the many species...
The scientific problem of consciousness is far from understood, including what processes led to it being a prominent trait of our species and just how thoughts and mental processes relate to the material world. This leads Eccles to abandon science on the grounds of ignorance, and in doing so repeating a mistake made throughout history. The main point here is that the unexplained is not the unexplainable. For example, God was once stongly believed to be the cause of thunder and lightning, as well as illness, but logic and science have made theistic explanations for natural phenomenon less plausible and ultimately, unnecessary.
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