The Dragons of Eden
The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence is a non-fiction book by Carl Sagan published in 1977. The book is about the evolution of human intelligence while using metaphors from mythology. Although there is a lot of science in the book, much of the evolutionary history is speculative. This began as a lecture about Jacob Bronowski which Sagan expanded into a full book.
Having become a fan of pretty much everything Sagan has ever produced, I was eager to read this book. I finished it on 2021-08-24, but wasn't as impressed by it as his later work.
I don't own this book, but I have read the audio book by J.D. Jackson.
- Sagan is a very upfront about the fact that dualism is bunk. I'm sure this was pretty controversial in 1977.
- The book has a lot of information about the brain and mind, especially the research into people who have experienced brain injuries, and targeted surgery to cure brain-related illness. Both of which have been invaluable for understanding how the mind arises from the brain.
- The book outlines the "cosmic calendar," a wonderful metaphor that Sagan expands upon in Cosmos: A Personal Journey, which really helps put history in perspective.
- Sagan's predictions about machine learning is very accurate.
- Sagan's description of 1970s video games is very quaint.
- Sagan is thankfully upfront about the book being largely speculative, because much of the content is now long out of date and demonstrably wrong. For example, Sagan makes appeals to the triune brain model hypothesis, but it no longer has credibility among neurologists. I actually found all the appeals to speculation to be off-putting. I understand that part of what made Sagan such a great science communicator was his ability to describe science in ways that the average person (and, thus a believer in mythology) would appreciate, and that part of being so creative means having a very open mind, but I prefer my non-fiction to be more factual than speculation.
- Sagan references Sigmund Freud several times and gives him a lot more credit than he deserves. Most of Freud's work was unscientific and not worthy of further study.
- The section about simians using sign language reads more like fan service. A lot of research has been published which is critical of how well the animals actually use sign language.
- Sagan uses several stories from the Book of Genesis, not just as analogies, but as suggestions for possible future research. When it's used for analogies, I don't see the use of doing it since anyone who's actually interested in science will find the analogies childish, while those who appreciate the analogies won't care about the science. However, when it's done for suggestions of possible research, I'm a bit shocked that such an intelligent man would think ancient folklore is worthy of research simply because it is tenacious.
- "...Reading itself is an amazing activity: You glance at a thin, flat object made from a tree...and the voice of the author begins to speak inside your head."
- "Curiosity and the urge to solve problems are the emotional hallmarks of our species; and the most characteristically human activities are mathematics, science, technology, music and the arts--a somewhat broader range of subjects than is usually included under the 'humanities.' Indeed, in its common usage this very word seems to reflect a peculiar narrowness of vision about what is human. Mathematics is as much a 'humanity' as poetry."