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A History of the Human Brain: From the Sea Sponge to CRISPR

How our brain evolved.

Timber Press
A History of the Human Brain
Source: Timber Press

A History of the Human Brain: From the Sea Sponge to CRISPR, How Our Brain Evolved, by Bret Stetka; Timber Press, 2021

Treat yourself to reading this book. On the subjects that draw your interest, and its extraordinary depiction of the arc of the evolution of our human brain. Which is, of course, the non-linear, jagged progression to today’s homo sapiens—and where we might be going.

When the fireball of Planet Earth cooled, some four billion years ago, land (rock) and water (seas) were left. But no life. Yet, our planet was endowed with the climate and chemicals needed to germinate proto-RNA and DNA. Which, in (lots of) time, fashioned the molecules essential for the creation of life, at first free-floating, then enveloping themselves with permeable perimeters to become single cells, then multicellular organisms, and so forth.

After these not at all modest beginnings, Stetka keeps us marching ahead in time: He vividly portrays life’s wondrous journey from our likely, common progenitor, the sea sponge (titular for him), to the abundance of life we see today. His ‘time-travel’ depicts, by elegant science reporting and great storytelling, for example, how this improbable organism (the sea sponge), without organs or nervous system, launched us. A “ tortured {evolutionary} mess” ensued, which spawned plant and animal phyla, from which we all are descendants. We have in “A History of the Human Brain”, a Science Bible (if I may) how A begat B, which begat C, and so forth. Written by one man. With clarity, brevity, and humanity. Bravo!

Our guide and narrator, understandably, is particularly fascinated by what he calls, “Upright Citizens”, particularly chimpanzees, bonobos, apes, and humans (all members of the Family of Hominids). I had no idea how I too would become enraptured by this odd lot of fellow creatures (and so much more of human evolution) until I read Stetka’s tales. It has been said that a great book cannot alone be due to its subject; that the writer, as well, must be passionate about his (her) subject and infect the reader with that same ardor. Stetka is a keen observer and raconteur. This book, his first, is replete with bon mots and phrases, wise asides, and a sprinkling of irony and humor, which make you want to turn to the person beside you (in my case, my wife) and say, I gotta read you this! It’s there for you in 229 pages (plus notes, bibliography, and index) lest you think this book is a door-stopper of 1,000 pages.

Bret Stetka is a non-practicing physician; a science writer who frequently contributes to Scientific American and NPR, and whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, WIRED, and Slate, among other publications; and he is an Executive Editor for Medscape, a division of WebMD.

His scope in “A History of The Brain” is thoroughly legion: including, self-awareness, community, violence, attachment, empathy, problem-solving, birth and death (including grief), tools, sex, genetics, neuroscience, competition, language, the ceremony and ritual (thus spirituality and religion) integral to creating society and culture, symbolic cognition (at the root of creativity), mental disorders, and the awesome and fearful germ-line editing and engineering that CRISPR-Cas9 has introduced.

How did we become "Us”? What were the unique and the universal steps along the way? “Quo Vadis.” Where on earth are we headed? Crack open this book and take a read. You will be transported, illuminated, and delighted.


The author's latest book (#13) is Ink-Stained For Life.

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