Home / Review: Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence – Carl Sagan

Review: Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence – Carl Sagan

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This book is a timely and fortunate read in these days of division on the evolution vs. creationism issue. Only one thing: it was written almost 30 years ago by uber-genius, Carl Sagan. And boy he really covers it all in this relatively small book on such a vast subject. He vulgarizes well enough for the layman to understand, although it does get informationally dense at times. What did you expect? It’s Carl Sagan.

The book is pretty simple. It takes us through a speculative ride through the evolution of human intelligence. Carl Sagan once said that if you want to make apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe. Thankfully he doesn’t start there; he picks up around the time we were but mere bacteria and works from there. He goes through all levels of monkeys and then hominids, always keeping in perspective that we aren’t that far away from being just apes in trees. Just a few aborted mutations and we’re still flinging crap at each other in trees.

Yes he vulgarizes, but not as much as I. I just love to kid. On the contrary, Carl Sagan is a poet with a doctorate in biology. Who knew that cold science could inspire such warmth of creativity? He writes of humans carrying memory from our earlier times, swinging from tree branches. Here’s what he said:

And after we returned to the savannahs and abandoned the trees, did we long for those great graceful leaps and ecstatic moments of weightlessness in the shafts of sunlight of the forest roof?

After reading this, I had a tear in my eye, because I remembered, I remembered being a child swinging from branch to branch in trees. Bending entire cedar trees to catch the next trunk, all this 20 or 30 feet up high. Was my compulsion for tree climbing simply buried genetic memory asserting itself? Who knows, but damn does swinging from trees beat having to wake up in the morning to go to work. The good old days.

He confidently links our technological leaps as being the obvious continuance of our ape heritage. As apes living up in the branches, we had certain built-in fears.

One of them was falling out of the branches and cracking ones skull open on the forest floor below. This fear is built-in from birth. The baby ape knows innately that falling down is certain death. Sagan connects that to dreams we all have, dreams of falling. He posits that this dream we all have is vestigial of our times as tree dwellers, that somewhere inside us, the primal fear of falling out of the tree still lingers. That this dream is a built-in security system to keep us from falling out of trees while we sleep, such as we did eons ago. This primal fear manifests itself in our technology. Notice in elevators (perhaps the modern ones don’t hold true, but they did back 30 years ago) that the indicator for down is red and the indicator for up is green. Red: meaning death. Green: meaning the canapé of leaves. Simple coincidence? I’d agree with Sagan in saying no.

The book goes on with many other affiliations between our ancestral beings and the intelligence we have today. He then ventures further with incorporating technology into our size-challenged brain and then of course, Sagan being Sagan, further speculates about artificial and extra-terrestrial intelligence.

What I enjoyed from this book, being an IT specialist, is his use of the computer intelligence model to compare to human intelligence. I myself often use this comparison model. This is a model I understand well and made me understand his scientific arguments with ease. He does this throughout the book but still keeps it at an understandable level. But his naiveté about his knowledge of computers would crush him by today’s techno-mayhem slowly encapsulating us, but I digress. He would have adapted expertly to today’s technology anyway.

He doesn’t shy away from controversy either. He even takes on abortion by detailing how the human brain becomes human when the neo-cortex is formed because it’s what differentiates us from other species. So he pretty much gives his opinion on when an embryo becomes human. And then dares you to say otherwise by upgrading simple animals to the same held ethical standards on life. Pretty spiffy work and enjoyable. I just love to see genius at work, even though he accuses anything outside the scientific method as “soft” science or pseudo-science, but then again a scientist always preaches to his choir.

I give this book a mind evolving 5 outta 5. It’s a must read for anyone, for any reason. Read it, thank me later.

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About David Desjardins

  • sr

    I think Carl Sagan fell out of the tree.

  • I just love it. Everytime someone leaves a jackass comment, s/he’s just a drive-by.

  • Duane

    Sagan had his undergraduate degree in physics, his PhD in astronomy and astrophysics, not biology.

    You might have also mentioned that Dragons won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Sagan had a spectacularly broad education and range of interests, as evidenced by his writing. This particular book is my favorite by him.

  • Interesting, but I remember reading somewhere that he has a degree in biology or astrobiology, something of the sort. I’ll check out my sources and the book once I get back home.

    Perhaps I should but I don’t the importance of mentionning the Pulitzer. The name Sagan speaks for itself in my opinion, like Eisntein, Hawking, Heisenberg.

    When he did interviews and his show Cosmos, I could listen to the guy talk forever. It’s the first time I get around to reading one of his books. It truly won’t be the last.

  • sr

    JELIEL3. Carl fell on soft grass. Unlike Jeliel who hit the cement.

  • Bob

    You guys have got it all wrong, it’s the other way around.

  • A book like this deserves immense respect. Unlike hurried works packed full of words to convey short ideas, Sagan elegantly packs fascinating details into a small paperback. Like a caring guardian, he understands society’s perspective while challenging the reader; and the pizzazz with which he synthesizes hard-learned facts renders the read effortless.

    Sagan was a rare filter through which the curious layman can grasp what otherwise would be obscured in formal textbooks assuming prerequisite knowledge. This wonderful complement to Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” analyzes the evidence within ourselves rather than connections between species in a fashion analogous to a new mathematical proof of an already established theorem.