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Cognitive Biology: Evolutionary and Developmental Perspectives on Mind, Brain, and Behavior (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology)

Tommasi Luca, Peterson Mary A., and Nadel Lynn (Eds.)
MIT Press: London, 2009
ISBN 9780262012935 (pb)

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Reviewed by Juliette Rouchier
Groupement de Recherche en Economie Quantitative d' Aix-Marseille

Cover of book This 16 chapters book illustrates recent advancements in the understanding of the main identified cognitive functions in humans and animals. The shared interest of all book authors is to synthesize evolutionary and developmental approaches in the analysis of cognition. Evolution is the long-term process of apparition and selection of some groups of neurons and their firing neural functions, as well as the specialisation of these areas in terms of cognitive abilities within a given population. Development is the individual process that allows quasi-blank new-born brain, with rather unspecific neuronal activity, to lose its very high generality, so that learning can eventually take place. Most of the chapters revolve around links between these two approaches, focussing on specific examples.

Four general categories of cognitive abilities are thoroughly analysed, i.e., space, qualities and objects, numbers and probability, and social entities. In all parts, neural imaging is largely used that shows the modularity of these diverse functions, as innate abilities are selected over time and so might be developed in each living individual. Many experiments with animals show the following results: the recognition of patterns or regularities and the ability to generalise, perceive space and associate it to social behaviours. For social scientists, it is interesting to find out here what are the minimal bricks of cognition and how some apparently negative functions, such as limited attention, might play a crucial role in learning. Some of these elements can be of interest in that they can be used in models, such as the role of specialisation/expertise in the reduction of the ability to learn or the link between spatial behaviour and social life.

More closely related to social sciences, there is one chapter on neuro-economics and in particular neuroscience of choice. This discipline aims to find a material apparition of ex-pected utility in brain. To do so, individuals' brains and behaviours are observed when the individuals perform logical choices. For example, temporal discounting or circularity in preferences can be easily revealed in this way. Paul Glincher, the author of this chapter, argues that neuro-economics can turn into a predictive science and provides an example of this. A place in the brain has been properly identified that determined the capability of evaluating the difference between expected and received gain. The perception of the quantity of dopamine circulating in this area was enough to anticipate humans' actions in an experiment that revealed subjects' loss aversion.

Although it displays some interesting elements definitely new for many of us, I think this book should not be necessarily recommended to JASSS readers. It is extremely technical, hard to read for non specialists and rarely deals with human behaviour and abilities. As a matter of fact, all chapters revolved around a core-issue such as selection and development which is very far from being a core social science issue, perhaps apart from a functionalist point of view, which is not so present in social simulation.


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