A Scientific Excursion through Cosmic Time and Origin

Penned in the year 1977, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book for General Non-fiction, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, is a great reading adventure on the introspection into the evolution and nature of human intellect and animal brain. The author of this work, Carl Edward Sagan, is an American astronomer who excelled in a variety of fields such as planetary science, cosmology, science communication, astrophysics, and astrobiology. He is considered a popular and influential figure, controversial in scientific, political, and religious circles for his views on extraterrestrial intelligence, nuclear weapons, and religion.

Making his reputation primarily as a spokesman for science and a popularizer of astronomy, Sagan has further contributed to important researches on the physical conditions of the other planets as well as the origin of life on Earth to make his reputation. In The Dragons of Eden, Sagan takes the reader on a fascinating guided tour to the lost land of Eden, where the dragons ruled and where the foundations of our intelligence were laid.

Carl Sagan, In a Quest for Evolutionary History

A history of the human brain from the big bang, fifteen billion years ago, to the day before yesterday . . . It’s a delight.

The New York Times

Offering his startling insight into the origin of human intelligence and the function of our most haunting legends and recent discoveries about them, in The Dragons of Eden, the author gives a perspective on how the brain of man and beast may have evolved in the course of time. It is an expansion of the Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture in Natural Philosophy which Sagan gave at the University of Toronto. Composed of nine chapters, this entertaining sci-fi work can be regarded as a vivid combination of areas; namely anthropology, evolutionary biology, and psychology as well as computer science. Starting with “The Cosmic Calendar”, to the extent of “Knowledge is our Destiny: Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Intelligence” the novel explores themes that include genes and brains, Eden as a metaphor, the abstraction of beasts, tales of dim Eden, lovers, and madmen and the evolution of the brain in a very fascinating way.

While referring to the works of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, as explained in the introduction; “Biology is more like history than it is like physics; the accidents and errors and lucky happenstances of the past powerfully prefigure the present. In approaching as difficult a biological problem as the nature and evolution of human intelligence, it seems to me at least prudent to give substantial weight to arguments derived from the evolution of the brain”, and a myriad of scientific concepts and their real-world implications are masterfully presented in the novel.

The Cosmic Calendar as an Awesome Vista of Time

The Cosmic Calendar, in a general sense, is a method used to visualize the chronology of the universe, scaling its currently understood age of 13.8 billion years to a single year in order to help intuit it for pedagogical purposes in science, education, or popular science. The concept of time has been central to the growth, and evolution of human civilizations, and in The Dragons of Eden, Sagan focuses on its use as a metaphor to describe humanity’s place in the cosmos. In explaining a discontinuity in time where the earlier history of the universe was destroyed, the earliest event is known in a record known as the Big Bang; an intense explosion from the universe is very crucial. T

o put this further into perspective, the author introduces the Cosmic Calendar, where he compresses the 14-billion-year-old chronology of the universe into the span of a single earth year. In this manner, one billion years of Earth’s history has been considered equivalent to twenty-four days of our cosmic year, and one second of the cosmic year is the same as 475 real revolutions of the Earth about the sun. Thus, the Cosmic Calendar is a humbling account of humanity’s place in the universe, with all our recorded history occupying the last few seconds of December 31.

Dragons Sagan Eden
Figure 2: The Cosmic Calendar

THE WORLD is very old, and human beings are very young. Significant events in our personal lives are measured in years or less; our lifetimes in decades; our family genealogies in centuries; and all of recorded history in millennia.

(Sagan, 1986, p. 8)

Dragons Sagan Eden
Figure 3: The Cosmic Calendar as described in The Dragons of Eden.

Besides, as one of the author’s cleverest and powerful devices used in literary works, this “big picture view” adroitly traces the events in-universe and Earth at large and symbolizes the significance of the subject matter. While it may be true that humanity occupies an insignificant instance in the face of cosmic time, we are now embarking on a new cosmic year, one which is highly dependent on our ability as a species to come together, use our wisdom, and unique sensitivity to the world for our survival and a greater future. As such, through a short chapter, the Cosmic Calendar has been portrayed in an extraordinary style, making it quite analogous to a common argument used in astronomy to provide a picture of our place in the universe.

Speculating on the Brain and Genetics

Having explored the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence in the cosmic connection, Sagan further examines the infinite mysteries of the human brain in the book. Natural selection, he assures, has served as a kind of “intellectual sieve,” producing intelligence increasingly competent to deal with the laws of nature. It has been a slow process. In this captivating history of cerebral development, the reader is reminded of the fact that it was only a few hundred million years ago that an organism with more information in its brain than in its genes appeared. The neocortex, which grew up around our more primitive brain structures some 30 million years ago, has given us a culture that includes language, logic, intuition, and myths. The human brain, Sagan emphasizes, has evolved into the most outstanding biological device for acquiring, reworking, and storing knowledge and any true understanding of intelligence will require a deeper knowledge of the brain.

The novel, therefore, succeeds not only in presenting an easily readable outline of the evolution and organization of the brain but also in reflecting the implicit mind-body dualism of current popular explanations and those great speculative steps that have occasionally bridged the wide gap between structure and function, as well as brain-language relationships along with the knowledge of neural mechanisms. Moreover, the work’s focus on a Darwinian approach to the origin and nature of the human brain along with its skimming of the surface of evolution and neurobiology is an obvious welcome corrective to certain mystical approaches. In fact, the chapter on “Genes and Brains” gives the author a fine opportunity to clarify misconceptions about gene therapy and it enormously highlights the gap between single-gene replacement and blueprinting of personalities.

Dragons Sagan Eden
Figure 4: The evolution of brain and genes

Up from the Dragons: A Remarkable Impact on the Tapestry of Literature

The Dragons of Eden is a gripping sci-fi work, worth reading even though some parts are outdated. Science may have advanced greatly in the past years, but it has also become more compartmentalized. Today it’s rarer to see literary works with deep and wide knowledge in multiple subjects — from mythology to art to molecular biology and astronomy — form theories and opinions on some of our biggest questions as a species. The novel itself has been a substantial influence for other literary creations in explaining how we harness the splits in our minds, how we apply logic and reason to our very thoughts, and how our capacity to dream wildly works on.

Furthermore, portraying science as an exciting and valuable enterprise, towards its end, the novel provides a firm, timely conviction that the survival of our species depends on education and shows how the same technologies that threaten our survival can be harnessed to understand important scientific concepts for generations, which were once the purview of accomplished 18th-century scientists and mathematicians. In that sense, The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan, being a groundbreaking literary experience for any reader, is an inspiring masterpiece capable of mingling a plethora of scientific concepts regarding the epic of human intelligence into the artistic essence of literature.

How can I persuade every intelligent person to read this important and elegant book? . . . He talks about all kinds of things: the why of the pain of human childbirth . . . the reason for sleeping and dreaming . . . chimpanzees taught to communicate in deaf and dumb language . . . the definition of death . . . cloning . . . computers . . . intelligent life on other planets. . . . Fascinating . . . delightful.

The Boston Globe

Image Courtesies


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top
error: Content is protected !!