You are on page 1of 4


discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at:

The Triune Brain in Evolution. Role in

Paleocerebral Functions. Paul D. MacLean.
Plenum, New York, 1990. xxiv, 672...

Article in Science November 1990

DOI: 10.1126/science.250.4978.303-a Source: PubMed


59 963

1 author:

Anton Reiner
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center


Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects:

Long term effects of TBI View project

Drug therapy for Huntington's Disease View project

All content following this page was uploaded by Anton Reiner on 01 February 2017.

The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.

__ Kardashev; for instance, we learn of the
influence in the 1950s of one Professor
Tihov in Kazakhstan who demonstrated
that plant life existed on Mars in his labora-
tory of "extraterrestrial botanics."
These relatively raw transcripts thus have
their positive aspects, but they also mean
that SETI Pioneers fails as a scholarly work. I
Outward Searchers would have been far more satisfied if Swift
had given us a book analyzing in detail (and
quoting interviews to support arguments)
SETi Pioneers. Scientists Talk about Their their views regarding SETI and extraterres- the kinds of questions raised in the preface
trial life and on how the field has developed.
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. DAVID W. and discussed in the brief conclusions: Who
SwIFr. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, On the other hand, substantial editing of were these scientists who became involved
1990. xiv, 436 pp., illus. $35. these interviews would have improved the in what at first was very much a fringe
ratio between questions and answers that are enterprise? What was in their personal and
Are we alone? The question of extrater- meaty and intriguing and those that are professional backgrounds that might have
restrial life is at once one of the oldest and routine, repetitive, or uninteresting. Fur- led them toward SETI? How were they
one of the most profound. It is only in the thermore, there appears to have been little if viewed by their colleagues? Swift points out
present generation, however, that planetary any checking of the accuracy of the inter- that all the SETI pioneers have been highly
exploration, radio astronomy, studies of the viewees' statements. There are many basic respected in their primary disciplines, but

Downloaded from on August 9, 2013

origin of life, and electronics have synergis- errors (historical and otherwise) and in sev- nevertheless are willing to spend a small (in
tically matured and produced at their con- eral cases inconsistencies between inter- most cases) fraction oftheir time in this type
fluence a scientific community interested in views. Nor does Swift supply any footnotes of speculative exploration. Almost all are
the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or cross-references at points where the non- from urban centers of high technology or
(SETI). The first milestone occurred in expert could have used absistance in under- prestigious universities, with Cornell Uni-
1959 with the seminal article of Philip Mor- standing an allusion or a technical term versity and Silicon Valley playing major
rison and Giuseppe Cocconi pointing out (although there is a brief glossary). roles. Swift also discusses how the astrono-
that radio communication between the stars Swift's goal in presenting complete tran- mer Otto Struve was an important catalyst
was possible with our present technology scripts was to create an unbiased text from in the early development of SETI and un-
and that the 21-centimeter wavelength emit- which readers could directly learn about covers the remarkable statistic that the SETI
ted by hydrogen provided a preferred chan- individuals' ideas and personalities. Indeed, pioneers are without exception first-bom
nel. At the same time, Frank Drake indepen- the book's great strength is that one meets sons or only children. But this type of
dently came to similar conclusions and fascinating characters-insightful, erudite, discussion and analysis makes up only 5% of
carried out the first radio search for extrater- and even witty-and is exposed to a host of the book.
restrial life. The book Intelligent Life in the provocative scientific, political, and philo- SETI Pioneers is thus a problematic book
Universe (1966) by Carl Sagan and Iosef sophical views (many having little to do of unusual format about fascinating people
Shklovskii had an enormous effect on both with SETI). Oliver likens the Galactic Club engaged in an exciting endeavor. It has
professionals and laypersons, as did the of technical civilizations to the National notable strengths and glaring weaknesses. I
NASA Project Cyclops report (1971) by Ber- Academy of Sciences: both organizations suspect that readers will react with a range of
nard Oliver and John Billingham. As SETI spend most of their time deciding about opinions as broad as those concerning the
gained some respectability, further radio new members. Morrison describes congress- likelihood of success in SETI itself.
searches were carried out on a small scale in men as Aristotelian in the sense that they WOODRUFF T. SULLIVAN III
both the United States and the Soviet assume that Earth is the center of the uni- Department of Astronomy,
Union. This led by the mid-1970s to a push verse and that we need to clear up problems University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195
within NASA for a long-term SETI project, here before finding out about other worlds.
one that has only in the past year received a Charles Seeger describes the entire history of
green light-first observations are planned life on Earth as only "one powerful datum"
for the Columbian quincentennial in 1992. and says we need to find more such "data." An Explanation of Behavior
It is this pioneer epoch in the develop- Billingham describes the troubles a SETI
ment of SETI that David Swift, a sociologist project has had fitting into NASA's usual The Triune Brain In Evolution. Role in Paleo-
cerebral Functions. PAUL D. MAcLEAN. Plenum,
at the University of Hawaii, has sought to style: "The contrast couldn't be more ex- New York, 1990. xxiv, 672 pp., illus. $75.
capture in his book. The format is highly treme between SETI and sending a space-
unusual-with the exception of short intro- craft that you know will land on Mars within Paul MacLean was one of the trailblazers
ductory and concluding sections, SETI Pio- three seconds of four o'clock in the after- of neuroscience whose work in the 1940s
neers consists solely of transcripts of inter- noon on a certain day in August 1994." and '50s provided many of the insights into
views with 17 ofthe key persons in the field. Melvin Calvin gives the views of a biochem- the functions of the brain upon which to-
One might think this a deadly formula, but ist. Freeman Dyson suggests looking for day's neuroscientists build. MacLean in par-
in fact the interviews are smoothly tran- telltale radio emission from the "skid marks" ticular made contributions that drew atten-
scribed and Swift in most cases has skillfully of a braking interstellar spacecraft. Jill Tarter tion to the role of brain areas such as the
remained in the background and let the and Paul Horowitz give the views of a later amygdala, septum, and cingulate cortex in
interviewees speak for themselves. Thus he generation. Interviews by Oliver with three emotion and motivation. He introduced the
allows some of the most imaginative scien- Soviet SETI practitioners are also included. encompassing term limbic system to recognize
tific thinkers of our time to hold forth on The most interesting of these is with Nikolai the functional interrelatedness of these brain
regions together with the hippocampus. them one can feel equipped to explain much pretation. Despite this, MacLean asserts that
Drawing on his own work and seemingly human behavior with the force of science his evidence shows that the R-complex con-
influenced by the prevailing view of brain behind one (those neighbors who always trols all species-typical behavior. He even
evolution and the behavior ofnon-mammals complain when the leaves from our trees fall attempts to reinterpret the symptoms of
(as reflected in the work of Elizabeth Crosby in their yard are so reptilian in their territo- Parkinson's disease and Huntington's dis-
and C. J. Herrick), MacLean attempted to riality). ease in a way to suit his ideas about the
develop a comprehensive schema of brain The reception of the triune-brain idea functions of the basal ganglia, all the while
function that would explain many major among neuroscientists, however, has not ignoring the movement disturbances that
aspects of human behavior. This schema, been nearly so favorable. Since MacLean occur in these disorders.
which he set forth in the early '60s, was first introduced his ideas, neuroscience re- Next, MacLean moves on to the limbic
dubbed by him the triune brain because it search has undergone tremendous growth, system, presenting data on its anatomy and
involved the notion that the cerebral hemi- and knowledge about the brain, its func- functions in order to support his idea that it
spheres of modem mammals, including hu- tions, and its evolution has been greatly plays a role in the motivation and emotion
mans, contain three distinct major regions- extended. As new information accumulated, involved in feeding, reproductive behavior,
one inherited from reptiles, one inherited it became clear that the older, simpler ideas and parental behavior. The specific behav-
from early mammals, and one evolved in about brain evolution and function upon ioral functions he assigns to the individual
modern mammals. MacLean views each of which the triune-brain idea is based are parts of the limbic system seem to me not at
these regions as controlling a specific set of fundamentally wrong. Neuroscientists, all to derive unambiguously from the data
behaviors. Hence he views the brain of therefore, basically came to ignore the idea. he presents, and I remain largely uncon-
modern mammals as exhibiting the some- Nonetheless, MacLean has continued to vinced of the merit of trying to assign the
times unhappy cohabitation of an area with present it, focusing his efforts primarily on control of one or two types of "big" behav-
reptilian impulses (termed by him the rep- non-neuroscientists. The present book is his ior (that is, behavior consisting of a complex

Downloaded from on August 9, 2013

tilian or R-complex, which is often ignoble most recent and perhaps last great effort to series of actions) to a single structure (pa-
and always selfish), an area with early mam- advance the idea. rental behavior being assigned to the cingu-
malian traits (termed the paleomammalian The first section of the book expounds the late cortex, for example). Further, Mac-
complex, which is emotional but often noble basic idea of the triune brain and why Lean's presentation of the role of the
and gentle), and an area devoted exclusively MacLean is interested in it. As he explains hippocampus in limbic functions is not well
to rational and intellectual processes (termed once more, MacLean believes that not much reconciled with the current evidence that the
the neomammalian complex). of note for the control of complex behaviors hippocampus plays a role in memory. Next,
Since he first introduced the triune-brain occurred during brain evolution among MacLean moves on to presenting informa-
concept, MacLean has devoted himself to fishes and amphibians. Beginning with the tion on psychomotor epilepsy (sometimes
promoting and to carrying out studies to appearance of reptiles, however, and pro- termed temporal lobe epilepsy) in order to
support it. These efforts have been rewarded gressing through early (now extinct) and prove further that certain parts of the limbic
by the reception the idea has been accorded modem mammals, MacLean says three areas system are involved in certain kinds of mo-
outside the field of brain research. For ex- of the cerebral hemispheres evolved in suc- tivated behavior and emotion. I found the
ample, it was a centerpiece to Carl Sagan's cession-the R-complex (that is, the basal information interesting but not persuasive
ruminations about the evolution of human ganglia) in reptiles, the paleomammalian regarding his premise, because it is so hard
intelligence in the best-selling book The complex (that is, the limbic system) in early to relate symptoms of epilepsy to the specific
Dragons of Eden, and it is frequently the only mammals, and the neomammalian complex brain site that is producing them. The re-
discussion of brain evolution in psychiatry (that is, the neocortex) in modern mammals, gion producing the symptoms might not be
and psychology textbooks. with each being retained in the evolutionary the site at which the epileptic "storm" oc-
The reasons for the popular appeal of the progression. curs, the symptoms may derive from the
triune-brain idea are easy to see. For one The next section deals with the R- effects of the "storm" on a remote brain area.
thing, it pinpoints "big" behaviors that we complex in more detail. MacLean presents In the final section of the book, MacLean
are all interested in and finds causes for his evidence that the R-complex in all am- presents his ideas about the evolution of the
them. Further, it takes the "bad" behaviors, niotes plays a role in nonverbal behaviors of neocortex, which he believes is involved in
the things that we humans would rather not the type that reptiles, mammals, and birds all higher-order processes such as language (in
take blame for, and attributes most of them show-species-typical behavior involved in humans), cognition, abstraction, and per-
to a nonhuman, non-mammalian part of us, aggression, territoriality, dominance, and ception. Few neuroscientists would disagree
the purported reptilian beast in us. It takes ritual displays. In his presentation on the with this last claim. In this section, MacLean
the "good" behaviors, such as parental be- R-complex, he labors for two causes impor- also presents his thoughts on lobotomy,
havior and the related altruism, as well as the tant to his triune-brain idea-proving that crying, laughter, handedness, and subjectiv-
endeavors of art, science, and philosophy, reptiles and birds possess nothing like neo- ity, among other matters.
and makes us feel that they are part of us as cortex and proving that 150 years of study As intimated above, the triune-brain idea
mammals and humans. These ideas tie in concerned with documenting the role of the has a number of problems. Much as it excels
well with a longstanding human interest (at R-complex in motor behavior have failed to at providing explanations for many things, it
least in Western civilization) in attributing reveal its functions. His proofs are bound to is far too loose to be considered a hypothesis
wayward human behavior to some nonhu- be inadequate given the preponderance of from which falsifiable predictions can be
man source-either to the beast within or to evidence on these matters. He then goes on derived. Nonetheless, one can find the idea
humankind's fall from God's grace due to to present experimental studies of his own itself false in that the story ofbrain evolution
the serpent-induced dereliction (those rep- on lizards and monkeys that he says fill the and function it tells is not consistent with
tiles again) in the Garden of Eden. Mac- void in our knowledge about the R- current knowledge. For example, the
Lean's ideas are also appealing because they complex. These studies, however, are lim- R-complex is not a reptilian invention but
are simple; after a ten-minute exposition of ited in scope and questionable in their inter- seems to be present in vertebrates all the way
304 SCIENCE, VOL. 250
back to jawless fishes. Further, current re- from the '80s are cited. Further, the book is Some Other Books of Interest
search compellingly shows that the basal not entirely about the triune-brain idea. To
ganglia are involved in the initiation and be sure, that is the main story, but MacLean Ecological Concepts. The Contribution of
control of voluntary movement, as evi- takes the opportunity to present his Ecology to an Understanding of the Natural
denced notably by the movement distur- thoughts, conclusions, and speculations World. J. M. CHERRETr et al., Eds. Blackwell
bances in such diseases involving the human about a variety of topics related to human Scientific, Boston, 1989. viii, 385 pp., illus.
basal ganglia as Parkinson's disease and behavior. Consequently, we get his ideas $92.95; paper, $43.95. British Ecological Society
Huntington's disease. The basal ganglia may about the evolution and neural basis of such Symposium 29. From a symposium, London,
be involved in non-motor functions as well things as conscience (it's in the prefrontal April 1988.
(no one denies this possibility), but I know lobes), crying and laughter (he is not really Toward a More Exact Ecology. PETER J.
of no one other than MacLean who now sure, but he thinks it's limbic), and mathe- GRUBB and JOHN B. WHnrrAKFR, Eds. Blackwell
believes them to be the neural seat for the matical skill (he thinks the cerebellum could Scientific, Boston, 1990. x, 468 pp., illus. $92.95;
control of species-typical types of behaviors. be involved). In many of his comments, paper, $43.95. British Ecological Society Sympo-
With respect to the limbic system, the MacLean criticizes other scientists for not sium 30. From a symposium, Oxford, U.K., Sept.
evolutionary story MacLean tells is again pursuing the appropriate research questions 1988.
wrong. The limbic system did not, for ex- or humankind in general for its foolish ways.
ample, appear first in early mammals. Rep- On one matter I found my feelings quite in When in 1963 the British Ecological So-
tiles, birds, mammals, and amphibians all register with his-the blight that was pre- ciety celebrated its 50th anniversary with a
possess a septum, an amygdala, and a hip- frontal lobotomy as a therapeutic procedure. symposium, the organizers identified five
pocampal complex (though the hippocam- One could also say that the book, both in "main areas of development" in the field-
pal complex in non-mammals looks very its general tone and through the allusions to conservation ecology, quatemary ecology,

Downloaded from on August 9, 2013

different from that in mammals). Further, and quotations from the classics and philo- production ecology, experimental and aute-
reptiles, birds, mammals, and amphibians sophical works, clearly reveals MacLean to cological studies, and the concept of com-
may all possess a cingulate cortex. The evi- be a scholarly man with great interests in munity. For a second, two-symposium jubi-
dence is currently not decisive on this point, philosophy and the welfare of mankind. lee 25 years later, those responsible for the
but MacLean's version of the story (namely Nonetheless, there are some telling short- events began with an attempt to identify,
that only mammals possess cingulate cortex) comings in his scholarship. For example, in through a survey of members, 50 "key con-
is not nearly as well substantiated as he his presentation on the evolution of the cepts." In the opening chapter of the first of
makes it out to be. As to the functions of the R-complex, MacLean makes a comment that the volumes resulting from the symposiums,
limbic system, the evidence refutes Mac- should leave Stephen J. Gould, not to men- Cherrett presents the results of the survey.
Lean's ideas that the amygdala is only in- tion all other students of evolution, aghast. In short, the top five concepts are "the
volved in feeding, the septum in reproduc- Claiming that the concept of homology is ecosystem," "succession," "energy flow,"
tion, and the hippocampus in the correlation confused and not clearly defined, he discards "conservation of resources," and "competi-
of interoceptive and exteroceptive informa- it in favor of what he regards as a much less tion"; "r and K selection" comes in no. 33;
tion. MacLean assigns to the cingulate cor- equivocal term, namely correspondence. and "the 3/2 thinning law" and "the guild"
tex the functions of parental behavior, which This is a very critical misjudgment to make bring up the rear.
he regards as uniquely mammalian. This in a work on evolution. MacLean also errs in The remainder of Ecological Concepts is
ignores the fact that some reptiles, such as his apparent sweeping acceptance of Haeck- given over to invited essays on some of the
crocodiles, and all birds engage in parental el's idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylog- concepts. In what is described as "a collec-
behavior, not to mention the possibility eny. tion of personal views" 13 authors, not all of
suggested by paleontological data that some On a final note, although I strongly be- them British, give some history of the use of
extinct reptiles, namely dinosaurs, also en- lieve the triune-brain idea to be wrong, it the concepts, discuss studies bearing on
gaged in parental behavior. would be myopic to overlook the positive them, and assess their status. Ecosystems
Finally, MacLean is also not quite right in value in what MacLean has ultimately been and their energetics are addressed by War-
saying that neocortex first appeared with after. MacLean has been interested in the ing, food webs by Lawton, the niche by
modern mammals. Evidence based on study neural and evolutionary underpinnings of Schoener, diversity and stability by Walker,
of primitive mammals clearly suggests human behavior. He has wanted to see what predator-prey and host-pathogen interac-
that neocortex was present in the earliest makes people tick because he wants answers tions by Hassell and Anderson, population
mammals. Further, even in non-mammals to some of the most basic questions about regulation in animals by Sinclair, competi-
such as birds, reptiles, and bony and carti- people. What are we? Where do we come tion by Law and Watkinson, life-history
laginous fishes there are parts of the cerebral from? How does our animal heritage affect strategies by Caswell, optimization by Krebs
hemispheres that are not part of the basal our behavior? Why do we do the things we and Houston, and levels of organization by
ganglia and are involved in such typically do? Why can we not live together more May.
neocortical functions as perception, deci- harmoniously? Although the questions are The choice of theme for the second vol-
sion-making, learning, tool use, and concept diffucult to answer and in many senses reli- ume represents a recognition, according to
formation (particularly in birds). In non- gious and philosophical in nature, they are the editors, of the development of ecology
mammals, these cerebral areas do not have important questions that modem neuro- from a largely descriptive enterprise to one
the same architecture as neocortex, which science research can shed light on, though with theoretical underpinnings supported
accounts for why they were not recognized perhaps not in as global and simple a way as by experimental evidence. The volume
for what they were until recently. MacLean has sought. opens with an essay by Grubb expounding
Apart from the problems with the triune- ANTON REINER the issues of prediction in ecology and "ex-
brain idea itself, what can be said about this Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, actness" in various approaches. The remain-
book as such? In short, the ideas and data in University of Tennessee, ing papers are arranged according to theme:
it are outdated; only a handful of papers Memphis, TN 38163 physiological processes in free-living orga-

View publication stats