In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that an ant’s brain, no larger than a pin’s head, must be sophisticated to accomplish all that it does. Yet today many people still find it surprising that insects and other arthropods show behaviors that are much more complex than innate reflexes. They are products of versatile brains which, in a sense, think.
Fascinating in their own right, arthropods provide fundamental insights into how brains process and organize sensory information to produce learning, strategizing, cooperation, and sociality. Nicholas Strausfeld elucidates the evolution of this knowledge, beginning with nineteenth-century debates about how similar arthropod brains were to vertebrate brains. This exchange, he shows, had a profound and far-reaching impact on attitudes toward evolution and animal origins. Many renowned scientists, including Sigmund Freud, cut their professional teeth studying arthropod nervous systems. The greatest neuroanatomist of them all, Santiago Ramón y Cajal—founder of the neuron doctrine—was awed by similarities between insect and mammalian brains.
Writing in a style that will appeal to a broad readership, Strausfeld weaves anatomical observations with evidence from molecular biology, neuroethology, cladistics, and the fossil record to explore the neurobiology of the largest phylum on earth—and one that is crucial to the well-being of our planet. Highly informative and richly illustrated, Arthropod Brains offers an original synthesis drawing on many fields, and a comprehensive reference that will serve biologists for years to come.
This is a remarkable contribution to the literature of neuroscience. Strausfeld is probably the only neuroanatomist alive who is steeped in the history of his field and who still passionately cares enough to have made what amount to pilgrimages to the home countries and laboratories of the founders of the field—to see for himself what still remained and what could be recovered of the past masters. He recounts these adventures with a dry, wry wit and is not afraid to revise accepted versions of history and reputations. The visual presentation of the subject through spectacularly stunning images is what sets this book apart from any other I know of. Strausfeld's book is a testament to the visionary pioneers of comparative neuroanatomy and will serve future generations of neuroscientists as a touchstone for the remarkable history of the field of functional anatomy. I am confident that his book will stand as a reference for decades to come.
This work is unlike anything else in the current or historical literature. There are interesting reviews and compilations that take, for example, an evo-devo view of the nervous system, but nothing that speaks so directly to neuroscientists while also challenging insect systematists… I am also not familiar with any work that makes crustacean neuroanatomy so accessible to insect neurobiologists (those who study crustaceans will surely feel that the author is a champion of their discipline after reading this work).
- 2012, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- 848 pages
- Belknap Press
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