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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 2

MIND Books Roundup: Free Will

Three books explore the extent to which biology dictates our decisions



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How much choice do we really have? In We Are Our Brains: A Neurobiography of the Brain, from the Womb to Alzheimer's (Spiegel and Grau, 2014), neuroscientist D. F. Swaab attempts to answer this age-old question by chronicling brain development from birth to death. He concludes that biology dictates the person we will become starting in the womb and that free will thus does not exist. Swaab admits, however, that his ideas are not meant to be conclusive but to help inform our understanding of human nature.

Perhaps a lack of free will can be understood best through our ancestral past. In The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think (Basic Books, 2013), psychologist Douglas Kenrick and business professor Vladas Griskevicius argue that our decisions, even seemingly illogical ones, are driven by deep-seated evolutionary urges to survive and thrive. Compelling as the theory may be, at times the authors try too hard to fit all the evidence into their model.

Although our genetic endowment strongly influences decisions, the late education expert Michael E. Martinez posits that we do in fact have the power to choose. In Future Bright: A Transforming Vision of Human Intelligence (Oxford University Press, 2013), Martinez argues against long-held views that intelligence is fixed at birth. Drawing on cognitive research and decades as an educator, he provides strategies to sharpen the brain that range from simple tips, such as reading and exercising, to more difficult tasks, such as uncovering and nurturing hidden talents.

This article was originally published with the title "Books Roundup: Free Will."

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