Presenting the cultural and neuronal forces that power our distinctively human modes of awareness, the author proposes that the human mind is a hybrid product of interweaving a super-complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a cognitive network. Reprint. 11,500 first printing.
This bold and brilliant book asks the ultimate question of the life sciences: How did the human mind acquire its incomparable power? In seeking the answer, Merlin Donald traces the evolution of human culture and cognition from primitive apes to the era of artificial intelligence, and presents an original theory of how the human mind evolved from its presymbolic form. In the emergence of modern human culture, Donald proposes, there were three radical transitions. During the first, our bipedal but still (...) apelike ancestors acquired "mimetic" skill—the ability to represent knowledge through voluntary motor acts—which made Homo erectus successful for over a million years. The second transition—to "mythic" culture —coincided with the development of spoken language. Speech allowed the large-brained Homo sapiens to evolve a complex preliterate culture that survives in many parts of the world today. In the third transition, when humans constructed elaborate symbolic systems ranging from cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and ideograms to alphabetic languages and mathematics, human biological memory became an inadequate vehicle for storing and processing our collective knowledge. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization. According to Donald, we are symbol-using creatures, more complex than any that went before us, and we may have not yet witnessed the final modular arrangement of the human mind. (shrink)
This book proposes a theory of human cognitive evolution, drawing from paleontology, linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science, and especially neuropsychology. The properties of humankind's brain, culture, and cognition have coevolved in a tight iterative loop; the main event in human evolution has occurred at the cognitive level, however, mediating change at the anatomical and cultural levels. During the past two million years humans have passed through three major cognitive transitions, each of which has left the human mind with a new way (...) of representing reality and a new form of culture. Modern humans consequently have three systems of memory representation that were not available to our closest primate relatives: mimetic skill, language, and external symbols. These three systems are supported by new types of “hard” storage devices, two of which are biological, one technological. Full symbolic literacy consists of a complex of skills for interacting with the external memory system. The independence of these three uniquely human ways of representing knowledge is suggested in the way the mind breaks down after brain injury and confirmed by various other lines of evidence. Each of the three systems is based on aninventivecapacity, and the products of those capacities – such as languages, symbols, gestures, social rituals, and images – continue to be invented and vetted in the social arena. Cognitive evolution is not yet complete: the externalization of memory has altered the actual memory architecture within which humans think. This is changing the role of biological memory and the way in which the human brain deploys its resources; it is also changing the form of modern culture. (shrink)
Commentary on Cowley’s chapter.Merlin Donald - 2012 - Interaction Studies. Social Behaviour and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systemsinteraction Studies / Social Behaviour and Communication in Biological and Artificial Systemsinteraction Studies 13 (1):41-49.details
Images of mindmarks a new era in human cognitive neuroscience. Despite the difficult conceptual problems associated with using group-averaged data and paired subtractions, human PET images converge well with existing data from other areas of cognitive neuroscience while opening up new theoretical and experimental possibilities. However, greater attention to individual differences might prove necessary in the study of culturally driven adaptations such as literacy.