Review: Origins of the Modern Mind

Around four million years ago, tucked away somewhere in the savannah of east Africa, the lineage of our ancient ancestors split off from the branch of apes today known as chimpanzees. At that time there were no cities, there were no books, and no one had even dreamed of the most primitive technologies that we take for granted today. Somewhere in that time human brains became much cleverer than chimps, but deciphering how exactly they became cleverer is a difficult task. Humans aren't smarter than chimps because our brains are bigger--whales have much bigger brains than humans and you don't see any whales doing arithmetic. It also wasn't a simple change. The change was really a series of changes that accumulated over millions of years. Because evolution does not plan for the future, each of those changes must have provided an important evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. Understanding why and how this all happened is a daunting task, but lucky for us, Canadian neuroscientist Merlin Donald did an admirable job of unravelling some of these mysteries in his book Origins of the Modern Mind.

The basic outline of his theory goes something like this: human minds evolved from our ape ancestors in three seperate stages, each distinct but dependant on the stage that came before. Before this process began human minds were in a state of what he calls episodic culture, and it is the type of thinking that we share with other apes. Chimpanzees are highly intelligent animals but they possess no language. Their intelligence depends instead on their ability to remember specific 'episodes' from their past and store that knowledge in some sort of mental hard drive. This type of thinking gave our ancestors a nice advantage over other animals, but humans remained unable to generalize between these episodic memories.

The mimetic mind came next, and like its name suggests it gave apes the ability to 'mime' the actions of others. If a child saw an adult breaking open a nut with a rock, the child might get the idea to copy the adult's behavior. In this early stage the rudiments of culture began to form, amd some sort of cultural heritage started to pass between individuals. There was still no language, but the hominids probably started to communicate by way of gestures and grunts.

The next rung up the ladder was the mythic stage. Human vocal structure became more advanced, and primitive but expressive languages began to form. Hominid groups started constructing elaborite mythologies about how the world worked, and these myths were passed down orally. These myths transcended the family group and were integrated into a larger culture. These are probably the earliest of the hominids that we would consider modern humans.

The final stage, the theoretic stage, is characterized by the way humans create and interact with external media to construct theories. With the invention of writing, humans created a way of storing memories outside of our minds in what Donald calls the External Memory Field. Human minds don't just create the External Memory Field, they are very much a part of it. One of the reasons that humans have been able to advance so far beyond apes is that we started offloading our knowledge outside of our minds, through painting and writing, and then began to interact with these external mental artifacts. Once humans took this step there was no longer any need for one brain to do the thinking or one brain to do it all at once. The knowledge of all previous generations was suddenly readily available, and a sort of global intelligence evolved. I've written about this before, but Donald provides a nice framework for just how this change might have taken place.

Donald's book is sometimes difficult and meandering, but it's also fascinating and I'd recommend it for anyone looking for a plausible theory of how the cognitive architecture of our minds evolved. For a lighter read on the archaeology of human evolution, I would recommend Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind.