Review: The Prehistory of the Mind

The modern human brain can be divided into roughly three parts. There's the cerebellum--a bulb at the base of the brain popularly referred to as the 'lizard brain'. It's an ancestral part of the brain that evolved long ago, and it helps our body achieve its most primitive functions: breathing, eating, sleeping. Then there's the mid-brain, a section of brain devoted to motor skills, as well as visual and auditory processing. And finally there's the most recently evolved part of the brain: the cortex, a bulbous lump of matter surrounding the other two sections. On the outer layer of the cortex lies the pre-frontal cortex, a mythical brain region that seems to do just about everything people call "intelligent". From comparative anatomy it's clear that certain parts of the brain have been around in the animal kingdom for a long time and other parts are more recently evolved.

Now even if you look at the species most closely related to humans, the chimpanzee, it's clear the the human mind had a long way to go before it reached its currently state. This is the starting point of Steven Mithen's book The Prehistory of the Mind. He takes a sweeping big-picture view of human pre-history--the millions of years since the human species diverged from the chimpanzee in East Africa.

Mithen is an archeologist, and throughout the book he treats the discovery of the early pre-human mind as he would the excavation of a lost city. He looks over the debris left over from the past and sees that different parts of the structure were constructed at different times. It's an interesting take on evolution and a good metaphor for how cognitive scientists try to understand the evolution of the human mind.

Overall, it's a fascinating--if sometimes exasperating--deep dive into human pre-history. Even when his speculations fall back on questionable assumptions and scanty evidence, they do provide a lot to think about. This is a well-written and accessible introduction into the deep history of the our species, and I would recommend it to any reader curious about how we came to be. For readers looking for a more in-depth take on the underlying cognitive changes that took place during evolution, I would recommend Merlin Donald's Origins of the Modern Mind.