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A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond Paperback – October 8, 2005


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (October 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195182480
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195182484
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 0.7 x 5.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,284,821 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"What is it like, to be a chimpanzee?" asks Calvin, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington, in the first chapter of this fascinating history of the mind. While humans and other primates share many cognitive abilities, an accumulation of qualitative differences in perception, learning and time sense add up to an unbridgeable gap, he says. Tracing human evolution from the first upright hominid through tool making and on to structured thought and hypotheses about the future, Calvin (How Brains Think; A Brain for All Seasons) offers readers a concise, absorbing path to follow. Trying to imagine the thoughts and lives of early humans is not much different than trying to know what it's like to be a chimpanzee, as it turns out. Eventually, Calvin reveals how our evolving brains might have developed such bizarre abstractions as nested information, metaphors and ethics, thus paving the way for consciousness as we know it. He postulates the "mind's Big Bang" as tied to the development of language, offering as support the nativist mind theories of Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky. Presented with a pleasing blend of philosophy, neuroscience and anthropology, Calvin's ideas are accessible for anyone interested in a scientific look at how our brains make us different from chimpanzees. He adds a cautionary note, too: as human brains get smarter-and as our guts stay primitive and our technology skyrockets-we must get better about "our long-term responsibilities to keep things going."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Calvin ponders how humans' higher-level mental abilities may have evolved, explicitly avoiding the thickets of what constitutes consciousness. Instead he investigates the increments of intellect that can be inferred from the fragments of discovered fossils and artifacts. His observations about the separation from ape-level awareness that a hominid skull or an Acheulean hand axe represent don't stand alone; Calvin buttresses his observations with the evolutionary advantage that the hominid possessed or that the tool conferred. When he chronologically approaches the Homo genus (having started the story seven million years in the past), Calvin orients his readers toward two behaviors, the throwing of objects and protolanguage. Although these behaviors were probably manifest in earlier species, Calvin wonders why they flowered into recognizably humanlike abilities only several tens of millennia ago, and then long after the appearance of anatomically modern humans. His equally curious readers will weigh his explanation, which integrates syntax and the precocity of children, as they appreciate the author's adeptness in covering so much material in so brief a space. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

Certainly it is an interesting idea.
Dennis Littrell
His books are guaranteed to be both informative and educational (his, out of print, "The River that Flows Uphill" is my all-time favorite non-fiction book).
Andrew Allison
I won't try to explain this complex theory here, but I did think it had merit.
The Spinozanator

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The central event in this book is the human mind's so-called "big bang" which occurred some 90,000 to 50,000 years ago.

(These are neurobiologist William Calvin's numbers from page 111 where he notes that "it now appears that humans were behaviorally modern before the last great Out of Africa" which is now understood as taking place between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, as determined by the latest tweaking of the mitochondrial DNA dating data.)

Professor Calvin leads up to this event by starting with the proto ape that was our ancestor (and the ancestor of modern apes) that lived some seven million years ago. He takes us from that ape's jungle habitat to the woodlands, where our ancestors learned to walk upright, to the savannahs where they ran down, killed and ate large game animals. Somewhere along the way we got smart. But, Calvin wonders, did we get smart enough?

He sees a disconnect between our abilities and the world we have inherited. He asks: "Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education and new tools--but with its slowly evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored to the ice ages?" Are we just a "rough-around-the-edges prototype, the preliminary version that evolution never got a chance to further improve before the worldwide distribution occurred?" (p. 178)

In other words, are we using Stone Age instincts to cope with Information Age problems? It is interesting to note that in psychologist Keith Stanovich's recent book The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin (2004) he is concerned with the same problem from an entirely different point of view.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on September 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For a short book, (fewer than 200 pages), Dr. Calvin provides a wealth of information from a wide variety of scientific disciplines, and a HUGE bibliography. He approaches evolutionary cognitive development from the standpoint of a neurobiologist.

He has excellent, entertaining quotes to begin and finish many chapters, and nice illustrations. He provides brief (one paragraph) chapter summaries in the Table of Contents. I read that first, and reread individual chapter summaries before and after each chapter. In chapter 8, he discussed this structured, obsessive, pattern-seeking behavior of mine.

Here is the plot: 7 million yrs ago, we emerged from the apes. Bt 160,000 yrs ago, we were homo sapien. By 50,000 yrs ago, we were homo sapien sapien - same physique, same sized brain, just soft-wired more elegantly. Dr. Calvin says, "It's just in the last 1% of that up-from-the-apes period that human creativity & technological capabilities have really blossomed. It's been called 'The Mind's Big Bang'."

How did this happen?

On page 153, he listed 5 candidates, all of which he said were probably operative, but he has a favorite. (Interestingly, he leaves out Matt Ridley's favorite from THE RED QUEEN; that it's all about the battle between the sexes.) In Dr. Calvin's theory, "Evo-Devo," he relies on syntax development and spear-throwing skills as catalysts to the "Mind's Big Bang," and spends a lot of of time explaining his thoughts. He is obviously very well informed about language development. I won't try to explain this complex theory here, but I did think it had merit. I thought, however, that for the crown jewel of his book, it was not presented clearly enough.

I began to wonder where gene change was going to fit in.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Celia Redmore on March 24, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"A Brief History of the Mind" is a breezy, readable account of the evolution of modern humans from ancient African primates, starting around 7 million years ago. There have been some interesting new insights in the field during the past few years, and the story is well worth retelling. Indeed, what makes humans so different from other animals is that we would consider telling "our story" at all.
The core of the book is the chain of events that could have created our modern minds from those of our ancestor apes. It stresses the concept of humans getting an evolutionary "free ride" from fortuitous changes. For example, the author offers the controversial suggestion that the increased cortical connections that eventually enabled our higher thinking abilities originally benefited pre-humans by helping them coordinate the complicated body movements used in hunting herd animals. Those with more neural connections had a better chance of bringing home lunch. Intelligent thought was simply a happy later by-product.
Anthropologists usually look backwards, but this History takes a quick peek at the future. Modern minds are far more than the hardware of cortex and neurons. Human infants start busily "softwiring" language and other skills into their brains as soon as they are born. William Calvin considers this new stage of evolution - one that we actually have some control over - and comes up with some surprising, and disturbing, predictions for our postmodern future.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on October 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Always a lively and informative read, Calvin has capped his many fine works on the human intellect with this book. Never hesitant to propose novel ideas, he incorporates fresh thinking on the cause of our consciousness. "Stories around the campfire" depicts his theme - the campfire for cooking meat and the narratives exchanged among the diners. The meat implies hunting and the conversation implies speech and complex thinking. Only humans engage in these practices - how did that come to be? In this provocative and compelling book, Calvin answers this and other questions with his usual expressive style. Abetted by explanatory diagrams and photographs, he takes us back to a distant time in searching for our origins. We learn what makes us unique among primates and are given a view of possible future paths.

No work in anthropology can ignore our primate relatives. Calvin's opening chapter asks "what is it like to be a chimpazee?" This query raises the point of similarities and differences among primate species. Apes have fair-sized brains and useful "hands". While some hunt, some use tools and all vocalise, only humans developed those capacities fully to create complex societies and learn to write books - or plays and poetry. All fossil evidence, plus genetics, Calvin reminds us, indicate our origins lay close to what chimpanzees exhibit today. How did we change from a forest-dwelling ape to one living in nearly every habitat and babbling expressively?

For Calvin, environment shifts are a major driving force in evolution - perhaps none more so than in the case of human evolution. Variations in climate drives adaptation, and our ape-like ancestors were challenged by some severe, and possibly abrupt, shifts.
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More About the Author

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press 2008, see Global-Fever.org) and thirteen earlier books for general readers. He studies brain circuitry, ape-to-human evolution, climate change, and civilization's vulnerability to abrupt shocks.

In Global Fever, he writes: "The climate doctors have been consulted; the lab reports have come back. Now it's time to pull together the Big Picture and discuss treatment options. At a time when architects are thinking ahead to more efficient buildings and power planners are extolling the virtues of "renewable energy," the climate modelers have discovered that long-term planning will no longer suffice. Our fossil fuel fiasco has already painted us into a corner such that, if we don't make substantial near-term gains before 2020, the long-term is pre-empted, the efforts all for naught. We are already in dangerous territory and have to act quickly to avoid triggering widespread catastrophes. The only good analogy is arming for a great war, doing what must be done regardless of cost and convenience."

His climate talk in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People is available in streaming video as are other recent lectures at NASA and Rice University.

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