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A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness Paperback – June 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

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Many scientists have denied any evolutionary significance to human consciousness, dismissing it as illusory smoke dancing above the fire of real neurochemistry. But Donald sees in consciousness the very key to understanding how humankind developed. After assaulting (with great panache) the arguments commonly deployed to remove it from the research agenda, Donald presents a natural history for consciousness, focusing particularly on its astonishing and clearly unique complexity among human beings-- Why does the human brain so closely resemble those of other primates yet so dramatically outstrip them in capacity? How does the mind endow the ego center with autonomy and a narrative autobiography? In his sophisticated conception of a multilayered consciousness drawing much of its power from its cultural matrix, Donald bids fair to reset the terms for evolutionary psychology. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Donald transcends the simplistic claims of Evolutionary Psychology,...offering a true Darwinian perspective on the evolution of consciousness. -- Philip Lieberman

The most significant contribution yet to the rapidly growing literature of minds, brains, and consciousness. -- Steven Rose

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (June 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393323196
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393323191
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #114,614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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81 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on July 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
A delightful polemic with a valuable point. Donald dramatically uses the intricate demands of a face to face conversation to show the practical weaknesses in the laboratory view of short and long term memory. The laboratory evidence that working memory is very limited is overwhelming, and has fed the modern philosophical trend toward viewing conscious awareness as an illusory result of the work of unconscious agents.
But things we do in daily life clearly require us to track things much more numerous and much longer than could possibly be accomplished by "seven plus or minus two" chunks, even with clever strategies for grouping things. Donald uses this to argue that conscious processes are very real and not to be ignored, and do play a central role in human intelligence.
Donald unflinchingly takes on the likes of "hardliners" such as Dan Dennett who argue that there is no central "meaner," no self, no little person in our heads observing the stream of consciousness in a Cartesian theater. He points out that the drafts we generate in our minds are not at all arbitrary competitors for dominance, but are distinctly related to goals and expectations. Most insightfully, he argues that discounting the role of conscious processes has dire implications for social and political philosophy and how we view human responsibility for our own actions.
In my view, Donald makes the excellent point for yet poorly understood intermediate term memory mechanisms very convincingly. I was completely persuaded that this is something we need to study to understand human abilities, and that "hardliners" views have some weaknesses I hadn't considered seriously before.
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Edward A.Cohen, MD on November 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In this sweeping neocortical neuroparadigm, Merlin Donald brings elan and scholarship in our hour of need.
It has become almost normative to speak of higher consciousness as modular, with each module (attention, emotion, volition and so on...) in turn, a weighted sum of parallel agents interacting in unconscious `pandemonium'. Dennett and other proponents of this view are joined by the evolutionary psychologists, who deconstruct the Purpose of human endeavor by reference to these modules, seen as vestigial survival strategies inappropriate to contemporary life, eg. the frisky male ex-hunter-gatherer dumping MDMA in the drinks of ladies who chance bearing his offspring ..well, you get it.
A picture emerges: an incontrovertibly brilliant series of contributions by `Hardliners' [philosophers, psychologists, linguists and cognitive scientists] has weakened an Emperor already hostage to the `demons' of his unruly New Mind. While holists wave hands and damn the evidence, serious observers nod in depressed capitulation. Another Postmodern Truth has displaced our helmsman to the periphery.
Donald comes to the rescue, wielding formidable expertise and sharp wit. He makes an excellent case for Autonomous Man, without soft fuzzies and without cliche. And he vigorously and cogently propounds a top-down viewpoint.
Cortical Size does count, and human consciousness is active, not a passive construction of the "real stuff" from lower hierarchical levels.
With the unitary perspective that single authorship confers, this kind of coherent articulation stands as a monument to plausible theorizing. Much what Lee Smolin's 'Life of the Cosmos' did for cosmology, 'A Mind So Rare' does for neuropsychology.
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47 of 54 people found the following review helpful By John Anderson on March 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wish that I could jump on the bandwagon of approval that this book seems to be getting, but I am afraid that I can't. I picked A MIND SO RARE for a graduate seminar, largely because of the glowing reviews that it had received here & in some technical journals, but the more I read of it the more irritated I became with Donald's habit of sticking in little jeers & snide asides about his opponents, and his tendency to create straw men for any argument with which he disagrees. Having assigned the book I did my best to keep the conversation going, but to be honest it bombed with the students. Most felt that he could have summarized his "new ideas" in many fewer pages & that the elaborations served to confuse more than to enlighten. It was also hard to follow just whom he was citing or why he chose to leave some theorists out & put others in -this particularly annoying at the graduate level! All in all this is a pity, because some of Donald's ideas suggest interesting alternatives to much of the popularly stated positions in this field, but he would have done us all a much greater service by clearly expounding his points & avoiding the unproductive carping about his (often un-named) opponents.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Jim Berk on August 7, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As a concerned reader I will explain, briefly, what I took from the book, and not critique the negatives. One strength seems to be a multidisciplinary approach. Merlin Donald is a research psychologist and makes an effort to draw from Psychological, Cognative, Neurological, and Evolutionary sciences; as well as literature.
Points: the shift of evolutionary importance from genetic to cultural in the hominid line; recognition of a fourth layer in human mental evolution, that of cultural memory (which he calls "external" memory in his fourth or Theoretic layer); and consideration of the whole of human consciousness.
Donald has expanded on his "Origins of the Human Mind" ('93) with exploring how culture has outstripped genetics in co-evolution with supporting the emergence of Homo Erectus, and then structuring the extended consciousness and symbol manipulation of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
He postulated a fourth Theoretic layer (after Episotic, Mimetic, and Mythic layers) as an "external symbolic universe", or recorded symbols, or "external memory". But before recorded symbols, the past was only recovered by recall, by both speaker and, often, the listener. Recall must be distinguished from memory (as recorded symbols), for recall of past events or thoughts or moods must be incomplete and personal, whereas using recorded symbols is about interpretation, which is as complete as the writer and reader choose to make it, and is social. If people insist in using 'memory' for 'recall', then recorded symbols should be called 'cultural memory', but it is critically different.
Donald attempts an evolutionary analysis of the integrated, whole of consciousness. Since I am more interested in the human emotional (value) systems than in consciousness, I have one critical comment.
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