Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition

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ISBN-13: 978-0674644847
ISBN-10: 0674644840
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Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

``The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management.'' So says Donald (Psychology/Queen's Univ., Kingston, Ontario), echoing the philosopher Ernst Cassirer a generation ago--with a difference. Whereas countless philosophers since Aristotle have attempted to define what is quintessentially human, Donald brings new knowledge of neuropsychology, ethology, and archaeology to propose a tripartite theory of the transition from ape to man. Using the fossil evidence of braincase size and tool-kit remains, Donald concludes that the australopithecines were limited to concrete/episodic minds: bipedal creatures able to benefit from pair-bonding, cooperative hunting, etc., but essentially of a seize-the-moment mentality. The first transition was to a ``mimetic'' culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology. This summary, however, does not do justice to Donald's careful analysis of rival theories as well as his mining of the neuroanatomical and neurological literature, presenting, for example, evidence of the distribution of language skills across both hemispheres. He gets high marks, too, for pointing out how often cognitive theories become caught up in the trap of the homunculus--the little man in the brain who presides over all our conscious activities. Needless to say, his theory is open to challenge as well (the relation of mimesis to language; the constant reliance on computer metaphors; and, ultimately, the use of Western tradition as the paradigm of human evolution). Withal, a fine, provocative and absorbing account of what makes humans human. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Origins of the Modern Mind is an admirable book...Its author displays throughout an engaging enthusiasm, a fertile imagination and an impressive knowledge of his subject-matter. (Christopher Longuet-Higgins Times Literary Supplement)

A fine, provocative and absorbing account of what makes humans human. (Kirkus Reviews)

Nowadays one hears...that hand-held calculators destroy young people's motivation to learn arithmetic. But not to worry, says Merlin Donald, author of this revelatory but demanding history of human consciousness. He welcomes the computer, as well as other forms of electronic storage and manipulation of data and images, including TV, as the highest stage of mental development--and perhaps the final one. (John Wilkes Los Angeles Times)

A wonderful book that deserves to be read by everyone interested in the human mind. It weaves together the best available evidence into a convincing theory of cognition, culture, consciousness, and communication--their structure, evolution, meaning, and future. (Hans Moravec Carnegie Mellon University)

A radically different evolutionary framework for the understanding of mind and behavior: I don't know when I have enjoyed reading a book more, or when I have learned so much from one. (Sheldon White, Harvard University)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 15, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674644840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674644847
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #562,771 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By J. Michael Showalter on January 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is a fun book to read-- which is something for a book that credibly spreads across a number of disciplines and through some pretty dense stuff....
Donald is a credible writer and has a style that is simultaneously engaging without losing academic credibility. After opening up with a couple of chapters dealing with a review of literature stemming from before Darwin, he moves into an examination of archaeology, anthropology, and neurology trying to trace how the human mind came to function as it does (if you see it as special... or not....)
He traces through most of history. It is a broad, well-constucted swoop but one of which I still have not passed my final judgement. Perhaps it will take a couple of reads before I get to that point. What I am certain of is that this book, secondary to Julian Jaynes "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" made me THINK more about how we think than any other book I have come across.
I wholeheartedly recommend for you to buy this book if you have stumbled across this page....
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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Michael H. Barnes on December 17, 1999
Format: Paperback
The shelves are crowded now with books on the origins of intelligence. Donald's 1991 book is still an excellent introduction. He begins with a fun though intense review of 19th and 20th century brain studies, exposing the workings of the human mind. Then he reaches back to our beginnings, examining chimpanzee intelligence for clues. After a look at various chimp talents, in socializing, politics, tool-making, and very limited vocalizing, he wonders how we humans got from there to here. Language has been central to human intelligence for many thousands of years. Donald speculates about a pre-language stage of physical mimicry and hand gestures. Even now we gesticulate and grimace to enhance our verbal communication. Upon the three-stage pattern of development, from grunts to gestures to language, humans then added literacy. This changed our modes of thought significantly, teaching us to address our ideas to a wide absent audience, ordering the ideas logically, and thereby moving us towards a more objective and systematic way of thinking. Since Guttenberg literacy has given us external storage systems of knowledge, which once again shifted culture, as we not only amassed information but struggled with the task of inventing rational storage and retrieval systems. Donald's work is full of fascinating pieces of information, connected in a provocative framework. This book is wonderful in its own right; it also provides excellent background for grasping the significance of later work, by Gellner or Diamond or Pinker, on the evolution of human culture and the origin and power of language in human life.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Andy Blunden on June 18, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is a book that will forever change your view of what it means to be a human being. It is a work of enormous scope, from the minutiae of neurophysiology to archaeology and anthropology to the curriculum of mediaeval schools and modern systems theory, and everywhere closely researched with evidence weighed with care and insight.

The argument is broadly this: our evolutionary cousins, the apes, have brains which enable them to represent to themselves and remember "episodes" or events, something which their evolutionary predecessors either do not have or have only in a limited form.

Homo erectus, the evolutionary link between us and the apes, extended this ability to perceive events, into "mimesis", a capacity to reproduce events they have perceived by use of their own body. Donald shows how this ability, which involves no modifications of the body and relatively modest changes in the brain, allows for the voluntary representation and communication of events of the past and emotions not actually felt concerning things not actually present, a foundation for the later development of symbolic action. Homo erectus dominated the hominid world for a million years, adapting themselves to this "mimetic" culture. According to Donald, mimetic representation remains with us as a vestige of our homo erectus ancestry, as a fully functioning, underlying mode of representation and intelligence.

Homo sapiens in turn developed this ability into speech, with a radical adaption which occurred about 500,000 years ago. According to Donald, homo sapiens had a "mythic" culture hinged around the ability to tell stories, and this ability provided a means to make sense of the world and create a shared understanding of the world.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Bill Perez on May 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
Although I didn't finish this book altogether convinced (nor altogether unconvinced) of his schema for human cognitive evolution, I was nonetheless very pleased and very grateful for Merlin Donald's clear and thorough review of the facts. Donald carefully sorts through the wealth of anthropological, paleontological, physiological, linguistic, and, most intriguingly, cognitive-psychological data, to separate the real clues from the red herrings. He expertly demonstrates the complexity and nuances of the evidence, while at the same time building his outline of a theory of the emergence of human consciousness. While I found this theory somewhat hazy and incomplete, particularly with respect to the "mimetic" stage he posits for H. erectus, it is quite acceptable in the spirit in which it is given: a tentative suggestion of what a plausible origins scenario must look like. From this perspective, his thoughts are most valuable, and by necessity provoke the reader to ruminate on the bewildering array of issues the author navigates so expertly. Merlin Donald does not adopt the strident, advocative tone that so many big-picture human evolution theorists do--rather, he lets the steady buildup of evidence and counter-evidence show you how he arrived at his ideas. The book is a dated, but still glittering, treasure of references and findings in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, and animal and human cognition--I have used it quite a few times simply to remind myself--and others--of the strange but true, and of how things don't always conform to the wished-for pattern. For instance, Donald's wonderful and almost touching account of "Brother John", a paroxysmal aphasic, is a perfect rejoinder to anyone who equates "language" with "intelligence".
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