- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (April 1, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195159071
- ISBN-13: 978-0195159073
- Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.8 x 5.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.2 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,499,815 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond Hardcover – April 1, 2004
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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.
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
Top customer reviews
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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. As I read, I searched for indications that the current brand of natural selection was in play. In one segment, he suggested what sounded exactly like vertical transmission of memes, although he didn't call them memes. He extrapolated this into the future, saying, "a number of present day human abilities have some potential for future elaboration even without natural selection." I couldn't help but wonder what Richard Dawkins would think about this. It sounded awfully Lamarckian to me.
As the plot unfolded, the existing product (our minds) was shown to be jury-rigged and unfinished, in evolution's usual fashion...so, as humans, we have tendencies to misinterpret in our own favor, rationalize, use faulty logic, wage war, etc. In short, we are "NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME."
This book is well-written, extensively researched, and entertaining, about a subject in which informed speculation appears to be the state of the art. Too bad we don't have hard evidence for the "how" of evolutionary cognitive function such as what mitochondrial DNA is to geneology.
I recommend this book highly, and am inspired to read more on the subject, probably from books he mentions. Because his charts in chapter 8 were unclear, I give him a 4.
Be forewarned that this is a rather "cheaply" made paperback book. The cover is thin and the paper quality average. Inside there are a number of black and white photographs that appear as though they were colored photos copied from a high speed low quality scanner. Most of them are unintelligible. Of course, this isn't a photographic book and the images are only a small part of what is presented, but I would have appreciated being able to see the visual details that the author meant to convey.
The material within is fascinating, and there's quite a lot of content here that you won't find laying around the Internet. Calvin does have some intriguing observations and assumptions about how we've come to have the minds contained in our heads today. This book is like a documentary. It reads fairly well to the lay person, but it does get a bit stuffy at times. I recommend reading it in a quiet location where you can devote full attention.
What drew me to this book is the "beyond" part... Calvin's ideas as to where we are going as a species. Quite frankly, I'm alarmed at what is going on in the world today at the hands of human beings. We are at a pinnacle of technological prowess with pockets of reasonably peaceful societies, but we are still savagely destroying each other and exploiting natural resources with reckless abandon. Greed is at the forefront of our problems. And now we are at a phase where prominent people who are supposed to be highly esteemed and well respected are willing to risk their reputations for the gaining of finances and/or power. The social experiment of large scale civilization is a very mixed blessing and I'm very curious as to whether we are going to "make it." Perhaps we might reach that next "big bang" in the evolution of our minds such that we'll be able to transcend our most pressing faults and find a way to achieve a healthy sustainable form of society across the globe.
It is hard to be optimistic in this day and age... I'm hoping Calvin has something to say that can support an optimistic outlook.