A Brief History of the Mind from Apes to Intellect and Beyon

A Brief History of the Mind from Apes to Intellect and Beyon

3.7 (62 ratings by Goodreads)
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This book looks back at the simpler versions of mental life in apes, Neanderthals, and our ancestors, back before our burst of creativity started 50,000 years ago. When you can't think about the future in much detail, you are trapped in a here-and-now existence with no "What if" and "Why me?" William H. Calvin takes stock of what we have now and then explains why we are nearing a crossroads, where mind shifts gears again. The mind's big bang came long after our brain size stopped enlarging. Calvin suggests that the development of long sentences--what modern children do in their third year--was the most likely trigger. To keep a half-dozen concepts from blending together like a summer drink, you need some mental structuring. In saying "I think I saw him leave to go home," you are nesting three sentences inside a fourth. We also structure plans, play games with rules, create structured music and chains of logic, and have a fascination with discovering how things hang together. Our long train of connected thoughts is why our consciousness is so different from what came before. Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education but with its slowly evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored in the ice ages? We will likely shift gears again, juggling more concepts and making decisions even faster, imagining courses of action in greater depth. Ethics are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate, judge quality, and modify our possible actions accordingly. Though science increasingly serves as our headlights, we are out driving them, going faster than we can react effectively.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 219 pages
  • 146.3 x 232.2 x 22.9mm | 403.7g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 0195159071
  • 9780195159073

Review Text

How the mental life of humans has come to differ from that of the other great apes, and speculations about what lies ahead. Calvin (Neurobiology/Univ. of Washington, Seattle) returns to his favorite subject (How Brains Think, 1996 etc.)-and, inspired by Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, produces a capsule history of the mind beginning seven million years ago, the time of the common ancestor of humans and other great apes. Calvin places the first brain boom at some 2.5 million years ago with the emergence of the first Homo species. Yet while the Homo sapiens of 100,000 years ago were anatomically modern and may have had some sort of protolanguage, it is only in the last 50,000 years that the modern mind of Homo sapiens sapiens appears, as evidenced by cave paintings and decorative carvings. To set the stage for the burst of creativity that he refers to as "The Mind's Big Bang," Calvin shows what the great apes are capable of. Bonobos, for example, are sociable in humanlike ways, but do not show evidence of foresight or much creativity. It is the step up to syntax, or structured thought, says Calvin, that distinguishes the modern brain and tunes it up to do other structured tasks-multistage planning, chains of logic, narratives, discovering hidden order, imagining how things hang together. As a "first of its kind," Calvin cautions, the human intellect is very new in the scheme of things, a sort of version 1.0, prone to malfunctions and not yet well tested. Thus, he sees precarious times ahead as the speed of technological advance far outstrips ponderous political reaction times and society's slow pace at problem-solving and consensus-building. Humans are also vulnerable, he warns, to climatic, economic, or diseased-caused "lurches" that we must become more competent at managing. Cultural innovation, not biological evolution, he says, holds the key to the future success of our species. As always, the author's erudition demands close attention but makes science entertaining and accessible for the layman. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Rating details

62 ratings
3.7 out of 5 stars
5 18% (11)
4 42% (26)
3 35% (22)
2 3% (2)
1 2% (1)
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