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Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition Paperback – 18 May 1993

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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

About the Author

Merlin Donald is Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychology Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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Amazon.com: 15 reviews
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
A really swell read.... 23 Jan 2001
By J. Michael Showalter - Published on Amazon.com
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....
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
How Did We Get To Be So Smart? 17 Dec 1999
By Michael H. Barnes - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A brand new idea about human origins 18 Jun 2006
By Andy Blunden - Published on Amazon.com
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. This mythic culture survives to this day, constituting a crucial mode of understanding the world.

Modern human beings, homo sapiens sapiens, emerged only about 50,000 years ago with a rapid accumulation of a myriad of forms of cultural artefacts, culminating in the beginning of writing about 8,000 years ago. This led to a "theoretic" culture for which symbols held in material forms outside the body, play an essential role. According to Donald, human beings have evolved by biological adaptation to the culture it created and lived in and was crucial to its survival strategy.

There is a lot of maybe, perhaps, possibly and if in this work, but the best books open research programs rather than completing them, and Donald has certainly done this. The basic framework is very sound and argued convincingly but his suggestion opens up a plethora of questions begging for investigation.

In particular, the idea of several (episodic, mimetic and linguistics) modes of representation coexisting in consciousness has vast ramifications.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Earnest, Learned and Valiant Effort 18 May 2000
By Bill Perez - Published on Amazon.com
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".
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Culture Gets the Credit It Deserves 3 Aug 2012
By Phillida - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Much of this book is conjecture. We don't really know much about the thought processes
of Homo erectus (should be in italics) or earlier ancestors. It is also uses questionable metaphors,
referring, for example, to "devices" in the brain. We don't have devices; we have thought processes.
But Donald gets a lot of credit for recognizing the role of culture and learning. Some cognitive scientists
I've read imagine that everything is brain structure. It's not. Culture and biology interact, culture
has influenced human evolution, and the greatest proportion of what we do as humans is a consequence of
cultural learning and not of devices, modules, structures or what have you in our brain.
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