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The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science Paperback – 4 May 1998


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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: W&N; New Ed edition (4 May 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 075380204X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753802045
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 127,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Book Description

Award-winning science writer Steven Mithen explores how an understanding of our ancestors and their development can illuminate our brains and behaviour today.

About the Author

Steven Mithen is Professor of Early Prehistory and Head of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences at the University of Reading.

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First Sentence
The human mind is intangible, an abstraction. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 16 Dec. 1997
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. It starts with the question of whether we are fundamentally different from chimpanzies in the way our mind works. Taking the perspective of an archaeologist, and blending that with the views of evolutionary biology and of human developmental psychology and cognitive science, Mithen spins an extroadinary tale. The earliest and most primative primates probably had most of their cognitive world "hard-wired." They had all the specific knowledge they needed for survival. Primates really took off from the rest of the mammals when we developed "general intelligence," which could learn from trial and error, and which could make generalizations based on experience. However, this general intelligence was slow in acquiring new knowledge. To accomplish that, specialized intelligences, or programs, needed to evolve.
The first of these was social intelligence, which was the specialized ability to read and understand social heirarchies. Early empathy and the ability to infer from your own experience what other members of your species were thinking and feeling was the greatest power this new intelligence conferred, and became the origin of consciousness. The second specialized intelligence was that of natural biology. This was very helpful in expanding our observations of the world, and increased the food sources which were available to primitive ancestors of homo sapiens. The third specialized intelligence was technical intelligence. This enabled early man to fashion tools and to use them in ever more complex ways.

To these three intelligences -- psychology, biology, and physics, so to speak -- was added linguistic intelligence. This gave the conscious mind a voice.
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 5 Dec. 2002
Format: Paperback
Mithen makes a valiant effort to establish the evolutionary roots of human intelligence. It's a complicated task, with so little physical evidence to support his endeavour. Still, he uses what there is with commendable ability. In presenting the development of intelligence, he falls back on three metaphorical images - the Swiss Army Knife, cathedral architecture and a dramatic play. The Swiss Army knife is a collection of specialized tools, each applied without relation to the others. You don't decork a wine bottle while trimming your fingernails. His cathedral is comprised of a central nave with connecting chapels. The chapels only connect to each other as intelligence develops. The drama is the history o1f hominid evolution, vague and obscure in the beginning, growing more discernible with more fossil evidence.
As with most cognitive studies, Mithen's book summarizes what is known of the similarity of chimpanzee [our nearest relative] intellect and abilities in contrast with our own. As do many of his colleagues, he finds our primate cousins lacking in all but minimal skills. With the chimpanzees thus disposed of, he moves to examine the hominid record. This is the great strength of this work. Instead of the usual tactic of portraying what is known of today's human intellect and projecting backward, Mithen starts at the beginnings of human evolution to carry his argument forward. Along the way he utilizes anthropology, morphological studies, even climate and geography. He uses evidence well, assuming little and carefully building the model. Key points in the narrative are two periods of hominid brain enlargement, which he uses to enhance his model of special "intelligences.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Virginia on 14 Dec. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I did not expect to feel as strongly about this book as I do. As my previous reading had centred only around History and Archaeology I found its contents absolutely stunning. It has given me a profound insight into what it is to be human. I found Prof. Mithen's hypothesis for "Cathedrals of the Mind' compelling and the presented evidence fits well. The reason for four not five stars was that towards the end of the book I found the repetition necessary to drive home an academic point a little wearisome for the lay reader, although I understand it is difficult to be 'all things to all people'. Prof. Mithen gives the impression of being someone who does not suffer fools gladly, and no doubt he would think me one, but the picture which kept popping into my mind when thinking of the Middle/Upper Palaeolitic transition was that of Stanley Kubrick's monolith and our ancestors at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have fought against this and have been educated and entertained.
It would be interesting to know Steven Mithen's views on David Lewis-Williams hallucinogens and what effect they might have had cognitive fluidity. (Dare I say it - no I know I mustn't - but Graham Hancock also has some interesting and novel ideas on the subject in 'Supernatural').
For all the championing of Richard Dawkins, I was left wondering whether our own deification of Science is not also a superstitious arrogance, although I can see it is the best tool we have for pushing back the frontiers of knowledge; which is something this clearly thought provoking book may well have helped to do. Highly recommended.
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