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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As highly convincing as it's enthusiastic,
This review is from: The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (Hardcover)I bought this book as a must-have after hearing Mithen speak at Art and Mind in autumn 2005. Not having read any of his earlier work, I was prepared to be disappointed, because a few others in this field have an incredibly dry writing style that can be frustrating if you lack some of the academic background.
I needn't have worried. By the time I'd read the introduction it was obvious that I was going to enjoy the book. He writes as enthusiastically as he lectures, gently starting with modern-day scenarios that are accesible to most people before laying out his arguments for the evolution of music and language in hominids over the last six million years or so. He appears to be scrupulously fair, pointing out where others disagree with his arguments, but links the whole chain of reasoning together in a convincing manner.
One of the outstanding features of the book for me, coming to the subject without a great depth of understanding of topics such as DNA, or sexual dimorphism in apes, is that I've learnt enough to be able to penetrate the work of others in the field without really noticing that it's happened.
I was sad to discover that I was halfway through the last chapter, torn between wanting to finish it and wanting more.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From "Hmmmm" to "Hmmmmm",
This review is from: The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (Hardcover)Fear not, dear reader. I'm not making the sounds of indecision. Nor have I forgotten the words to my local national anthem. Instead, those sets of letters are acronyms. Steven Mithen uses them to typify the foundations of our ability to communicate in our distant past. The letters stand for "Holistic, "multi-modal", "manipulative", and "musical". With the addition of "mimetic", he uses the collective phrase to explain why "music" in this broadly defined sense, preceded the development of language and grammar in our species. He also explains the "how" of this phenomenon, which is what gives this book its real value.
Mithen's previous works are a foundation for this one, although he openly admits that the phenomenon of music eluded him in them. He makes up for that oversight with a detailed examination of fossil and genetic information to support his thesis. As humans fluent in the use of speech, with its lexicons and syntax, we've become blinded to our true roots. We rush children through infancy, overlooking the process we use in communicating with those who lack words and their meanings. Mithen says this period is critical - both because its universality among cultures should tell us something about our past, and because a better understanding of the communication process can lead to smarter and healthier children. Who, among the mothers we know, fails to "sing" to their newborn?
In Mithen's view, that childhood communication method repeats what our African ancestors did with each other prior to the development of language. Words, in our time, are representative. They "mean" something - an object, an event, a lesson. In those early days, emotions, especially the basic ones of fear, flight, fight or feed, were the only significant topics. Music, he reminds us, is the language of emotion, whether it be lullabies to children or a Mozart aria. Newborns are particularly receptive to music or rhythmic sounds and gestures, especially when they're synchronised [hence "multi-modal"]. Newborns can't understand the words mothers use, but they comprehend the "message" [the "holistic" part].
The author explains how studies in brain activity associated with speech and music have given us great insight to the mind's processing of information. Where and when did these talents emerge? Mithen builds his thesis with careful detail, noting how our gaining a bipedal stature did more than distinguish us from the other apes. A range of body changes modified our method of movement, hand manipulation and breathing. It also impinged on our voices. The Early Humans, as Mithen broadly characterises the Homo genus, developed a range of sounds, with various pitches and volumes. The best way to use these new-found talents was in a musical manner and for a variety of circumstances.
Although nearly half the book must be consumed to reach the title's topic, the background is necessary for a full understanding. Homo neanderthalis, with its larger brain and stockier body than Homo sapiens, struggled for survival in Ice Age Europe. Even in the face of such stress, Neanderthal society remained doggedly static. The kinds of innovation speech might have spurred aren't found. Neanderthal excavation sites easily outnumber those of early Homo sapiens' digs in Africa, our original home. Yet in all those digs, nothing is found that would suggest the need for language. Jewellry only appears very late, probably introduced by Homo sapiens invading from Africa. And that invader brought a new talent in its armoury - language and symbolic representation. Which likely led, in Mithen's view, to our being the sole remaining Homo species.
Mithen isn't offering us wild speculation plucked from offhand supposition. Although he notes the interest in music as an evolutionary prompter is only beginning, his presentation rests on solid evidence. Support comes from Alison Wray - who suggested the term "holistic" and from Simon Kirby of Edinburgh University. Kirby applies computer modelling to show how recursive feedback reinforces word development in proto-languages. Indeed, it's noteworthy that Mithen's Notes section comprises a quarter of the book. There's one glaring error - genes aren't made of amino acids, they're comprised of codons. Editors and proofreaders are still catching up with the sciences, so we may forgive Mithen this small lapse. We'd better, since this ground-breaking book will lead to much discussion and likely no little acrimony in exchanges. That's good, because he has overturned a number of dogmas needing shedding. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, clearly written, but not easy!,
This review is from: The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (Hardcover)I've been thinking for a while about how come we (humans) all like and make music. It's a fairly fundamental question, and the answer isn't obvious in Darwinian terms -- the only terms I'm prepared to consider, really.
This is a brilliant account of the co-evolution of music and language, and one which I found utterly convincing, in so far as I could follow it. I think of myself as fairly smart, but be warned that this is a hard book - it's not a populist ramble through the subject area, though it does contain much of interest to the general reader (me).
I'm going to try to read his other books, because he writes so well on such an important topic, but I don't anticipate that the ride will be any easier.
4.0 out of 5 stars Hmmmmm.,
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This review is from: The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (Paperback)The backbone of this book is an interesting and thought provoking thesis, and if you have an interest in the origins of music, or the evolution of the human mind then I recommend that you read it. The first part of the book presents a broad selection of scientific theory and research results, the second part expounds Professor Mithen's theory, referencing back to the research presented in part one. And a very attractive theory it is too; Australopithecines whooping and singing together like gibbons, Homo ergaster communicating with bird-like song and dance-like gesture, Homo neanderthalensis sharing complex information in a wordless song and dance routine and Homo sapiens singing to God and talking to each other. As with all scientific theses, the research Mithen presents supports his theory. But there are occasions when major elements of that theory appear to be built on fairly flimsy footings and much contradictory evidence is disregarded or dismissed somewhat casually. That is to be expected from a scientific theory, but needs to be born in mind by non-scientists who read this book. So yes, buy it, read it, think about it, but also buy, read and think about other theories. This book is by no means the end of the debate.
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The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen (Paperback - 31 Oct 2007)
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