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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating theory of the evolution of human intelligence
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...
Published on 16 Dec. 1997

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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful mind?
"The prehistory of the mind" by Steven Mithen is a book dealing with some of the mysteries of human prehistory. We know that Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans, and could manufacture spear points by a rather complicated process. We also know that they managed to survive in really forbidding territories during the Ice Ages. It's obvious that the Neanderthals...
Published on 5 Dec. 2010 by Ashtar Command


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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Illuminating theory of the evolution of human intelligence, 16 Dec. 1997
By A Customer
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. It also enhanced the other three intelligences, especially social intelligence. Prior to the evolution of linguistic intelligence, peer communication was mostly visual and tactile. Speech was much more efficient than grooming in building and maintaining social bonds. It was also linguistic intelligence that made possible the next great leap to meta-intelligence.

Linking the four specialized intelligences, there evolved during the period leading up to 40,000 years ago, a supraordinate intelligence which permitted what we might now call multitasking, or integration among the other specialized intelligences. We see the first evidence of this in the bursting forth of art and religion at that time. None of these appear to have been present prior to that time.

Much like a simple computer, the earliest primates had a set of basic information. Then came a generalized processor. To this were added specialized programs for psychology, biology, physics, and language. Finally, true homo sapiens developed a metaprogram linking the others and permitting genuine creativity to take off.

Unlike most popular books on science for the educated layperson, Mithen does not go in for much chit chat. This is a pet peave of mine in other books, such as "Sex on the Brain," or "Why We Age." Too much irrelevant material on the appearance and personal quirks of the scientists and not enough of the science. Not so here. The writing is only a tiny bit repetitious, and is generally excellent.

A few other brief notes. Mithen explains some of the subtler aspects of upright posture, such as taking less direct sun, which permits foraging in the middle of the day. He addresses the role of a meat diet compared to a vegetarian one. He also demonstrates conclusively that while chimps and other primates have certain things in common with us, human intelligence is truly a unique phenomenon.
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Methaphorical building blocks, 5 Dec. 2002
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (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."
With the earliest hominids having only a Swiss Army knife array of mental tools, each segment of intelligence had to develop independent of the others. According to Mithen, this situation led to each "tool" building a separate "chapel" in the mind. Based on a central "nave" of "general" intelligence - keeping the body going, food gathering, sex - new intelligences would arise around it. These new intelligences are technical, natural, social and linguistic. Each operated independently of the others, so that tool-making enhanced "technical" intelligence, while learning about bird migration or fruiting seasons developed "natural" intelligence. The Swiss Army knife structure prevented these intelligences from interacting until the emergence of Homo sapiens. Then, according to Mithen, a "cognitive fluidity" tore through the walls of the "intelligence chapels" to acquire the broad range of abilities the mind exhibits today. While direct evidence of all this activity is, necessarily missing, the forceful presentation and elegant logic make it all a captivating read.
It's easy to critique Mithen's thesis. All you need is a competitive model of cognition. However, that would be unfair to what he has achieved, a carefully synthesized model of how human intelligence developed. Even without bringing in a competitive thesis, Mithen falls down in two important areas. After lengthy discussion of tool-making enhancing "technical" intelligence and its role in developing hunter-gatherer societies, he blithely omits any input from the "gathering" half of those communities. While rarely mentioning that tool-makers/hunters are almost exclusively male, even among chimpanzees, he restricts mention of female roles to the need to give birth to small-headed babies. He also depicts the changing of "social" intelligence associated with grooming in early hominids to the development of speech later. He ignores the possibility that speech is just as likely to have arisen within the community of females, who had greater reason to utilize it.
The second major flaw is his conclusion on how modern minds evolved from earlier ones. He argues that the "social" intelligence became the tool that opened the walls of his "intelligence chapels" of the cathedral. Since there is no reason to believe that intelligence should be so pigeon-holed as Mithen makes it, "social intelligence" as an integrating force is vague at best. Although comparison with a competitive thesis may be unfair, it's difficult not to refer the reader to Daniel C. Dennett's Multiple Drafts model of consciousness. If Mithen had consulted Dennett's Consciousness Explained, instead of blithely dismissing it, he would have discovered that his cathedral and chapels would have been built up over time instead of needing serious renovation at the end. Mithen would have been able to use the same evidence, indeed, the same metaphors, but with progressive construction instead of building then repairing. Knocking down mental walls is not a satisfactory technique to build intellect. Instead, Mithen should have kept the theatre metaphor, which he restricts to history, and built up his drama from a soliloquy to a full cast epic. That would have allowed him to enlarge mental capacities through new players, scenery changes, improved interaction among the cast, perhaps with himself taking the final bow. Given the work he's obviously put into this and the wealth of evidence he's considered and offered us, a smattering of applause [after a careful reading of the libretto] is not out of order.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Prehistory of the Mind, 14 Dec. 2013
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This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution of the modular mind, 1 April 2011
This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
The most rewarding books are often those written at the interface between two disciplines. In this case Professor Steven Mithen works with a combination of developmental psychology and archaeology.

Based on the fossil evidence record, he traces the development of the `human' mind over the last few million years.

His hypothesis, beautifully deployed, is as follows. Firstly there developed `content rich, domain-specific, modules' . These modules operated independently (like the units of a swiss army knife) . There was however some tenuous communication between them ( Mithen suggests a relationship akin to the layout of cathedral side chapel, each connecting to the main nave). The modules in question had functions which Mithen names `Natural history', `Technical', `Lingustic', `Social', `Manipulative', and `General'. Subsequently, `Integrative' facilities evolved; this created `cognitive fluidity' between the mental functions towards the illusion of a single, holistic `mind'

Meticulously evidence based, and tremendously plausible, this makes a compelling account of the mind's evolutionary structure.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cognitive fluidity: the basis of art, science and religion, 13 April 2010
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This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
Figuring out how our minds work is hard enough without also asking how they got that way. What hope is there of ever pinning down something as intangible as a million-year-old mind? And by digging up bones! What can archaeology possibly say about our almost unlimited imagination, our capacity for science, art, religion? A great deal, apparently, and the achievement of Steven Mithen in this splendid book is to make a convincing case for how stone tools, bits of bone and carved figurines can all contribute to our understanding of the modern human mind, the defining property of which he identifies as cognitive fluidity. This, put simply, is how the different parts of the mind - for example, the social, technical and natural history intelligences - are not only connected but can interact in new ways not available to an older "Swiss-army-knife mentality".

Psychologists have used several analogies to understand the mind, which is like a sponge, "indiscriminately soaking up whatever information is around", or like a computer running a small set of general-purpose programs (this was Piaget's firm belief), or like a collection of specialized tools (the Swiss-army-knife or modular view). These models all have difficulty explaining the one thing the mind does that is distinctively human, its ability to create, to think of things which are not "out there", in the world. Mithen meets this challenge with his own analogy: the mind is like a cathedral, with side chapels coming off the central nave, but with the possibility of more connections being formed between the side chapels themselves. It is this connectivity that captures the ability of one part of the mind to speak to another.

This ecclesiastical metaphor does not compromise Mithen's scientific approach. Creationists who believe that the mind sprang suddenly into existence fully formed - "a product of divine creation" - are plain wrong. The "mind has a long evolutionary history and can be explained without recourse to supernatural powers." When Mithen talks about cognitive architecture, the architect implied is natural selection. The time-scales are impressive: 65 million years of primate evolution, 6 million years since the common ancestor we share with our primate cousins, 4.5 million years since the oldest known human ancestor. While the evolutionary context is panoramic, Mithen's focus is on the critical period between the appearance of stone tools 2.5 million years ago and agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Far from being a period of steady progress, however, the only major technical innovation made by Early Humans until around 250,000 years ago was the handaxe at 1.4 million years ago. The "bizarre nature of this record" - "the monotony of industrial traditions, the absence of tools made from bone and ivory, the absence of art" - "is the most compelling argument for a fundamentally different type of human mind". It is not the case that we differ from chimpanzees or even Early Humans only in degree. Something else is needed to account for what comes next: the "two really dramatic transformations in human behaviour" associated exclusively with Modern Humans. "The first was the cultural explosion between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago, when the first art, complex technology and religion appeared. The second was the rise of farming 10,000 years ago, when people for the first time began to plant crops and domesticate animals."

The "big bang of human culture", Mithen claims, was made possible by the "final major re-design of the mind", which was transformed from a set of "relatively independent cognitive domains to one in which ideas, ways of thinking and knowledge flow freely between such domains". Anthropomorphism, for example, "is a seamless integration between social and natural history intelligence", allowing us to attribute feelings, purposes and intentions to animals. Cat owners, as they fail once again to read the mind of their inscrutable pet, may question the benefit of such thinking, but for a hunter-gatherer better able to predict the movements of prey it could mean the difference between dinner and going hungry.

Our very capacity to invent analogies for the human mind is itself "a product of cognitive fluidity". "Early Humans could not use metaphor because they lacked cognitive fluidity." Our creative power has a darker side, and Mithen argues that racist attitudes are also a product of cognitive fluidity, which made possible beliefs "that other individuals or groups had different types of mind from their own" and were "less than human", an idea which lies at the heart of racism.

Philosophers and psychologists have long considered the study of the mind as their own domain, and may bristle at the notion that the archaeological record, the empirical evidence, might be worth more than all their theorizing. The rest of us, with no such vested intellectual interests, can simply enjoy the science and marvel at the power of scientific inference to discover truths and discard untruths about the world. Mithen, like any good scientist, does not shrink from criticizing ideas he considers weak or outdated, however gilded with authority or ossified as common knowledge. For example, despite the verb "to ape" it seems that chimpanzees are not actually very good at imitating behaviour. Closer to home, while he acknowledges that "no one really understands consciousness", he doesn't think it beyond scientific study or so mysterious that we can say nothing about it. Following Nicholas Humphrey, he argues that "consciousness evolved as part of social intelligence" and is, at least in one important respect, a "clever trick" for reading the contents of other people's minds.

Like all great science books, "The Prehistory of the Mind" tells us about the world and about our place in it, but Steven Mithen also tells us something about how we do the telling, and how that came about. We are creatures who can think about thinking, and who might "still be living on the savannah" were it not for two crucial behavioural developments: "bipedalism and increased meat eating". Something to reflect upon next time you're pacing the aisles of a supermarket, gathering food.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A mind less boggled, 3 May 2012
By 
Mac McAleer (London UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
At first I found this book both daunting and mind-boggling, even though the author hopes that it would be ". . . of interest not just to archaeologists and psychologists, but to any moderately inquisitive and reflective reader". Having read it, I found my inquisitiveness and reflection rewarded and my mind less boggled.

THE ARCHAEOLOGY concerns stones, bones and distribution. The bones document the changes in human anatomy, particularly brain size. The stone at first are difficult to distinguish from naturally occurring rocks, then later become worked stone tools consisting of cores created from pebbles and the flakes produced in the process. These are all in Africa. The technology is transformed by working the stones into pear-shaped hand axes found in Africa, Europe, south and east Asia.. This is followed by blade technology deliberately produced from flints rather than accidently produced as a by-product from stones. Finally there is an explosion indicated by sophisticated bone weapons such as harpoons and arrowheads together with decoration and art. How far the stones had travelled from their source before being worked is important as is their distribution around the home-base. Are they scatted around or are they gathered together as if produced communally? Technological conservatism is also striking, with very long period of stasis during which the stone technology hardly alters.

What is the human mind? It has been described as a sponge for information, a computer, a mental Swiss army knife and a collection of mental domains. The author uses two main metaphors which are referenced throughout the book. This is apposite as metaphors and analogies can be considered major developments in the evolution of the modern mind.

THE FIRST MAIN METAPHOR is a 4 act historical drama. Act 1 is played in near-darkness. Act 2 introduces the Australopithecines and Homo habilis. Act 3 is played by Home erectus, the Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens. In Act 4 the drama explodes as Homo sapiens sapiens enters the stage.

THE SECOND MAIN METAPHOR is the mind as a cathedral and its architectural history. In Phase 1 of the building there is a wide nave, representing general intelligence. In Phase 2 the construction is Romanesque, solidly built with wide supporting columns. The nave is surrounded by chapels in which devotions are paid to social, natural history and technical intelligence, but there are no internal connections between the nave and the chapels. In Phase 3 the doors of the chapels begin to open onto the nave. It is now a Gothic cathedral, full of light and space.

Language, of some sort, was present in Act 3, as part of the social intelligence domain or chapel. The chapels were all in place but the doors were shut. It is difficult to visualise Homo erectus decorating their living areas or that this year Neanderthals are all wearing their hair up. We can image, but could Homo erectus or the Neanderthals? And how could they have a sense of humour? Specialised intelligence was still locked away in separate mental domains and could not be connected to create the incongruities on which humour depends. In Act 4 Homo sapiens sapiens first appears, but in Act 4 scene 1 little changes. Perhaps this was the time when the chapel doors began to open. It is only in Act 4 scene 2 that the doors are open and cognitive fluidity occurs. There is an explosion in tool technology, there is art for the first time and possibly the start of myth and religion.

A THIRD METAPHOR is introduced in the last chapter. This compares the evolution of the human mind to a complex computer program's lifecycle. He notes that the mind's evolution has oscillated. At first, before Act 1, it was hard-wired with specialist intelligence, then moved to general intelligence, then back to specialist intelligence with the addition of almost independent mental domains. Finally, the specialist domains are integrated producing a cognitive fluidity. This is compared to the lifecycle of a complex computer program. At first it is a single piece of software, often involving a set of subroutines linked via the main program. Next specialist applications are added on-demand with care taken to partially isolate them from the main program so that it remains maintainable. Finally, when everything has stabilised, a deeper integration of these applications can be undertaken.

Note: This is a review of the original hardback edition

THE HARDBACK BOOK has 70 illustrations, all black and white line drawings, diagrams or tables. It has 219 pages spread over 11 chapters, with up to 42 lines per page but the text is not cramped and is easy to read. There are also "Notes and further readings" (35 pages), a Bibliography (22 pages) and an Index.

SELECTED LINKS
Psychologists mentioned, discussed, critiqued and built-upon by the author:
Burkow The Adapted Mind
Fodor The Modularity of Mind
Donald Origins of the Modern Mind
Gardner Frames of Mind: Theory of Multiple Intelligences

The biologist:
Stephen Jay Gould The Mismeasure of Man, Ontology and Phylogeny

Myth and religion:
Boyer The Naturalness of Religious Ideas
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought-provoking and entertaining read., 5 Aug. 1998
By A Customer
From its title, it promised to be just what I was looking for -- and I was not disappointed at all by its subject matter. On the contrary, I found it a most thought provoking and entertaining use of my reading time.
My main complaint with the style would be with the occasional feelings of arbitrariness. I'm sure, if asked, the author would have the facts to justify his opinions, but he does not always convey this impression in the text. There is a feeling that Mithen is steering the theory in one direction when the presented evidence (or lack thereof) is less persuasive. It is not always conclusive that Mithen's is the only interpretation that can be made.
But then, aimed as it is at the Popular Science market, I suppose it would be unreasonable to ask for the book to offer rigourous proof, and yet still remain a light and entertaining read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'A' Prehistory of the Mind, 3 July 2012
By 
Mr. W. Bailie "Warren" (N.I.) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
Those of you who have read Steven Mithen's latest offering 'To the islands', describing his pathway through research, excavation and academia, will know that he originally intended to call this book, ''A' Prehistory of the Mind' but the publisher disagreed and thought that the use of 'The' would give it more bite. The book is just what Steven originally intended,'a' theory of how hominid evolution and in particular the use of the hominid brain may have evolved throughout prehistory.

The hypotheses raised are based on case studies from a multitude of disciplines from musical to medical. The book makes for an interesting read and goes some way in stirring up thoughts on how our mind works in both the past and present. For those who enjoy a book which straddles the boundaries of academic and mainstream literature this and many other of Steven Mithen's titles (e.g. After the Ice, Singing Neanderthals) are for you.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A praiseworthy synthesis!, 11 Jan. 1997
By A Customer
Mithen attempts to integrate developmental psychology with the latest in archeology. Compared to most attempts at a "grand theory" of human evolution, Mithen's is admirable for its respect for the limits of the data and the novelty of its insights. Most "grand theorists" focus on one major development, e.g. language, tool-making, encephalization, or bipedalism. Mithen's strategy is to reconstruct the gradual emergence of human cognition from chimpanzee-like cognition. The cognitive structures of other hominids are based upon what the data say and do not say. Finally, he ends up with a theory about what is most _distinctive_ in modern humans, a theory that dovetails well with recent philosophy of imagination and metaphor. It is worth reading for his views on Neanderthal cognition alone! If you're interested in chimpanzee cognition, the nature of imagination and intelligence, or the evolution of hominid consciousness, I strongly recommend this book. Its only weakness is that it does not delve into morphology or neurology. And it is very well written to boot, with extensive footnotes for those who want a more in-depth treatment.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars a captivating book, 18 Sept. 2014
This review is from: The Prehistory Of The Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (Paperback)
A very well written book, fruit of a solid, interdisciplinary scientific research. I strongly recommend it to all interested in human evolution, as it opens your mind to new points of view, new ideas and the complexity of the whole process of becoming human.
The only disadvantage of the book is that it was published 20 years ago. In terms of paleoanthropology, genetics and anthropology it's a whole era. That's why some information in this book is out of date, so are some arguments from the author. Still it's a very valuable book, as new evidence found recently generaly confirm the author's ideas.
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