29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Illuminating theory of the evolution of human intelligence,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science (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. 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.