- Paperback: 390 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New Ed edition (17 Jun. 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393323196
- ISBN-13: 978-0393323191
- Product Dimensions: 13.7 x 2.5 x 20.8 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 315,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness Paperback – 17 Jun 2002
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About the Author
Merlin Donald is a professor in the Department of Psychology, Queen's University, Ontario, Canada.
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Top Customer Reviews
The first chapters are devoted to a criticism of the Hardliners, people like Steven Pinker, Jackendoff, Noam Chomsky and others who think that language can be explained as a solely innate process. Merlin Donald gives lots of examples - among them Helen Keller - of how this might not be true. Language must be consciously aquired, and this can be done in many ways. Thus he argues that conscience is a prerequisite of language.
His book is the first one I have read where the vast, seemingly fathomless possibilities of the human mind are explored. Contrary to Steven Pinker, who wants to narrow down language to a common brain-base for all of mankind, Donald shows that our possibilities of symbolic expression are virtually without limits.
His conclusion is that language has been aquired from the outside and in, that it's not an innate process but a cultural one. It developed from acting, body-language, sounds and other primitive means of communication within hunting and food-gathering groups, he claims.
But is this an explanation? Body language is also a form of language, pointing has to be learned consciously as Wittgenstein has shown (to point might mean: look in the other direction, or anything at all). It seems that Donald is saying that language is a prerequisite of language. He has to explain how language taken in a wider context including body language could arise in the first place. He has to show how you can be conscious (if consciousness precedes language) without knowing that you are conscious, that is without having some sort of language.Read more ›
This is contrasted with the Libet experiments, which only focus on trivial actions. It is this focus on the short term and trivial that is most criticised by the author. He points out that many researchers see the automatic and unconscious nature of much activity as proof of the non-efficacy of consciousness. However,the author turns this round, by arguing that the ability to use skills automatically is a benefit of being able to use conscious learning, in order to install a repertoire of unconscious skills.
Delayed response is seen as the hallmark of conscious organisation, with notions of how activity should develop being able to override the impulse for an immediate response to the environment. In human as opposed to animal brains, consciousness is less about the external world and more about internal processing.
In terms of clinical experience, it is pointed out that some brain damaged patients have good short-term memory and attention, but have problems with self-monitoring and behaviour over longer timescales, while other patients have damage in these memory and attention areas, but are well organised in overcoming their difficulties.
The main criticism of this book is that there is a somewhat dismissive attitude towards any attempt to explain how consciousness arises, as opposed to what it does.
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Apart form these confusions in the reading by Donald of the literature, there is also his idea that short-term memory and capacity limitations are not helpful concepts. Consciousness, Donald says, is more of an intermediate term phenomenon. (Does Donald then equate consciousness with memory, and if so, is this contradictory? THink of hippocampal lesioned patients, who though consicous, can only function in intervals of seconds, before forgetting that period). His confusion I think, rests in his conception of short term memory. He argues that human consicousnes takes place in temporal units of many minutes and hours, like in the following of a converation, and since WM is of the order of seconds, this cannot be the whole story. But it is not clear to me that one could not explain Donalds "intermediate term" consciousness by alluding to WM plus some sort of reactivation by top-down processes.
To me the strongest part of the book is where Donald argues that not only humans are conscious. Consicousness emerged in stages, with different characteristics and abilities, and there is no good reason to deny it to many mamals. Humans and primates, are in a diferent class altogether. They have a group of executive abilities that make consciousness more interesting. He proposes three levels, binding, working memory, intermediate and long term control. Binding is perceptual consciousness, the coherent representation of objects, and is probably the basic form of awareness, present in many species. Working memory is extends binding in time, and is probably characteristic of primates and select mamals. Intermediate control is episodic, executive, and extends consciousness considerably, in place probably in social mamals. Here one could see that Donald fals prey of his own primary objections. He objects to consicousness being identified with working memory, language, or sensation alone, but he seems to say consicousness is all of these things together. This is not extremely self-consistent.
Next comes Donalds major point. That human consicousness is not just that. THere is more, and that is the fact that we are not just brains, but brains in culture, and that culture and language expand consciousness into the human kind we enjoy. That is, we compute symbolically, but also analogically, we are "hybrid minds". Donald lists pre-requisites of this deep enculturation. There is extended executive function, superplasticity in cortex, the evolution of asssociation areas in cortex, voluntary access to memory, and an extended working memory. This, along with the influence of culture and language, is human consicousness.
Enculturation, is to Donald essential, as can be seen in the last chapters of the book that recapitulate the ideas of his former book "Origins of the Modern Mind", about the three stages of cognitive evolution of mimesis, episodic ability and invention of symbolic comunication and external storage. This is a different matter from consicousness altogether, that proposes how the human cognitive architecture evolved. It is a very intreresting theory, that Donald at the end uses to structure his ideas on consciousness.
Donalds book is very thought provoking, but has some very questionable claims (For example, he says there are no projections from association cortex to sensory cortex, which is wrong, or that neural networks might be consicous but not serial computers, even though neural nets are implemented on the latter, being comitted to the strange position that in a computer the software might be consicous, but not the computer itself) probably due to his strange reading of the literature. He critiques models of consciousness as essentially misleading, but not noticing that it is because other theorists concentrate on primary, sensory and access consicousness, not the whole of human consciousness with its exeptional range of characteristics. He also forgets about emotions and their role on creating the self and consciousness, as well as the role of sub cortical structures, like MRT, thalamus, etc.) By concentrating on HUMAN consciousness, he only partially explains this elusive phenomenon, not giving even hints about the nature of phenomenal consciousness, and only very abstractly proposing testable hypotheses, a fatal flaw in my view for any science-inclined book.
Points: the shift of evolutionary importance from genetic to cultural in the hominid line; recognition of a fourth layer in human mental evolution, that of cultural memory (which he calls "external" memory in his fourth or Theoretic layer); and consideration of the whole of human consciousness.
Donald has expanded on his "Origins of the Human Mind" ('93) with exploring how culture has outstripped genetics in co-evolution with supporting the emergence of Homo Erectus, and then structuring the extended consciousness and symbol manipulation of Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
He postulated a fourth Theoretic layer (after Episotic, Mimetic, and Mythic layers) as an "external symbolic universe", or recorded symbols, or "external memory". But before recorded symbols, the past was only recovered by recall, by both speaker and, often, the listener. Recall must be distinguished from memory (as recorded symbols), for recall of past events or thoughts or moods must be incomplete and personal, whereas using recorded symbols is about interpretation, which is as complete as the writer and reader choose to make it, and is social. If people insist in using 'memory' for 'recall', then recorded symbols should be called 'cultural memory', but it is critically different.
Donald attempts an evolutionary analysis of the integrated, whole of consciousness. Since I am more interested in the human emotional (value) systems than in consciousness, I have one critical comment. Donald ignores the role of emotions in consciousness, which is to leave out feelings (which are the conscious perception of emotions), and the role of emotions in guiding consciousness. Emotions (or values) on several layers interact with most cognative functions.
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