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A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness Paperback – 17 Jun 2002

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Product details

  • 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)

Product Description

About the Author

Merlin Donald is a professor in the Department of Psychology, Queen's University, Ontario, Canada.

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Format: Hardcover
What is human conscience? How did it develop? What is language? In what part of evolution did language first exist? These are questions that Merlin Donald deals with in his book A mind so Rare.
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.
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This book is unusual in that it shows an academic psychologist criticising the laboratory approach to consciousness for having the wrong focus. Methodology is claimed to be aimed only at short-term memory and attention, plus perceptual illusions. He argues that consciousness should be approached as being the continuous background to developments over longer time frames. For instance, lengthier human conversations are described as an extended control-process, in respect of selection and maintenance of attention and allocation of priorities. Consciousness is seen as being involved with medium-long-term governance, planning and supervision.

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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars 18 reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, confused sometimes. 29 July 2002
By Carlos Camara - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book about consciousness, but Donald concentrates on extended human consciousness. His approach is functional and psychological, not neurobiological, but he uses neurobiological evidence here and there. The first thing Donald does is discuss many different views on consicousness, dismissing their proponents as "hardliners" and their theories as unsatisfactory. For example, he does not like the equating of consicousness to perception or sensation (nick humphrey, robert kirk, etc..). He also does not like working memory and language-as-consciousess theories (Fodor, Jaynes, John G. Taylor, Larry Weiskrantz, Dennett, but I think he has a point- aphasics, deaf mutes, and non linguistic creatures {probably} are conscious). Consciousnes is none of this, Donald argues. It is a cognitive ability of executive control, multifocal capacity with a vast evolutionary heritage. Now I would agree with this, but Donalds objections probably arise from confusions. For example, he fails to notice that theorists that equate consciousness with sensation have phenomenal consicousness (qualia) in mind (think of Blocks distinction between access and phenomenal consciousness) not full fledged extended human consciousness. It is true access consciousness cannot be reduced to sensation, but phenomenal consciousness might (notice the might). The same with at least some language theorists (Dennett, for example) They claim not that consicousness is language, but that it is essential for it, especially in the human type of consicousness. This is something Donald argues for later in the book himself. The same with working memory as consciousness theories. They explain the role of WM in consciousness, wich Donald also considers essential.
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 30 Sept. 2015
By chung hsieh - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A turning point that deserves to become a classic. 10 July 2005
By Rodrigo Negrete Prieto - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is so good and so important, rich in ideas as solid in all its construction one just cannot believe that nobody nominated it to a book award; meanwhile all the attention seems to be directed to a bunch of rambling, pedantic and even dangerous literature on the subject of mind and consciousness. This is the kind of work and reflection that puts an order in the landscape at the same time it delivers a great experience to the reader. Merlin Donald is a psychologist with an important experimental background nevertheless he achieves magnificent philosophical work reaching a level of concretion and clarity related with Wittgenstein's best insights on the true grounds that support meaning and language at the time he achieves as well -I think without realizing about it- the aim of the German thinker Ernst Cassirer in outlining a view of the unity of the multilayered human nature. Indeed in a rather unassuming fashion he reaches the peak-the summit of what others only envisioned maybe without having philosophical concerns as his prime issues. One of the Merlin's Donald contributions is to defend the very idea of consciousness against those sustaining it is not much more than a computational device (those who dismiss consciousness as a mere "folk psychology") by means that do not appeal to a dualist stance on the mind-body problem (In this he converges with John Searle but with a more powerful arsenal of resources). On the contrary on a materialistic approach it is possible to grasp the centrality role of consciousness in the human mind as the only way that it can connect and make transactions with a network of other minds in that environment known as society or culture. Thus Merlin Donald postulates a Biocultural approach, contrasting with the Sociobiology/ Evolutionary-Psychology approach (Pinker) allies (Churchlands) and propagandists (Denett) whom share the problem that they can not grasp the key role of consciousness on the functioning of the mind because they cannot understand the role of enculturation as the decisive turning point in the evolution of our species. At the end their conception of the human mind is for them a solipsistic modular device, with everything already packed in it in order to work. Contrasting with that Merlin Donald develops the thesis that a community of minds (culture) scaffolds the level of awareness of each of its nodes(individual minds)by changing their architecture and states, demanding for one and each of them consciousness process in order to follow the coordinates and cues of that artificial environment that overlaps the natural environment. Once this is established the author explores some fascinating implications in the domains of our species' world and action. A truly genuine and insightful reflection on what makes us human.
48 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting ideas flawed by sloppy writing 19 Mar. 2002
By John Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I wish that I could jump on the bandwagon of approval that this book seems to be getting, but I am afraid that I can't. I picked A MIND SO RARE for a graduate seminar, largely because of the glowing reviews that it had received here & in some technical journals, but the more I read of it the more irritated I became with Donald's habit of sticking in little jeers & snide asides about his opponents, and his tendency to create straw men for any argument with which he disagrees. Having assigned the book I did my best to keep the conversation going, but to be honest it bombed with the students. Most felt that he could have summarized his "new ideas" in many fewer pages & that the elaborations served to confuse more than to enlighten. It was also hard to follow just whom he was citing or why he chose to leave some theorists out & put others in -this particularly annoying at the graduate level! All in all this is a pity, because some of Donald's ideas suggest interesting alternatives to much of the popularly stated positions in this field, but he would have done us all a much greater service by clearly expounding his points & avoiding the unproductive carping about his (often un-named) opponents.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consciousness from genetic thru cultural evolution 7 Aug. 2002
By Jim Berk - Published on
Format: Hardcover
As a concerned reader I will explain, briefly, what I took from the book, and not critique the negatives. One strength seems to be a multidisciplinary approach. Merlin Donald is a research psychologist and makes an effort to draw from Psychological, Cognative, Neurological, and Evolutionary sciences; as well as literature.
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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