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A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond [Paperback]

William H. Calvin
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Book Description

Aug. 25 2005
This book looks back at the simpler versions of mental life in apes, Neanderthals, and our ancestors, back before our burst of creativity started 50,000 years ago. When you can't think about the future in much detail, you are trapped in a here-and-now existence with no "What if?" and "Why me?" William H. Calvin takes stock of what we have now and then explains why we are nearing a crossroads, where mind shifts gears again. The mind's big bang came long after our brain size stopped enlarging. Calvin suggests that the development of long sentences--what modern children do in their third year--was the most likely trigger. To keep a half-dozen concepts from blending together like a summer drink, you need some mental structuring. In saying "I think I saw him leave to go home," you are nesting three sentences inside a fourth. We also structure plans, play games with rules, create structured music and chains of logic, and have a fascination with discovering how things hang together. Our long train of connected thoughts is why our consciousness is so different from what came before. Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education but with its slowly evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored in the ice ages? We will likely shift gears again, juggling more concepts and making decisions even faster, imagining courses of action in greater depth. Ethics are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate, judge quality, and modify our possible actions accordingly. Though science increasingly serves as our headlights, we are out-driving them, going faster than we can react effectively.

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From Publishers Weekly

"What is it like, to be a chimpanzee?" asks Calvin, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington, in the first chapter of this fascinating history of the mind. While humans and other primates share many cognitive abilities, an accumulation of qualitative differences in perception, learning and time sense add up to an unbridgeable gap, he says. Tracing human evolution from the first upright hominid through tool making and on to structured thought and hypotheses about the future, Calvin (How Brains Think; A Brain for All Seasons) offers readers a concise, absorbing path to follow. Trying to imagine the thoughts and lives of early humans is not much different than trying to know what it's like to be a chimpanzee, as it turns out. Eventually, Calvin reveals how our evolving brains might have developed such bizarre abstractions as nested information, metaphors and ethics, thus paving the way for consciousness as we know it. He postulates the "mind's Big Bang" as tied to the development of language, offering as support the nativist mind theories of Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky. Presented with a pleasing blend of philosophy, neuroscience and anthropology, Calvin's ideas are accessible for anyone interested in a scientific look at how our brains make us different from chimpanzees. He adds a cautionary note, too: as human brains get smarter-and as our guts stay primitive and our technology skyrockets-we must get better about "our long-term responsibilities to keep things going."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Calvin ponders how humans' higher-level mental abilities may have evolved, explicitly avoiding the thickets of what constitutes consciousness. Instead he investigates the increments of intellect that can be inferred from the fragments of discovered fossils and artifacts. His observations about the separation from ape-level awareness that a hominid skull or an Acheulean hand axe represent don't stand alone; Calvin buttresses his observations with the evolutionary advantage that the hominid possessed or that the tool conferred. When he chronologically approaches the Homo genus (having started the story seven million years in the past), Calvin orients his readers toward two behaviors, the throwing of objects and protolanguage. Although these behaviors were probably manifest in earlier species, Calvin wonders why they flowered into recognizably humanlike abilities only several tens of millennia ago, and then long after the appearance of anatomically modern humans. His equally curious readers will weigh his explanation, which integrates syntax and the precocity of children, as they appreciate the author's adeptness in covering so much material in so brief a space. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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5.0 out of 5 stars The Story of the Mind�s Big Bang March 24 2004
Format:Hardcover
"A Brief History of the Mind" is a breezy, readable account of the evolution of modern humans from ancient African primates, starting around 7 million years ago. There have been some interesting new insights in the field during the past few years, and the story is well worth retelling. Indeed, what makes humans so different from other animals is that we would consider telling "our story" at all.
The core of the book is the chain of events that could have created our modern minds from those of our ancestor apes. It stresses the concept of humans getting an evolutionary "free ride" from fortuitous changes. For example, the author offers the controversial suggestion that the increased cortical connections that eventually enabled our higher thinking abilities originally benefited pre-humans by helping them coordinate the complicated body movements used in hunting herd animals. Those with more neural connections had a better chance of bringing home lunch. Intelligent thought was simply a happy later by-product.
Anthropologists usually look backwards, but this History takes a quick peek at the future. Modern minds are far more than the hardware of cortex and neurons. Human infants start busily "softwiring" language and other skills into their brains as soon as they are born. William Calvin considers this new stage of evolution - one that we actually have some control over - and comes up with some surprising, and disturbing, predictions for our postmodern future.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The rise of "beyond the apes" intelligence Aug. 24 2004
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The central event in this book is the human mind's so-called "big bang" which occurred some 90,000 to 50,000 years ago.

(These are neurobiologist William Calvin's numbers from page 111 where he notes that "it now appears that humans were behaviorally modern before the last great Out of Africa" which is now understood as taking place between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, as determined by the latest tweaking of the mitochondrial DNA dating data.)

Professor Calvin leads up to this event by starting with the proto ape that was our ancestor (and the ancestor of modern apes) that lived some seven million years ago. He takes us from that ape's jungle habitat to the woodlands, where our ancestors learned to walk upright, to the savannahs where they ran down, killed and ate large game animals. Somewhere along the way we got smart. But, Calvin wonders, did we get smart enough?

He sees a disconnect between our abilities and the world we have inherited. He asks: "Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education and new tools--but with its slowly evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored to the ice ages?" Are we just a "rough-around-the-edges prototype, the preliminary version that evolution never got a chance to further improve before the worldwide distribution occurred?" (p. 178)

In other words, are we using Stone Age instincts to cope with Information Age problems? It is interesting to note that in psychologist Keith Stanovich's recent book The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin (2004) he is concerned with the same problem from an entirely different point of view. He writes about the "potential mismatches between the cognitive requirements of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation and those of the modern world."

Of course the problem, as both writers point out, is that cultural evolution out-sprints the biological so that our genotypes are still in the woodlands and on the savannahs as the ice ages come and go while our phenotypes have to deal with traffic jams, weapons of mass destruction, and the paperwork for our HMOs.

One of Calvin's more intriguing ideas comes from his dictum that "behavior invents and...New form follows new function." (p. 159) He argues that the higher intellectual functions of humans came from the development of a "structured suite" of brain machinery that "is shared in part with some nonintellectual functions." (p. 94) He sees "accurate throwing" as part of this structured suite, and argues that learning to hit a moving target (say a small animal), because it involved several parts of the body (hand, wrist, arm, shoulder--and eyes and legs for that matter) in close coordination, several parts of the brain were used simultaneously as well. Consequently a "structured suite" developed in the brain that later was used for the development of symbolic language. What he is saying is that, the syntax of language--that is, the "something" does "something" to "something": the subject-verb-object structure of language that works so magically for us--actually came from the body's experience running down game in Africa.

I think Calvin is on to something here because that syntactic structure which is common to people everywhere, regardless of what language they speak, mirrors the action of the world. What is important in the environment is what is being done or what is happening (the verb), by whom and to whom (or what): the bull gores the lion; the monkey peels the fruit, the wind blows the tree down, etc.

Another of Calvin's pet ideas is that education "perhaps more than any of the imagined genetic changes" is what will best help us cope with the challenges of the modern world. (p. 184) He argues that if children are exposed to "structured stuff" at younger ages, and if they can "softwire their brains to better handle" such stuff, "the more precocious children will soon double the amount of structured speech heard by the next generation." (p. 154)

Of course our brains are still being "softwired" after we leave the womb and for some many months afterwards as our experiences serve to strengthen certain neurons and discard others. It seems, however, that Calvin is getting at something larger here, a kind of quasi-Lamarckian accelerated evolutionary process. Indeed I think he intends this example as a possible explanation for the "big bang" that took place in the Pleistocene. To be honest I have no idea whether he is right or not. Certainly it is an interesting idea.

Interesting is this comment from page 104: "[M]uch of [our] higher intellectual function seems half-baked, what you ordinarily see in a prototype rather than a finished, well-engineered product. Perfection you don't get, not from Darwinian evolution...But culture...can sometimes patch things up, if society works hard enough."

This is my first experience with reading Calvin, and I can say that reading this book is like engaging in a conversation with a wise and learned man who likes to share his ideas.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME Sept. 17 2004
By The Spinozanator - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For a short book, (fewer than 200 pages), Dr. Calvin provides a wealth of information from a wide variety of scientific disciplines, and a HUGE bibliography. He approaches evolutionary cognitive development from the standpoint of a neurobiologist.

He has excellent, entertaining quotes to begin and finish many chapters, and nice illustrations. He provides brief (one paragraph) chapter summaries in the Table of Contents. I read that first, and reread individual chapter summaries before and after each chapter. In chapter 8, he discussed this structured, obsessive, pattern-seeking behavior of mine.

Here is the plot: 7 million yrs ago, we emerged from the apes. Bt 160,000 yrs ago, we were homo sapien. By 50,000 yrs ago, we were homo sapien sapien - same physique, same sized brain, just soft-wired more elegantly. Dr. Calvin says, "It's just in the last 1% of that up-from-the-apes period that human creativity & technological capabilities have really blossomed. It's been called 'The Mind's Big Bang'."

How did this happen?

On page 153, he listed 5 candidates, all of which he said were probably operative, but he has a favorite. (Interestingly, he leaves out Matt Ridley's favorite from THE RED QUEEN; that it's all about the battle between the sexes.) In Dr. Calvin's theory, "Evo-Devo," he relies on syntax development and spear-throwing skills as catalysts to the "Mind's Big Bang," and spends a lot of of time explaining his thoughts. He is obviously very well informed about language development. I won't try to explain this complex theory here, but I did think it had merit. I thought, however, that for the crown jewel of his book, it was not presented clearly enough.

I began to wonder where gene change was going to fit in. As I read, I searched for indications that the current brand of natural selection was in play. In one segment, he suggested what sounded exactly like vertical transmission of memes, although he didn't call them memes. He extrapolated this into the future, saying, "a number of present day human abilities have some potential for future elaboration even without natural selection." I couldn't help but wonder what Richard Dawkins would think about this. It sounded awfully Lamarckian to me.

As the plot unfolded, the existing product (our minds) was shown to be jury-rigged and unfinished, in evolution's usual fashion...so, as humans, we have tendencies to misinterpret in our own favor, rationalize, use faulty logic, wage war, etc. In short, we are "NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME."

This book is well-written, extensively researched, and entertaining, about a subject in which informed speculation appears to be the state of the art. Too bad we don't have hard evidence for the "how" of evolutionary cognitive function such as what mitochondrial DNA is to geneology.

I recommend this book highly, and am inspired to read more on the subject, probably from books he mentions. Because his charts in chapter 8 were unclear, I give him a 4.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Story of the Mind�s Big Bang March 24 2004
By Celia Redmore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"A Brief History of the Mind" is a breezy, readable account of the evolution of modern humans from ancient African primates, starting around 7 million years ago. There have been some interesting new insights in the field during the past few years, and the story is well worth retelling. Indeed, what makes humans so different from other animals is that we would consider telling "our story" at all.
The core of the book is the chain of events that could have created our modern minds from those of our ancestor apes. It stresses the concept of humans getting an evolutionary "free ride" from fortuitous changes. For example, the author offers the controversial suggestion that the increased cortical connections that eventually enabled our higher thinking abilities originally benefited pre-humans by helping them coordinate the complicated body movements used in hunting herd animals. Those with more neural connections had a better chance of bringing home lunch. Intelligent thought was simply a happy later by-product.
Anthropologists usually look backwards, but this History takes a quick peek at the future. Modern minds are far more than the hardware of cortex and neurons. Human infants start busily "softwiring" language and other skills into their brains as soon as they are born. William Calvin considers this new stage of evolution - one that we actually have some control over - and comes up with some surprising, and disturbing, predictions for our postmodern future.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting to a weekend "scientist" Aug. 4 2004
By BigThinker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Dr. Calvin has done an excellent job detailing the history of how mind development may have transpired over the last several hundred thousand years. While I have no formal education on the subject, I was able to easily comprehend and enjoy most of the book. There are a few chapter towards the middle and the end where he seems to go off on technical tangents that are rather dull and long winded. But the first several chapters concerning early forms of the mind are incredibly enlightening and make for good reading. He also does a commendable job of speculating about future "expansions" of the minds ability, which he believes we are on the brink of. The only other complaint I have is that the good doctor lets his current political opinions taint his message substantially, particularly towards the end of the book. I was disappointed in that. But overall it was a good book, but I will bet there are better on the market, although I haven't had the good fortune to sample any others just yet.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Savannah spear chucker to Shakespeare Oct. 16 2004
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Always a lively and informative read, Calvin has capped his many fine works on the human intellect with this book. Never hesitant to propose novel ideas, he incorporates fresh thinking on the cause of our consciousness. "Stories around the campfire" depicts his theme - the campfire for cooking meat and the narratives exchanged among the diners. The meat implies hunting and the conversation implies speech and complex thinking. Only humans engage in these practices - how did that come to be? In this provocative and compelling book, Calvin answers this and other questions with his usual expressive style. Abetted by explanatory diagrams and photographs, he takes us back to a distant time in searching for our origins. We learn what makes us unique among primates and are given a view of possible future paths.

No work in anthropology can ignore our primate relatives. Calvin's opening chapter asks "what is it like to be a chimpazee?" This query raises the point of similarities and differences among primate species. Apes have fair-sized brains and useful "hands". While some hunt, some use tools and all vocalise, only humans developed those capacities fully to create complex societies and learn to write books - or plays and poetry. All fossil evidence, plus genetics, Calvin reminds us, indicate our origins lay close to what chimpanzees exhibit today. How did we change from a forest-dwelling ape to one living in nearly every habitat and babbling expressively?

For Calvin, environment shifts are a major driving force in evolution - perhaps none more so than in the case of human evolution. Variations in climate drives adaptation, and our ape-like ancestors were challenged by some severe, and possibly abrupt, shifts. More than simply more or less frequent rainfall, these changes modified whole habitats. Our ancestors had to relocate, shift lifestyles or both. Calvin argues that the shift meant a new existence, a new diet plus gaining some additional skills.

The new diet was meat. With the human brain consuming 20 per cent of the body's resources just to "tick over", a high protein source is a necessity. Primates are mostly vegetarian, with chimps adding some termites and the occasional monkey for dinner. Shrinking rainforests reduced available fruits and nuts, leaving meat as a more significant diet item for the new ape. There are two ways of obtaining meat - scavenging it or hunting it. Scavenging means waiting for leftovers or chasing away predators. Either is risky. Active hunting is more direct, but requires complex skill sets involving vision, muscle coordination, memory capacity and predictive skills. The act of spear-throwing, which Calvin calls a "structured suite" had to be a "package deal" of muscle functions directed by a developing cortex. To Calvin, the "package deal" implies a sudden rise in evidence for complex human cognition. With bipedalism a foundation, the new ape could build thinking capacity with tool-making, spear throwing for meat to feed the demanding processor of these activities. Only after the mind was able to handle involved thinking could language emerge, adding to the brain's capacity, while furthering more cognitive development.

Calvin recognises the sudden apparent rise in complex thinking of fifty thousand years ago as a given. Many recent fossil finds, plus weapons, cave paintings and linguistic analysis support the notion. While it has taken some time for anthropologists to accept that sudden burst in symbolic thought, it is now the consensus view. The causes of "the Great Leap Forward" remain obscure and debateable. Calvin's proposal will assuredly add to that debate. Not the least of his critics will be the "gender feminists" who abhor biological causation in any form. Yet it's clear his scenario suggests males, as hunters, drove the "cognitive explosion". He anticipates the strident chorus that will greet his proposal, but dismisses it easily. With his engaging style and solid experience in neurobiology, this book will bring new focus to our intellectual roots.

[stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Ontario]
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