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Mind So Rare [Paperback]

Merlin Donald
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 27 2002
In this masterful rebuttal to the prevailing neuroscientific arguments that seek to explain away consciousness, Merlin Donald presents "a sophisticated conception of a multilayered consciousness drawing much of its power from its cultural matrix" (Booklist). Donald makes "a persuasive case...for consciousness as the central player in the drama of mind" (Peter Dodwell), as he details the forces, both cultural and neuronal, that power our distinctively human modes of awareness. He proposes that the human mind is a hybrid product, interweaving a super-complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a "distributed" cognitive network. This hybrid mind, he argues, is our main evolutionary advantage, for it allowed humanity as a species to break free of the limitations of the mammalian brain.

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From Booklist

Many scientists have denied any evolutionary significance to human consciousness, dismissing it as illusory smoke dancing above the fire of real neurochemistry. But Donald sees in consciousness the very key to understanding how humankind developed. After assaulting (with great panache) the arguments commonly deployed to remove it from the research agenda, Donald presents a natural history for consciousness, focusing particularly on its astonishing and clearly unique complexity among human beings-- Why does the human brain so closely resemble those of other primates yet so dramatically outstrip them in capacity? How does the mind endow the ego center with autonomy and a narrative autobiography? In his sophisticated conception of a multilayered consciousness drawing much of its power from its cultural matrix, Donald bids fair to reset the terms for evolutionary psychology. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

Donald transcends the simplistic claims of Evolutionary Psychology,...offering a true Darwinian perspective on the evolution of consciousness. -- Philip Lieberman

The most significant contribution yet to the rapidly growing literature of minds, brains, and consciousness. -- Steven Rose

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Many books have been written on the subject of consciousness, and at least as many on human evolution. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, confused sometimes. July 28 2002
Format:Hardcover
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. Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sparkling and erudite defense of consciousness July 7 2001
Format:Hardcover
A delightful polemic with a valuable point. Donald dramatically uses the intricate demands of a face to face conversation to show the practical weaknesses in the laboratory view of short and long term memory. The laboratory evidence that working memory is very limited is overwhelming, and has fed the modern philosophical trend toward viewing conscious awareness as an illusory result of the work of unconscious agents.
But things we do in daily life clearly require us to track things much more numerous and much longer than could possibly be accomplished by "seven plus or minus two" chunks, even with clever strategies for grouping things. Donald uses this to argue that conscious processes are very real and not to be ignored, and do play a central role in human intelligence.
Donald unflinchingly takes on the likes of "hardliners" such as Dan Dennett who argue that there is no central "meaner," no self, no little person in our heads observing the stream of consciousness in a Cartesian theater. He points out that the drafts we generate in our minds are not at all arbitrary competitors for dominance, but are distinctly related to goals and expectations. Most insightfully, he argues that discounting the role of conscious processes has dire implications for social and political philosophy and how we view human responsibility for our own actions.
In my view, Donald makes the excellent point for yet poorly understood intermediate term memory mechanisms very convincingly. I was completely persuaded that this is something we need to study to understand human abilities, and that "hardliners" views have some weaknesses I hadn't considered seriously before.
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