Cover image for A brief history of the mind : from apes to intellect and beyond
A brief history of the mind : from apes to intellect and beyond
Calvin, William H., 1939-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xx, 219 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
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Item Holds
QP360.5 .C348 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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 somemental 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 ofconnected 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 greaterdepth. 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.

Author Notes

William H. Calvin is a neurobiologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

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 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

"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." (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Choice Review

In a series of short chapters, Calvin (Univ. of Washington, Seattle) examines current knowledge about the evolution of the human mind and adds his own fascinating speculation. Starting with humans' divergence from chimpanzees, he moves on to discuss the evolutionary impact of the emergence of upright posture, tool making, protolanguage, structured thought, and writing, before looking to the future of the human mind. Like a teatime conversation with a mesmerizing scholar, this book is filled with intriguing ideas and conjecture. As with any such conversation, though, sometimes it can be obscure, based on the knowledge it assumes, and frustrating in its lack of depth. Though a more thorough discussion of important themes raised in this book can be found elsewhere, e.g., Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works (CH, Apr'98, 35-4481) and Jared Diamond's Third Chimpanzee (1992), those looking for the latest ideas about the evolution of the human mind will find this book rewarding. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. W. R. Morgan College of Wooster

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xiii
Some Stage-setting Perspectivep. xix
1 When Chimpanzees Think: The way we were, 7 million years ago?p. 3
2 Upright Posture but Ape-sized Brains: In the woodland between forest and savannap. 15
3 Triple Startups about 2.5 Million Years Ago: Flickering climate, toolmaking, and bigger brainsp. 23
4 Homo erectus Ate Well: Adding more meat to the diet fueled the first Out of Africap. 33
5 The Second Brain Boom: What kicked in, about 750,000 years ago?p. 45
6 Neanderthals and Our Pre-sapiens Ancestors: Two-stage toolmaking and what it says about thoughtp. 53
7 Homo sapiens without the Modern Mind: The big brain but not much to show for itp. 61
8 Structured Thought Finally Appears: The curb-cut principle and emerging higher intellectual functionp. 83
9 From Africa to Everywhere: Was the still-full-of-bugs prototype what spread around the world?p. 107
10 How Creativity Manages the Mixups: Higher intellectual function and the search for coherencep. 127
11 Civilizing Ourselves: From planting to writing to mind medicinep. 139
12 What's Sudden About the Mind's Big Bang?: The moderns somehow got their act togetherp. 151
13 Imagining the House of Cards: Inventing new levels of organization on the flyp. 161
14 The Future of the Augmented Mind: A combustible mixture of ignorance and power?p. 171
Afterwordp. 191
Recommended Readingp. 193
Notesp. 197