Donald, Merlin
Origins of the modern mind:
Three stages in the evolution of culture and
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991

(see precis below, with full text)

This bold and brilliant book asks the ultimate question of the life sciences: How did the human mind acquire its incomparable power? In seeking the answer, Merlin Donald traces the evolution of human culture and cognition from primitive apes to the era of artificial intelligence, and presents an original theory of how the human mind evolved from its presymbolic form. In the emergence of modern human culture, Donald proposes, there were three radical transitions. During the first, our bipedal but still apelike ancestors acquired "mimetic" skill--the ability to represent knowledge through voluntary motor acts--which made Homo erectus successful for over a million years. The second transition--to "mythic" culture--coincided with the development of spoken language. Speech allowed the large-brained Homo sapiens to evolve a complex preliterate culture that survives in many parts of the world today. In the third transition, when humans constructed elaborate symbolic systems ranging from cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and ideograms to alphabetic languages and mathematics, human biological memory became an inadequate vehicle for storing and processing our collective knowledge. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization. According to Donald, we are symbol-using creatures, more complex than any that went before us, and we may have not yet witnessed the final modular arrangement of the human mind.... Origins of the Modern Mind suggests many new areas of inquiry to specialists in cognitive fields from neurobiology to linguistics, and will interest any curious reader. (From the jacket.)

     The need for a theory of cognitive evolution.
     Darwin's thesis.
     Wernicke's machine.
     The chronology of anatomical and cultural change.
     Primate cognition: Episodic culture.
     First transition: From episodic to mimetic culture.
     Second transition: From mimetic to mythic culture.
     Third transition: External symbolic storage and theoretic culture.
     Consciousness and indeterminacy.


Merlin Donald
Precis of Origins of the modern mind:
Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition

Behavioral & Brain Sciences 16. 4 (Dec 1993): 737-791


Proposes that three cognitive transitions during the past two million yrs have left the human mind with a new way of representing reality. Modern humans consequently have three systems of memory representation that were not available to the closest primate relatives: mimetic skill, language, and external symbols. These systems are supported by new types of storage devices, both biological and technological. Full symbolic literacy consists of a complex of skills for interacting with the external memory system. Each of the three systems is based on an inventive capacity, and the products of those capacities continue to be vetted in the social arena. The externalization of memory has altered the actual memory architecture within which humans think, which is changing the role of biological memory, the way in which the human brain deploys its resources, and the form of modern culture. 32 comments and the author's response follow this article.

Full text of the final draft (external). See BBS (1996) 19(1) for further commentary.





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