Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Merlin Donald. Harvard University Press.

Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition Book Cover Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition
Merlin Donald
Harvard University Press
March 15, 1993

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 over a million years. A 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 the 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.

There have been other attempts to create an evolutionary history of human cognition, but they have usually emphasized either cultural artifacts or functional anatomy (such as the vocal tract or the enlarged brain). In contrast, Donald’s theory emphasizes cognition as the mediator between brain and culture. 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.

Merlin Donald is Professor of Psychology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.