|posted 1 September 2003|
William H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind (Oxford University Press 2004). See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/BHM/preview.htm
William H. Calvin
Book jacket DRAFT:
Instead of starting with a big bang, this book leads up to one – the “Mind’s Big Bang.” It’s a vista from a crossroads, looking back at simpler versions of mental life, taking stock of what we have now, and then speculating about mind’s future. For we are at a crossroads in another sense, that of a frontier where the rules are about to change, where mind shifts gears again.
Because our less imaginative ancestors couldn’t think about the future in much detail, they were trapped in a here-and-now existence. No “What if” and “Why me?” With their unstructured type of mental life, you couldn’t narrate a life story or conceive of dying someday. To keep mental concepts from blending together like a summer drink, humans need some mental structuring for long sentences and complex thoughts. In saying “I think I saw him leave to go home,” you are nesting three sentences inside a fourth like Russian dolls. Other aspects of thought are structured too: multi-stage planning, games with rules that constrain possible moves, chains of logic, structured music. We have a fascination with discovering hidden order, with imagining how things hang together.
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? We will likely shift mental gears again, into juggling more concepts simultaneously and making decisions even faster – but the faster you go, the more danger of spinning out of control. Ethics, morals, a sense of “what’s right” are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate about the future 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.
The way we were, 7 million years ago?
Chimps may not be as sociable with humans as a dog that thinks you are its pack leader, or a cat that mistakes you for its mother, but chimp-to-chimp they clearly have a substantial fraction of instinctive human social behavior. They even play blind man’s buff. Yet they don’t plan ahead very much.
2. Upright Posture but Ape-sized Brains
In the woodland between forest and savanna
The dark woods are not where we want to be. We prefer fewer trees, along with a view of some water and grass – which is why waterfront property is now so expensive. Our ancestors were likely digging up veggies, but not making sharp tools. Did the bipedal apes stand upright for the view, to carry the baby, or to avoid taking the midday “heat hit” on the broad back?
3. Triple Startups about 2.5 Million Years Ago
Flickering climate, toolmaking, and bigger brains
In Africa, there was a spinoff with a bigger brain. A new species usually starts out as a small, isolated population. Imagine, say, the big company’s branch office in Nairobi losing communication with the parent and having to manage on its own ideas and resources, to sink or swim as an independent in a worsening climate.
4. Homo erectus Ate Well
Adding more meat to the diet fueled the first Out of Africa
Food preparation likely began, maybe even cooking the savory stew. By 1.7 million years ago, Homo erectus had spread out of Africa into the grasslands of Asia and was eating a lot of meat. Accurate throwing is a difficult task for the brain. You can’t rely on progress reports as you launch (your nerves are too slow). Without timely feedback, you have to make the perfect plan as you “get set” – and there are a million ways to get it wrong, any one of which will cause dinner to run away. So better short-term planning has an immediate payoff. Perhaps that improved their planning for other occasions as well.
5. The Second Brain Boom
What kicked in about 750,000 years ago?
When the ice age climate switched into oscillations that were slower and bigger, brain size started growing faster. But why? More demanding hunting techniques? Or ought we to be thinking about the beginnings of protolanguage, the short sentences of modern two-year-olds but without the structuring needed for long sentences?
6. Neanderthals and Our Pre-sapiens Ancestors
Two-stage toolmaking and what it says about thought
If the hominids of 400,000 years ago could stage both toolmaking and food preparation, perhaps their life of the mind included other kinds of agendas as well, with more of an eye to the future. Asking whether Neanderthals could speak illuminates some of the changes of the previous million years.
7. Homo sapiens without the Modern Mind
The big brain but not much to show for it
Here we are coming up on the last few minutes of the up-from-the-apes movie, and our vaunted intelligence still hasn’t made its first appearance. Our ancestors were Homo sapiens for 100,000 years but, despite the big brain, they were not “behaviorally modern” Homo sapiens sapiens. Simple forms of protostructure such as framing and “theory of mind” were likely present, and perhaps the protolanguage like that of modern two-year-olds. Clearly, brain size wasn’t sufficient to produce spectacular results. It must have taken something more.
8. Structured Thought Finally Appears
The curb-cut principle and emerging higher intellectual function
In saying “I think I saw him leave to go home,” you are nesting three sentences inside a fourth. Other aspects of thought are structured too: multistage planning, games with rules that constrain possible moves, chains of logic, structured music. This structured suite likely aided the giant step up to the modern mind. Did it take another genetic change to become behaviorally modern, or was accumulating culture alone able to trigger the boom by giving babies enough structured stuff to hear so that they softwired their brains earlier? And so excelled as adults?
9. From Africa to Everywhere
Was the still-full-of-bugs prototype what spread around the world?
A period between 60,000 to 40,000 years ago looks like the probable time of migration of modern humans into the more exotic parts of Eurasia. And it looks as if they became behaviorally modern in important respects not long before leaving Africa. The lack of time to “debug” the new abilities, before the rough-around-the-edges prototype expanded out of Africa, might be thought of as the first worldwide distribution of crash-prone software.
10. How Creativity Manages the Mixups
Higher intellectual function and the search for coherence
We have a fascination with discovering hidden order, with imagining how things hang together. And the problem with creativity is not in putting together novel mixtures – a little confusion may suffice – but in managing the incoherence. Things often don’t hang together properly – as in our nighttime dreams, full of people, places, and occasions that don’t fit together very well. What sort of on-the-fly process does it take to convert such an incoherent mix into a coherent compound, whether it be an on-target movement program or a novel sentence to speak aloud?
11. Civilizing Ourselves
From planting to writing to mind medicine
Once agriculture allowed towns and specialized occupations to develop by 6,000 years ago (the last few seconds of the movie), writing developed from tax accounting about 5,000 years ago. Education now helps us to deal with our fallible minds, to “unlearn” our intuitive but erroneous Aristotelian physics, our intuitive biology of vital essences, and our intuitive notions of engineering that make Darwinian evolution so difficult to comprehend. Medicine now calms the voices and delusions, dampens the obsessions and compulsions, and lifts the depressions. In addition to patching us up, might mind medicine eventually “improve” us?
12. What’s Sudden About the Mind’s Big Bang?
The moderns somehow got their act together
For fans of how and why questions, a brief summary of the most recent Major Transition in evolution. There are a half-dozen candidates so far for the transition to behaviorally modern Homo sapiens sapiens. All may be essential but not sufficient by themselves. The question is not when the last stone is added to the archway but which has a growth curve that becomes steeper and steeper, building on itself. The EvoDevo candidate, those precocious kids softwiring their brains earlier to become more capable adults, could double and redouble the percentage of syntax users in only a few generations.
13. Imagining the House of Cards
Inventing new levels of organization on the fly
As an example of four levels, fleece is organized into yarn, which is woven into cloth, which can be arranged into clothing. As we advance beyond the one-word level of language after the morning cup of coffee, we begin talking about relationships (“This is bigger than that”). With a second cup, we can advance another level to analogies (“Bigger is better”). Poets have to compare candidate metaphors, however, requiring all manner of superstitious practices in order to shore up their mental house of cards and stabilize a new level.
A combustible mixture of ignorance and power?
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? We will likely shift mental gears again, into juggling more concepts simultaneously and making decisions even faster – but the faster you go, the more danger of spinning out of control. Ethics, morals, a sense of “what’s right” are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate about the future and modify our possible actions accordingly. But science increasingly serves as our “headlights,” and we are “out driving” them, going faster than we can react effectively.
CORRECTIONS TO THE PRINTED BOOK WILL BE POSTED HERE:
Dedicated to Ingrith Deyrup-Olsen, Beatrice Bruteau, and five of my other informal sounding boards:
The River That
copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin