shytone  books  music  essays  home  exploratories  new this month

book reviews



Merlin Donald: Origins of the Modern Mind:
three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition
(Harvard University Press: 1991)


“It is not an exaggeration to say that theories of cognitive structure are built mostly upon studies of the human mind as manifest in literate, postindustrial society, and upon studies of the capabilities of computers. The extraordinary range of theory that has resulted was constructed for the most part without the constraints that must be applied to evolutionary hypotheses: continuity with previous forms, consistency with selection pressures, parsimony with regard to the number and complexity of subsequent adaptations, and so on.”
(Donald, p.5)

And this is still partly true, a full fifteen years later. For whilst predominantly modular theories of “evolutionary psychology” have proliferated in recent times, they are still generally piecemeal in scope, with little attention paid to overall cognitive structure, particularly at the neurobiological level. Meanwhile, few neurobiologists are as yet seriously addressing evolutionary questions, and the theories emerging from both camps are still far too often divorced from the genuinely intractable complexity of human experience...which is, after all, the real measure of theoretical adequacy in this case.

Along w/his more recent A Mind So Rare, which focuses on consciousness itself, Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind remains the best and most plausible account of cognitive evolution we have to date. By taking seriously an extremely wide range of evidence from ethology, anthropology, psychology, neurobiology, and evolutionary theory - not to mention the humanities - Donald builds a three stage model which allows us makes sense of an enormous range of evidence; much wider even than the base upon which the theory is built. This is a classic sign of consilience - where different bodies of evidence & different methodologies deliver basically the same result - and is an extremely fruitful method of assessing truth claims. As we shall see, Donald’s theory - unlike any other I have read in the area - passes this test with flying colours...


“The essence of my hypothesis is that the modern human mind evolved from the primate mind through a series of major adaptations, each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive representational ystem has remained intact within our current mental architecture, so that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence.... The key word here is representation. Humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a lexicon, or a special speech apparatus; we evolved new systems for representing reality.”
(Donald, pp.2-3)

“In any evolutionary theory, cultural evidence must play an important role, since it is not reasonable to expect that every ‘module’ of higher function is functionally present in every neurologically normal human mind.... It follows that the actual cognitive structure of an individual mind is heavily influenced by culture.... Reading attracts more attention because of its importance, but virtually any highly overpracticed human skill is bound to have a distinctive modular structure that can break down in predictable ways.... A corollary is that the evolution of cognitive structure at the modular level might have continued well beyond the point at which physical [genetic] evolution had stopped.... Whether that organization is vested in a parallel set of specific brain adaptations or not (and obviously at times it is not), the brain sets fewer constraints than formerly thought on the process of cognitive evolution. Culture can literally reconfigure the use patterns of the brain; and it is probably a safe inference from our current knowledge of cerebral plasticity that those patterns of use determine much about how the exceptionally plastic human nervous system is ultimately organized.”
(Donald, pp.11-14)

The key claims of Donald’s theory are in essence three: that a distinctly human cognitive adaptation must have preceded & scaffolded the (much later) development of language, that the crucial aspect of the latter is a symbolic - not grammatical - innovation, and that the advent of writing and other external memory systems generated a genuine cognitive revolution. And, interestingly, while the third thesis here is essentially a psychological “version” of that explored by scholars of the oral/literate/printing divides, Donald, while coming to basically the same conclusions, has reached his drawing from an entirely different body of work. The result, aside from providing a major new dimension to this literature, also securely links it - via the intermediate stage - with the empirically rich field of ethology...an entirely welcome development, in my view.


“Relatively few of the many tasks that humans routinely master can be learned by apes. It isn’t just that apes cannot master symbol-driven tasks like mathematics, musical performance [sic], reading, and conversation. It is that they cannot master any number of nonverbal tasks as well. They cannot acquire our athletic or play skills, for example. Human children play rule-governed games by imitation, often without any formalized instruction. They invent and learn new games, often without using language. Apes, like other animals, cannot learn similar games, they are restricted to games that, by our standards, are very simple. Yet games, in human society, are at the bottom of the cognitive pecking order; they are identified with childhood. Most informal games have little or no verbal component, and deaf-mute children have no difficulty in mastering them. Yet these games are already beyond the reach of apes.”
(Donald, pp.120-1)

The full range of activies that even enculturated apes - like the famous Kanzi - cannot master is rather startling, if the reader has not encountered it before, given our current willingness to embrace our evolutionary cousins more closely. Yet, as Donald will show, the nonverbal tasks here provide the key to understanding the first protohuman cognitive innovation, albeit one that has yet to enter common awareness as a co-evolved whole.


“If apes are taken as the starting point, how might their overriding representational strategy be described?... Their behavior, complex as it is, seems uneflective, concrete, and situation-bound. Even their uses of signing and their social behavior are immediate, short-term responses to the environment. In fact, the word that seems best to epitomize the cognitive culture of apes...is the term episodic. Their lives are lived entirely in the present, as a series of concrete episodes, and the highest element in their system of memory representation seems to be at the level of event representation. Where humans have abstract symbolic memory representations, apes are bound to the concrete situation or episode; and their social behavior reflects this situational limitation.”
(Donald, p.149)

“The ancient foil to episodic memory is procedural memory. Procedural memory is quite different, and structurally more archaic...[and] in terms of its storage stategy, [it] is the opposite of episodic memory. Whereas episodic memory preserves the specifics of events...procedural memory must preserve general principles for action and ignore the specifics of each situation.... The dependence of apes upon episodic memory throws light on their difficulty with sign language.... The reason apes use signs in such a concrete manner is that they are using episodic [not symbolic] memory to remember how to use the sign; the best they can manage is a virtual ‘flashback’ of previous performances. Thus, their understanding of the sign is largely perceptual and situation-specific.... [as they] excel at situational analysis and recall, but cannot re-present a situation to reflect on it, either individually or collectively. This is a serious memory limitation.”
(Donald, pp.150-61)

And the first stage involved in overcoming the twin limitations of these two old memory systems was the development of what Donald terms mimesis - a representational system combining (to some degree) the specific and the general in action. The concept has already proven highly useful to theorists of skilled action, human development and education, and it will undoubtedly prove even more influential in the future, as it is makes sense of an enormous range of evidence across many varied disciplines. Besides which, it makes intuitive sense, which is not to be sneezed at...


“Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from the neuropsychological literature is that human intelligence without language has properties that set it apart from ape intelligence, just as Darwin predicted. Among the uniquely human capacities found in the complete absence of language are a capacity for spontaneous gesture and mime, which can be retained after language loss; toolmaking and praxis in general; emotional expression and social intelligence, including an ability to comprehend complex events and remember roles, customs, and appropriate behavior. These fundamental abilities, robust and so important to human survival, might have emerged early in the human line, before language evolved. Their neuropsychological dissociability from language suggests a distinctly human, but prelinguistic, level of cognitive development and a possible basis for an early hominid adaptation that set the scene for the later arrival of language.”
(Donald, pp.93-4)

“Mimetic skill or mimesis rests on the ability to produce conscious, self-initiated, representational acts that are intentional but not linguistic...[and] is fundamentally different from imitation and mimicry in that it involves the invention of intentional representations.... Mimesis can incorporate a wide variety of actions and modalities to its purpose. Tones of voice, facial expressions, eye movements, manual signs and gestures, postural attitudes, patterned whole-body movements of various sorts, and long sequences of these elements can express many aspects of the perceived world.... Most modern art forms, even those that depend heavily on oral and written language, are cognitive hybrids.... Cinema, which started out in imitation of the theatre, has become overwhelmingly mimetic in style; very little of what a good film communicates is capturable in words.... Although it is logically prior to language, mimetic representation has characteristics that are essential to language, and would thus have set the stage for the later emergence of speech. The important properties of individual mimetic acts include intentionality, generativity, communicativity, reference, autocueing, and the ability to model an unlimited number of objects.”
(Donald, pp. 168-171)

“The cognitive basis of mimetic  action was the extended representation of self, and the consequent improvement of conscious motor control. Sophisticated event perception was also an essential component, but it was already highly developed in apes, to the level of perceptual metaphor.... The major break with primate abilities would would have been in the way the individual’s own body, and its movement in space, was represented in the brain. The essence of mimetic skill is thus to combine the power of primate event perception with an extended conscious map of the body and its patterns of action, in an objective event space; and that event space must be superordinate to the representation of both the self and the external world.”
(Donald, p.189)

“The presence of mimetic skills in the members of a group would immediately alter the array of available action patterns and collective cognitive skills available to them. Reciprocal mimetic interactions would ensue, leading to collectively invented and maintained customs, games, skills, and representations. Mimetic skill, added to a pre-existing episodic culture, would necessarily lead to cultural innovation and new forms of social control. In effect, the mimetic ‘customs’ of a group would serve as the collective definition of the society.”
(Donald, p.173)

Mimesis has been generally ignored (or even ridiculed) by those rare linguists willing to address evolutionary questions, who tend to epitomize the common tendency of highly-trained specialists to dismiss forms of evidence which fall outside their discipline. This is a great pity, for mimesis offers by far the best evidence for a workable transition towards proto-language yet on offer. Without it, even the best proposals end up looking rather like the old Far Side cartoon, where the crucial stage of a lengthy calculation is merely represented by the words “And Then A Miracle Happened.”


“Mimesis can be cleanly dissociated from the symbolic and semiotic devices upon which moden culture depends. It serves different functions, and is still far more efficient than language in diffusing certain kinds of knowledge; for instance, it is still supreme in the realm of modeling social roles, communicating emotions, and transmitting rudimentary skills. It is also dissociable in terms of its brain representation...[and] usually survives the disruption of symbolic language.... In general, the destruction of general mimetic skill is rare except in demented patients. The latter fact serves to emphasize how fundamental mimetic representation remains in the operation of the human brain.”
(Donald, pp. 198-9)

“Of course, in modern human culture mimetic exchanges usually occur within a larger semiotic framework that includes linguistic expression, but words don’t substantially change the nonverbal elements of the exchange. Language seems to serve a different communicative purpose and carries on in parallel.... [But] no matter how evolved our oral-linguistic culture, and no matter how sophisticated the rich varieties of symbolic material surrounding us, mimetic scenarios still form the expressive heart of human social exchange."
(Donald, p.189)

Another major difference between Donald’s model and those proposed by mainstream linguists (and their philosophical counterparts) is that the latter invariably “bracket” the problem of reference, following in the footsteps of the same Ferdinand de Saussure still lip worshipped in post-modern circles. Arguably, Donald’s version of language evolution is rather in accord with Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogic (or metalinguistic) approach - although he does not appear to know this work - in that both insist upon the non-linguistic communicative context as crucial to understanding, and attack all models of language as a self-enclosed system. More consilience, I’d have to say...


“Episodic minds (as in apes) can use symbols when provided with them, and mimetic minds employ symbolic mimetic displays; each uses symbols in their own way. Modern humans, similarly, use symbols in our own way. The value of a symbol depends on the kind of mind putting it to use. Episodic minds create episodic models of the world; mimetic minds create mimetic models. Signs and symbols, given to such minds, possess no magical powers to change this.... The symbol-driven cultures of humans did not advance because they were suddenly the beneficiaries of symbols that unleased hitherto unheard-of cognitive powers. On the contrary, humans must have invented their symbols because they needed them for the types of mental models they were creating.... [But,] in the present theory, the demarcation line between mimetic and linguistic representations looms very large indeed, involving much more than a single step up from physical models to conceptual models. Mimetic representation laid the groundwork for language and symbolic thought, but lacked some critical element; the mental modeling apparatus was still incomplete. It should be emphasized that this problem is not contingent upon accepting the evolutionary proposal set out in this this book; it is inherent in the structure of modern human cognition. Mimetic representation is an isolable, parallel channel of representation, that requires its own level of description regardless of the evolutionary scenario leading up to it. New models of mental models will have to account for it.”
(Donald, pp.225-33)

And again, faced with the question of where the initial impetus for linguistic activity came from, Donald insists on the broadest cross-cultural universal - myth - connecting it to the scaffolding provided by mimetic ritual in the earliest constructions of symbolic meaning. This may - literally - be unprovable, yet it is both plausible, and more likely than any other proposal I have seen. And, after all, ritual almost demands meaning...so, it could well have led to the invention of new forms of same...


“Mythical thought, in our terms, might be regarded as a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors. The mind has expanded its reach beyond the episodic perception of events, beyond the mimetic reconstruction of episodes, to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe. Causal explanation, prediction, control - myth constitutes an attempt at all three, and every aspect of life is permeated by myth.... Thus, although language was first and foremost a social device, its initial utility was not so much in enabling a new level of collective technology or social organization, which it eventually did, or in transmitting skill, or in achieving larger political organizations, which it eventually did. Initially, it was used to construct conceptual models of the human universe.... Where mimetic representation was limited to concrete episodes, metaphorical thought could compare across episodes, deriving general principles and extracting thematic content. The myth is the prototypical, fundamental, integrative mind tool. It tries to integrate a variety of events in a temporal and causal framework. It is inherently a modeling device, whose primary level of representation is thematic. The pre-eminence of myth in early human society is testimony that humans were using language for a totally new kind of integrative thought. Therefore, the possibility must be entertained that the primary human adaptation was not language qua language, but rather integrative, initially mythical, thought. Modern humans developed language in response to pressure to improve their conceptual apparatus, not vice versa.... The rule structure of language, the unique phonetic properties of speech, and the apparently impossible complexity of linguistic constructs at the level of word and sentence might well be secondary phenomena. The primary objects of language and speech are thematic; their most salient achievements are discourse and symbolic thought.... [And,] above all, language was a public, collective invention. Thus, the emergence of a new peripheral adaptation, such as the modern vocal apparatus, must have been contingent upon a corresponding change on the level of thought skills, a fundamental change that enabled, and then accelerated, linguisitic invention.”
(Donald, pp.214-6)

The process, however, to judge by the fossil record, was extremely slow & uneven, only reaching the status of a genuine transition in its final stages. This is hardly surprising, though, if the complexity of the adaptation is understood:


“The variety of structures involved in such a major change is staggering. Changes occurred to most areas of the brain, as well as to many peripheral nerves and receptor surfaces. There was major muscular and skeletal redesign, including the face, body mass, cranial shape, respiration, and posture; there was a revolution in social structure; and there was a great change in the fundamental survival strategies of the human race. The entire nervous system had to adjust to its new selection pressures and changing conditions; it was not a simple matter of acquiring a new ‘language system’ with a cleanly isolated cerebral region attached to a modified vocal tract.”
(Donald, p.263)

By splitting the representational revolution into two natural parts, Donald has clarified how we probably achieved language. Similarly, in dividing the effects of language into the oral and the literate, he also helps us understand just what elements of the language revolution are robust universals, and what only really emerged with literacy...and, even more spectacularly, with print.


“ There is a question of why the emergence of speech should have had such radical cognitive spinoffs, and part of the answer may lie in the circular interaction of speech with cultural change. The best level at which to describe most completely what probably went on is, once again, the cultural level. The third transition was recent and largely nonbiological, but in purely cognitive terms it nevertheless led to a third stage of cognitive evolution, marked by the emergence of visual symbolism and external memory as major factors in cognitive architecture. External symbolic storage must be regarded as a hardware change in human cognitive structure, albeit a nonbiological hardware change. Its consequences for the cognitive architecture of humans was similar to the consequence of providing the CPU of a computer with an external storage device, or more accurately, with a link to a network.... In such a situation, the properties of the network may be more important for understanding what the machine can do than the properties of the machine itself.”
(Donald, p.16-17)

“Three crucial cognitive phenomena appear to have been underdeveloped, or virtually absent, in oral-mythic culture. These phenomena are graphic invention, external memory, and theory construction,...[involving] formal arguments, systematic taxonomies, induction, deduction, verification, differentiation, quantification, idealization and formal methods of measurement. Argument, discovery, proof, and theoretical synthesis are part of the legacy.... Theoretic culture was from its inception externally coded; and its construction involved an entirely new superstructure of cognitive mechanisms external to the individual biological memory....[This was] what was truly new in the third transition...not so much the nature of basic visuocognitive operations as the very fact of plugging into, and becoming part of, an external symbolic system. Reading, for example, is a very distinctive mode of knowing, one that raises disturbing questions about the true locus of human memory. Moreover,...where narrative and myth attribute significances, theory is not concerned with significance in the same sense at all. Rather than modeling events by infusing them with meaning and linking them by analogy, theory dissects, analyzes, states laws and formulas, establishes principles and taxonomies, and determines procedures for the verification and analysis of information. It depends for its advanced development on specialized memory devices, languages, and grammars."
(Donald, pp.272-5)

“External memory is the well of knowledge at which we draw sustenance, the driving force behind our ceaseless invention and change, the fount of inspiration in which succeeding generations find purpose and direction, and into which we place our own hard-won cognitive treasures.... Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be onsidered satisfactory. Nor can any account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded.”
(Donald, pp.356-7)

Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind remains a key breakthrough in psychological theory at the highest level, countering the narrowness of the sociobiology project as well as the extreme modularity of the bulk of “evolutionary psychology” (which runs counter to the evidence from neurobiology) with a compelling model that is true to the full range of evidence, and helpfully illuminates the complexity of our subjective experiences. This is no mean feat, and some ill-informed carping - particularly by linguists who bluntly discount the varieties of non-linguistic experience - should not be allowed to obscure this fact.

In particular, the concept of a mimetic representational system is a crucial advance, uniting a range of pre-linguistic yet purely human capabilities, into a coherent account that makes sense not only of the culture of homo erectus, but also of a whole range of taken-for-granted behaviours that provide essential scaffolding for our vaunted linguistic selves. Innovative theorists from Frank R. Wilson to Kieran Egan have already found this concept invaluable, and it is now increasingly supported by hard evidence from neurobiology. Meanwhile, the Chomsky’s grammatical (and infamous) “Language Acquisition Device” remains unfounded. Me, I prefer broad-ranging evidence - and common sense - to narrow ideology anyday...


“Within the context of the hybrid mental architecture proposed in this book, consciousness can take many forms. The subjective nature of consciousness depends entirely on the momentary locus of control in the central representational systems. Consciousness has many forms, but it is mostly about control and reflection.... Broadly speaking, the mimetic and oral-narrative systems normally dominate human consciousness.... Moreover, whenever external memory devices enter into the temporary architecture of mind, they tend to become dominant. They can also serve to reconfigure the mimetic and oral-narrative regions of mind in ways that would not have been possible before the third transition. In effect, all three of the distinctly human representational systems can serve as the temporary center of control, and since they can also function in parallel and be programmed to alternate with one another in various systematic ways, the subjective quality of consciousness may be extremely rich and varied.”
(Donald, pp.368-9)


John Henry Calvinist