Merlin Donald welcomes the computer, as well as other forms of electronic storage and manipulation of data and images, including TV, as the highest stage of mental development--and perhaps the final one

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Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, W. W. Norton, 2001.

In this polemical work, Merlin Donald refutes the recent arguments of scientists and philosophers who have dismissed consciousness as a superficial by-product of evolution, or even an entirely irrelevant factor in human cognition. His thesis presents the forces, both cultural and neuronal, that power our distinctly human modes of awareness. Donald proposes that the human mind is a hybrid product of interweaving a super-complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a "distributed" cognitive network. This hybrid mind allowed humanity as a species to break free of the limitations of the mammalian brain. Marshalling evidence from brain and behavioural studies of humans and animals, Donald explains how an expression of conscious capacity was the key to this revolutionary development and insightfully projects how the human mind might adapt in the future, as we fall increasingly under the spell of symbolic technology.

Many scientists have denied any evolutionary significance to human consciousness, dismissing it as illusory smoke dancing above the fire of real neurochemistry. But Donald sees in consciousness the very key to understanding how humankind developed. After assaulting (with great panache) the arguments commonly deployed to remove it from the research agenda, Donald presents a natural history for consciousness, focusing particularly on its astonishing and clearly unique complexity among human beings-- Why does the human brain so closely resemble those of other primates yet so dramatically outstrip them in capacity? How does the mind endow the ego center with autonomy and a narrative autobiography? In his sophisticated conception of a multilayered consciousness drawing much of its power from its cultural matrix, Donald bids fair to reset the terms for evolutionary psychology. - Bryce Christensen

Donald transcends the simplistic claims of Evolutionary Psychology,...offering a true Darwinian perspective on the evolution of consciousness. -- Philip Lieberman

The most significant contribution yet to the rapidly growing literature of minds, brains, and consciousness. -- Steven Rose 


There has been tremendous progress over the past few decades in understanding the nature and functioning of human consciousness. Although this knowledge has not yet settled into an explicit consensus, and details are lacking, nevertheless all the necessary elements are in place. A theory of human consciousness is here or hereabouts.
From the evidence of this book, Donald is one of those who substantially understand consciousness—which is to say that he can give a coherent and broadly valid account of the evolved function of consciousness and its main modes of operation. A Mind So Rare can therefore be added to a list that would include Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994), and Antonio R Damasio's Descartes' Error (1994) and The Feeling of What Happens (1999).
Although the book ranges widely, Donald's particular contribution seems to be his understanding of cultural evolution. Twenty thousand years ago, human social organisation was qualitatively similar to that of great apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos—all humans were probably nomadic hunter gatherers. Since this time, and despite the fact that there has been no significant biological evolution of the human brain, there have been numerous waves of cultural change that transformed human life. These depend on information exchange, and Donald is tremendously enlightening on the subtle interaction between the human brain and these “objective” forms of information that are embodied in social organisation, practices, and written language and numbers. The new relation of brain and culture has produced no less than a qualitative transformation in the scope of human consciousness.
But there are problems: the book has significant stylistic flaws. Early chapters, especially, seethe with irritation directed at other researchers whose views are variously ridiculed as incoherent and characterised as immoral. The high prevalence of bad temper makes for unenjoyable reading.
More fundamentally, I found the book to be well written and yet at the same time difficult to understand. Donald largely succeeds in engaging the reader, but substantially fails to communicate his key concepts (at least, on first reading). Maybe the book is trying to do too much (for example, to settle scores with old adversaries, to impress the general reader with cultural references) to be able to concentrate on lucid exposition.
Consciousness studies are in a transitional phase and A Mind So Rare reflects this. Eventually terminology will settle down, and a definitive account will emerge. My belief is that human consciousness is simpler and more comprehensible than Merlin Donald implies. But the ramifications and implications of even a simple theory of consciousness will probably take centuries to elucidate. - Bruce Charlton

Although scientists and philosophers don’t pretend to understand the neurological mechanism of human consciousness, they are eager to theorize about it. Donald (Psychology/Queen’s Univ., Toronto) reviews the evidence and explains how he believes the brain converts sensory input into awareness.
He begins by denouncing his opponents. According to the author, a school of evolutionary thinkers called the neo-Darwinians views human nature as fixed in genetic concrete. It follows from this that thinking, behavior, emotions, and language are hard-wired deep in our unconscious. Consciousness facilitates the working out of these mental processes, but it otherwise has little importance. The author disagrees vehemently with these “hardliners.” He proposes instead that the human mind occupies a unique place in nature, not because of its structure but through its ability to absorb culture (i.e., the interaction of many minds): human consciousness, according to this view, is actually a hybrid product of biology and culture. As a result, the key to understanding intellect is not the design of a single brain but the synergy of many brains. Marshalling studies from neuroscience as well as behavioral research on humans and animals, the author portrays consciousness as a revolutionary development central to human evolution, and he goes on to explain how the intellect might adapt to a future of increasingly symbolic technology. Although dense with closely reasoned argument, analysis, and theory, this study rewards careful reading—but it is also a heated polemic, full of sarcasm and dripping with contempt for the neo-Darwinians (whose arguments are made to seem extreme as well as weak).
An intriguing but strongly one-sided account. - Kirkus Reviews

Over a span of 5 years in the recent past some books on mind have appeared (e.g. Gazzaniga, 1998; Mindell, A, 2000; and Chandler, 2001, just to name only three), that the present reviewer found to provide refreshing approaches. It does not mean that the others that appeared were not equally so; perhaps they were. In A Mind So Rare, Donald presents another perspective, refreshingly distinctive, in tune with the developments over these years, and further, he gives a point of view that provides a contrast to that of Gazzaniga, Mindell, and others. A Mind So Rare is one more example of the analysis of issues and concerns on mind that have been culled to fathom the depth of thinking on it in an attempt to capture its multifaceted character. Indeed, in recent years, so much has been written on mind that one keeps shifting from one position to another. The robustness of the point of view with which the issues and concerns are approached, in one perspective, the forcefulness with which the arguments are presented by the author can not be slighted yet there comes another proposal -another perspective- with its ramifications, de-stabilizing one in the stand one has been trying to assume. Donald's proposal that the " human mind is a hybrid product of interweaving supercomplex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a "distributed" cognitive network" (from book jacket) conforms to the contemporary thinking. "This hybrid mind, Donald suggests, is our main evolutionary advantage, for it allowed humanity as a species to break free of the limitations of the mammalian brain" (from book jacket). Both these 'advantages' will be discussed later but first the book. The author opens up with a scenario on consciousness from the perspective of a "Hardliner", Neo-Darwinian , treating consciousness as a "quirky vestigial artifact, a freak show curiosity in our ongoing cognitive circus." The Neo-Darwinian's "dead aim at culture", their fights fought at the level of unconscious, culture being the product of Natural Selection with "meme" (Charles Dawkins) as the irreducible unit constitutes the battle slogan. Questions about definition become meaningful in the face of experimental findings supporting the role the unconscious direction plays. There is, however, undeniable evidence that consciousness does matter. Hardliners turn defensive, saying that we need to be clear about the meanings of words. This battle between the Hardliners and Minimalists reflects in The Paradox of Consciousness, the next chapter where the author begins outlining his core proposals. The chapter Consciousness Club is essentially concerned with the evolutionary history of consciousness to say what species could qualify to be the members of this club. Chapter 5 is used to unfurl the brain evolution, especially its executive role. Chapters, 6,7, and 8 are critical as it is in these that the author shapes his point of view on Constructivism that holds that mind "self-assembles," according to the "dictates" of one's experience, "guided by a set of innate propensities, which correspond roughly to the basic components of conscious capacity." His major concern comes out in the last two chapters, stating the implications for how conscious capacity provides the "biological basis for the generation of culture, including symbolic thought and language." The author's elaboration of the concept of working memory is interesting. His reference to Helen Keller's case and a detailed discussion of it to highlight "the self assembly of human mind" enunciates a powerful mechanism. But then what is new about all these? Others too have spoken about such possibilities, although maybe not in his language (Vygotsky, for instance). The concept of working memory, even though interesting, certainly conflicts with the orthodox definition found in the textbooks and as originally enunciated. One certainly accepts the concept of Hybrid Mind but then what is mind? What reservations does the author have in calling the Hybrid Mind as mind? The author has discussed the concept at great length (Chapters 5 and 7) to state that " Humans thus bridge two worlds. We are hybrids, half analogizers, with direct experience of the world, and half symbolizers, embedded in a cultural web. During our evolution we somehow supplemented the analogue capacities built into our brains over hundreds of millions of years with a symbolic loop through culture." He continues to elaborate the relevant concepts in chapter 7. The arguments advanced are convincing, unfolding the strategy cultural evolution adopts to generate the kind of divide referred to above. The author restates his view of "hybridization" while concluding his thesis under " The Essential Unity of the Conscious Hierarchy," and "Coda." A Mind So Rare has several challenges to academia. The presentation style, the use of findings from Experimental Psychology and those from the neuroscience do not undermine its comprehensibility. It provides a thesis that needs to be taken seriously. -  G.C. Gupta

Review by Trevor Stone

I propose that there are three levels of basic conscious capacity. The first, which enables level-1 awareness, is basic perceptual unity, or binding, the mechanisms of which seem to have emerged in the common ancestors of birds and mammals. The second, which enables level-2 awareness, is short-term working memory, which assumes the existence of a binding mechanism and extends the reach of awareness over time. This is especially characteristic in mammals but may also exist in a few nonmammalian species. The third, which enables level-3 awareness, is what I call intermediate-term governance. It is found in some of the social animals, including primates and ourselves. Level-3 awareness carries the time parameters of working memory further along and introduces an evaluative, or metacognitive, dimension to conscious processing, which allows the mind to supervise its own operations, to a degree …
[O]ur distinctively human consciousness … seems to be contingent on four things: an expanded executive brain system, extreme cerebral plasticity, a greatly expanded working memory capacity, and especially a process of brain-culture symbiosis that I have labelled ‘deep enculturation’ … Constructivism [is] an approach to human cognition that originated in French philosophy, with Condillac. Constructivism holds that the mind self-assembles, according to the dictates of experience, guided by a set of innate propensities, which correspond roughly to the basic components of conscious capacity …
[O]ur conscious capacity provides the biological basis for the generation of culture, including symbolic thought and language. Conversely, culture also provides the only explanatory mechanism that can unlock the distinctive nature of modern human awareness. Without deep enculturation, we are relatively helpless to exploit the potential latent in our enormous brains because the specifics of our modern cognitive structure are not built in. Our brains coevolved with culture and are specifically adapted for living in culture—that is, for assimilating the algorithms and knowledge networks of culture. In a sense, our brain design ‘assumes’ the existence of a cultural storage mechanism that can ensure its full development. This is the only feasible way to build a continuity theory of language evolution and maintain a smooth linkage with our deep evolutionary past. Cultural mind sharing is our unique trait. Human culture started with an archaic, purely non-linguistic adaptation, and we never had to evolve an innate brain device for language per se or for many other of our unique talents, such as mathematics, athletics, music and literacy. On the contrary, these capacities emerged as by-products of our brain’s evolving symbiosis with mindsharing cultures. Language emerges only at the group level and is a cultural product, distributed across many minds.
This is why we have evolved such a novel evolutionary strategy, which relies on off-loading crucial replicative information into our cultural memory systems. The algorithms that define the modern human mind may have been originally generated by collectivity of conscious brains living in culture, but these accumulated storehouses have now assumed a certain autonomy and have become an essential part of the mechanism by which we replicate, and continue to extend, the domains of our awareness. We have evolved into ‘hybrid’ minds, quite like any others, and the reason for this does not lie in our brains, which are unexceptional in their basic design. It lies in the fact that we have developed such a deep dependency on our collective storage systems, which hold the key to self-assembly. The ultimate irony of human existence is that we are supreme individualists, whose individualism depends almost entirely on culture for its realization. It came at the price of giving up the isolationism, or cognitive solipsism, of all other species and entering into a collectivity of the mind. - Merlin Donald

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Merlin Donald, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press; Reprint ed., 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 artificial intelligence, presenting an enterprising and original theory of how the human mind evolved from its presymbolic form.   

Origins of the Modern Mind is an admirable book...Its author displays throughout an engaging enthusiasm, a fertile imagination and an impressive knowledge of his subject-matter. - Christopher Longuet-Higgins

Nowadays one hears...that hand-held calculators destroy young people's motivation to learn arithmetic. But not to worry, says Merlin Donald, author of this revelatory but demanding history of human consciousness. He welcomes the computer, as well as other forms of electronic storage and manipulation of data and images, including TV, as the highest stage of mental development--and perhaps the final one. - John Wilkes

A radically different evolutionary framework for the understanding of mind and behavior: I don't know when I have enjoyed reading a book more, or when I have learned so much from one. - Sheldon White

A wonderful book that deserves to be read by everyone interested in the human mind. It weaves together the best available evidence into a convincing theory of cognition, culture, consciousness, and communication--their structure, evolution, meaning, and future. - Hans Moravec 

  "The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management.'' So says Donald (Psychology/Queen's Univ., Kingston, Ontario), echoing the philosopher Ernst Cassirer a generation ago--with a difference. Whereas countless philosophers since Aristotle have attempted to define what is quintessentially human, Donald brings new knowledge of neuropsychology, ethology, and archaeology to propose a tripartite theory of the transition from ape to man. Using the fossil evidence of braincase size and tool-kit remains, Donald concludes that the australopithecines were limited to concrete/episodic minds: bipedal creatures able to benefit from pair-bonding, cooperative hunting, etc., but essentially of a seize-the-moment mentality. The first transition was to a ``mimetic'' culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology. This summary, however, does not do justice to Donald's careful analysis of rival theories as well as his mining of the neuroanatomical and neurological literature, presenting, for example, evidence of the distribution of language skills across both hemispheres. He gets high marks, too, for pointing out how often cognitive theories become caught up in the trap of the homunculus--the little man in the brain who presides over all our conscious activities. Needless to say, his theory is open to challenge as well (the relation of mimesis to language; the constant reliance on computer metaphors; and, ultimately, the use of Western tradition as the paradigm of human evolution). Withal, a fine, provocative and absorbing account of what makes humans human. -  Kirkus Reviews    

 Merlin Donald argues that the modern mind of symbolic thought arose from a nonsymbolic form of intelligence through gradual absorbtion of new representational systems. Donald advances a theory of evolutionary development of the human mind in four stages, which roughly correspond to stages of cognitive growth in modern humans. Early hominids were limited to episodic representation of knowledge, which was useful in remembering repeating episodes (the "episodic" mind).
Homo Erectus developed a "mimetic" (prelinguistic but roughly symbolic) system of motor-based representations, which enabled it to communicate intentions and desires and, on a larger scale, enabled generations to pass on cultural artifacts (the "mimetic" mind). Homo Sapiens acquired language and therefore the ability to construct narratives and build myths, and myths represent integrated models of the world by which individuals could generalize and predict (the "mythic" mind).
Modern humans, helped by written language, achieved higher, symbolic representational capabilities such as logic (the "theoretic" mind). According to Piaget's and Vygotsky's epistemological theories, children follow a similar path to full-fledged thinking, from event to mimetic, from narrative to symbolic.
Language and thought are tightly related: some forms of thought require language, and language reflects what forms of thought are possible. Symbols per se did not cause any revolution in thinking: the kind of mental models that the mind could build caused the revolution. And language (or symbols) was simply a means to represent those models. The purpose of language was to allow individuals to share a common model of the world. Narrative was the natural product of language. Narrative led to unified, collective models of reality, in particular those embodied by myths. - Piero Scaruffi

"Don't write anything down," Socrates told his students. The philosopher issued this seemingly odd warning in the 5th Century, just as the Greeks were developing history's first phonetic alphabet. They had begun writing just about everything down--even philosophical dialogues. Socrates feared the new invention would make his students mentally lazy.
Nowadays one hears, similarly, that hand-held calculators destroy young people's motivation to learn arithmetic. But not to worry, says Merlin Donald, author of this revelatory but demanding history of human consciousness. He welcomes the computer, as well as other forms of electronic storage and manipulation of data and images, including TV, as the highest stage of mental development--and perhaps the final one.
Although Donald mutters worriedly about the effects of TV on children, he emphatically believes that it would be a great mistake to unplug the human mind from its electronic amplifier.
His thesis is that humans reached their present level of culture and thought after passing first through an animal, or "episodic," state of awareness (along with other ancestral primates), then through two more enlightened, though primitive, human states. One of the surprise notions he offers is that we haven't outgrown any of those earlier states.
We experience the animal state, for example, whenever we simply react to isolated events and things--feeling annoyed, say, and slamming on the brakes when a car pulls out in front of us.
We enter the primitive human state, according to Donald's theory, when we pantomime an action--showing a toddler how to eat with a fork, for example, or demonstrating a special fingering on an instrument.
The most fully developed form of this early "mimetic" consciousness, Donald says, is the miming of an entire legend. Maori people in New Zealand, for example, still silently re-enactthe legend of their canoe journey across the South Pacific centuries ago to their present home.
Standing above mimetic consciousness in Donald's hierarchy--and following it in evolutionary terms--is "mythic" consciousness and culture, based on storytelling. The evolution into this next-to-highest state of mind, Donald argues, was sparked by the advent of spoken language.
The highest form of consciousness, Donald claims, is the "analytic" or "theoretic," ushered in by the invention of "external storage systems," of which a contemporary example is the maligned but popular hand-held calculator. The original ESS (Donald likes acronyms) consisted of hieroglyphics and other non-phonetic symbols carved into clay tablets.
Today's most advanced external storage systems are linked in a complex worldwide network of computers. The human mind, says Donald, a professor of psychology at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, is gradually being shoved aside by the global electronic brain it has created.
"Breakthroughs in logic and mathematics enabled the invention of digital computers and have already changed human life," Donald writes. "But ultimately they have the power to transform it, since they represent a potentially irreversible shift in the cognitive balance of power toward complete ESS-based dominance of human cognitive structure."
Although some readers may tire of the book's seemingly endless procession of clinical cases of brain damage, they will appreciate the author's effort to synthesize masses of research in biology, linguistics, artificial intelligence and archeology. - JOHN WILKES

Read Robert Bellah’s consideration of Origins of the Modern Mind at The Immanent Frame