Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond

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This book looks back at the simpler versions of mental life in apes, Neanderthals, and our ancestors, back before our burst of creativity started 50,000 years ago. When you can't think about the future in much detail, you are trapped in a here-and-now existence with no "What if?" and "Why me?" William H. Calvin takes stock of what we have now and then explains why we are nearing a crossroads, where mind shifts gears again.
The mind's big bang came long after our brain size stopped enlarging. Calvin suggests that the development of long sentences—what modern children do in their third year—was the most likely trigger. To keep a half-dozen concepts from blending together like a summer drink, you need some mental structuring. In saying "I think I saw him leave to go home," you are nesting three sentences inside a fourth. We also structure plans, play games with rules, create structured music and chains of logic, and have a fascination with discovering how things hang together. Our long train of connected thoughts is why our consciousness is so different from what came before.
Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education but with its slowly evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored in the ice ages? We will likely shift gears again, juggling more concepts and making decisions even faster, imagining courses of action in greater depth. Ethics are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate, judge quality, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Calvin's history will stretch your mind.... The Seattle scientist writes in a conversational style, often referring to 'stuff.' But it's high-level stuff with surprising insights."—Associated Press It is hard to imagine a subject of more fundamental interest to human beings. If you've ever wondered why you are who you are, 'A Brief History of the Mind' is a good place to start."—Seattle Times Acclaim for previous books by William Calvin

"There is something dizzying about William Calvin's books. Enormous erudition is displayed, with an effortless artistry that blends idiosyncrasy and digression with wit, insight, and dramatic impact. He mixes very difficult and momentous topics with simple momentary observations, placing his enormous subjects into a personal, humanistic, and conversational perspective. —Virginia Quarterly Review, on A Brain for All Seasons

"Calvin is a member of that rare breed of scientists who can translate the arcana of their fields into lay language, and he's one of the best." —Marcia Bartusiak, New York Times Book Review

"Thinking along with Calvin is sheer delight." —Daniel Dennett, on The Cerebral Symphony

"Calvin writes with clarity and elegance about the brain. In an age when brain science is becoming increasingly fragmented and specialized, Calvin is a rara avis." —V. S. Ramachandran, on The Cerebral Code

"As always, the author's erudition demands close attention but makes science entertaining and accessible for the layman."—Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
How the mental life of humans has come to differ from that of the other great apes, and speculations about what lies ahead. Calvin (Neurobiology/Univ. of Washington, Seattle) returns to his favorite subject (How Brains Think, 1996 etc.)-and, inspired by Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, produces a capsule history of the mind beginning seven million years ago, the time of the common ancestor of humans and other great apes. Calvin places the first brain boom at some 2.5 million years ago with the emergence of the first Homo species. Yet while the Homo sapiens of 100,000 years ago were anatomically modern and may have had some sort of protolanguage, it is only in the last 50,000 years that the modern mind of Homo sapiens sapiens appears, as evidenced by cave paintings and decorative carvings. To set the stage for the burst of creativity that he refers to as "The Mind's Big Bang," Calvin shows what the great apes are capable of. Bonobos, for example, are sociable in humanlike ways, but do not show evidence of foresight or much creativity. It is the step up to syntax, or structured thought, says Calvin, that distinguishes the modern brain and tunes it up to do other structured tasks-multistage planning, chains of logic, narratives, discovering hidden order, imagining how things hang together. As a "first of its kind," Calvin cautions, the human intellect is very new in the scheme of things, a sort of version 1.0, prone to malfunctions and not yet well tested. Thus, he sees precarious times ahead as the speed of technological advance far outstrips ponderous political reaction times and society's slow pace at problem-solving and consensus-building. Humans are also vulnerable, he warns,to climatic, economic, or diseased-caused "lurches" that we must become more competent at managing. Cultural innovation, not biological evolution, he says, holds the key to the future success of our species. As always, the author's erudition demands close attention but makes science entertaining and accessible for the layman.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195182484
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 853,108
  • Product dimensions: 8.20 (w) x 5.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

William H. Calvin is a neurobiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who wanders regularly into anthropology, evolution, and climate change. He is the author of A Brain for All Seasons, which won the Phi Beta Kappa 2002 Book Award for contributions to literature by scientists.

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Table of Contents

Some State-setting Perspective
1 When Chimpanzees Think 3
2 Upright Posture but Ape-sized Brains 15
3 Triple Startups about 2.5 Million Years Ago 23
4 Homo erectus Ate Well 33
5 The Second Brain Boom 45
6 Neanderthals and Our Pre-sapiens Ancestors 53
7 Homo sapiens without the Modern Mind 61
8 Structured Thought Finally Appears 83
9 From Africa to Everywhere 107
10 How Creativity Manages the Mixups 127
11 Civilizing Ourselves 139
12 What's Sudden About the Mind's Big Bang? 151
13 Imaging the House of Cards 161
14 The Future of the Augmented Mind 171
Afterword 191
Recommended Reading 193
Notes 197
Index 207
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