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Précis of Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition

  • Merlin Donald (a1)


This book proposes a theory of human cognitive evolution, drawing from paleontology, linguistics, anthropology, cognitive science, and especially neuropsychology. The properties of humankind's brain, culture, and cognition have coevolved in a tight iterative loop; the main event in human evolution has occurred at the cognitive level, however, mediating change at the anatomical and cultural levels. During the past two million years humans have passed through three major cognitive transitions, each of which has left the human mind with a new way of representing reality and a new form of culture. Modern humans consequently have three systems of memory representation that were not available to our closest primate relatives: mimetic skill, language, and external symbols. These three systems are supported by new types of “hard” storage devices, two of which (mimetic and linguistic) are biological, one technological. Full symbolic literacy consists of a complex of skills for interacting with the external memory system. The independence of these three uniquely human ways of representing knowledge is suggested in the way the mind breaks down after brain injury and confirmed by various other lines of evidence. Each of the three systems is based on an inventive capacity, and the products of those capacities – such as languages, symbols, gestures, social rituals, and images – continue to be invented and vetted in the social arena. Cognitive evolution is not yet complete: the externalization of memory has altered the actual memory architecture within which humans think. This is changing the role of biological memory and the way in which the human brain deploys its resources; it is also changing the form of modern culture.



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