Review - A Mind So Rare The Evolution of Human Consciousness by Merlin Donald W. W. Norton, 2001 Review by G. C. Gupta, Ph.D. Oct 15th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)
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 AMind 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
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,"
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.
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