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A Mind So RareReview - 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 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.

© 2001 G.C. Gupta

G.C. Gupta, Ph.D., Formerly Professor of Psychology, University of Delhi, Delhi, India


See the table of contents at BN.com.

This review first appeared online on Sept 3, 2001.


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