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How we learned to talk about hunting and technology
Steven Mithen: The Prehistory of the Mind. A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science.

Sometimes a book comes along that changes your perception of the world. Well, this book isn't quite The Selfish Gene, The Language Instinct or The Origins of Virtue but it has certainly cleared away a lot of my mental fog, and given me a new perspective on human evolution, as well as yet more ammunition against creationists. It's also well written, full of interesting facts and theories, clearly explained, and scholarly.

Mithen is a Professor of Early Prehistory, specialising in 'cognitive archaeology'. He is looking at how our ancestors thought, taking into account archaeology, palaeontology, cognitive science, physiology, evolutionary biology, linguistics and half a dozen other sciences. Clues as to how the mind evolved are scant, to say the least. Mithen presents a theory that may be right or may not – it can't, currently, be proved. However, in presenting that theory he marshals facts and explanations that have given me a much clearer understanding of the problem, current theories of mind, and the available evidence. (Also throwing light on Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, and recent Pinker and Dennett.)

Oh yes, there is a problem. You might call it the problem of "the great leap forward". Our ancestors have evolved progressively bigger brains – Neanderthals had bigger brains than Homo Sapiens Sapiens – and yet for over a million years nothing changed. The hand axe and flakes remained the only tools. There is no evidence of art or religion or personal ornamentation, and no evidence of carved bone or antler, and no evidence of agriculture or a settled way of life. People were not like modern hunter-gatherers, who have complex technology and ritual; they were something different, that we don't yet understand.

Less than 100,000 years ago, something changed. Technology started to move. Art and evidence of religion began to appear. About 30,000 years ago it went ballistic. Why? What had happened?

Using various theories of mind, Mithen comes up with his own explanation, which fits the facts, but is currently untestable and therefore unproven. He doesn't take the extreme view that consciousness did not exist until recent times, a theory I've heard and dismissed, along with the one that you can't be conscious without language, when some people whose language centres have been damaged are conscious. However, using the Swiss Army knife theory of mind (which plainly has truth in it, as we know from observations of brain damaged people) he postulates selection for various specialised cognitive areas starting to work together.

During this process, he illuminates such puzzles as why we are prone to anthropomorphise animals (and things!), and why we can be both conservationists and hunters at the same time. Describing how and why Australian native tribes can see both the world of the dreamtime and that of accurate natural history without any contradiction goes a long way to explaining why people who are no longer hunter-gatherers do the same thing with science and religion.

It's an interesting book and, until I read about another theory that fits as many facts, I'll be happy to stick with it on a provisional basis. I'm going to look for his later books on the Net right now.

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Another good book to add to the 'to read' list.

Just to say that if it looks like a fish, smells like a fish and tastes like a fish, then its probably a fish.

Which is to say that the word 'anthropomorphising' only exists because our religions place us at the centre of the universe and we refuse to acknowledge that we are simply a part of a continuum of animal behaviour on this planet.

As Phaedrus might well have said to Plato, "For all your so called philosophy, it all comes down to you trying to get your hands on my d*ck"

But we're not talking about philosophy here (though Mithen is familiar with those philosophers who engage in cognitive speculation) but about the manifestations of the physical workings of the brain/mind, as shaped over time by evolution. In fact, anthropomorphising appears to come before religion in the scheme of things - the earliest art shows animal/human hybrids - and it is an integral part of everyday language - in all languages. ("The object was sitting on the table." "The brick flew through the window.") There are societies without organised religion - superstitious, but without gods - who still give human characteristics to animals, plants, and the landscape, as well as the ghosts of their ancestors.

In fact, it's far more important than religion, because it relates to our ability to use metaphor, which Mithen argues, and I think successfully, is at the very heart of science.

You can't reach an abstraction without real examples, else how would you give it context? Sitting and flew are words describing states that are not necessarily anthropomorphic, but merely abstracted descriptions from examples.

I think science without evidence is philosophy, and the greeks argued that if you had to go look, you didn't know. It's certainly true that human thinking is all wrapped around self indentity and that therefore we tend to describe everything as variants of self.

We delude ourselves about how we reason and act. Recent studies have shown we will post-event rationalise our actions, however bizarre.

Don't confuse science and engineering as most people so unfortunately do. They are not the same. Engineers don't care why things are the way they are, they simply use the result. When those result confound science they just go on using them anyway.

We talk about objects as if they could do things or had consciousness themselves.

I don't think you've got the point. I (and Mithen) am not talking about methods of reasoning, or rationalising after an event - I am talking about the fact that some reasoning occurs outside your consciouness, and that certain knowledge - such as general grammar use and the ability to recognise and classify animal and plants into categories - is inate, unlearned. Children anthropormphise at a very early age even if their parents have refrained from reading Beatrix Potter to them! Not all that goes on in our brains is conscious, and Mithen's thesis is primarily at what stage different areas of cognition became available to the language/social areas that are central to our consciousness.

When I talk about science in this context I am talking about a way of seeing the world, about reasoning from effect to cause.

Your last paragraph generalises too much. It only works if you define your terms in such a way that they are self-confirming. (All engineers are people who only care about results, therefore if someone only cares about results they are an engineer.)

Re: Fishy

Science is not about cause and effect directly, it is about repeatability. When something is repeatable, a scientist will try and formulate a theory and thus deduce a cause to explain the effect. However, repeatability is now known to be an illusion, just because the sun rises every morning doesn't mean it will forever, and causality has been struck a near mortal blow by quantum physics, with even Steven Hawking recanting on his previous religious beliefs that the universe would always prevent a break in causality.

Many of the great turning points in science have come when scientific belief is overwhelmed with evidence to the contrary, but science has now reached a point where its own certainties have been disproved.

Engineers as a breed don't care why something happens just so long as it remains repeatable long enough to make money out of it. Our modern civilisation is built on engineering, not science. The Romans invented concrete with not a clue how it worked and Goddard and on Braun did much the same with rockets. The engineers who built the first sky scrappers had no idea how to calculate the forces so they over-engineered everything. The science followed later, as it so often does.

There are, to quote just one of thousands of examples, two completely conflicting scientific theories on how airplanes fly. The ones we fly in, fly because they are a variant on the last one that did.

ooops, forgot to log in

I especially like Mithin's take on the interrelationship of art and religion. It's not a novel theory but I find his extrapolations interesting.

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