Review: The Prehistory of the Mind; a Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science by Steven Mithen(1998) Assessment 9 out of 10

Mithen’s central thesis is that the development of children’s minds mirrors development of the human brain and therefore the course of evolution. The text is 250 pages long, including numerous diagrams. These are followed by 50 pages of two column closely printed notes and further reading, a source to be plundered. The thesis is like all good science to be tested ad reworked.

The very young child has general intelligence relying on trial and error. From aged 2, separate intelligences develop, for social, language, nature and technical intelligence. Each is “content rich” and intuitive. This explains why children pick up language so easily and why they understand the natural world as organised into plants and animals. The concept of there being different species is intuitive. Dogs have the essence of being dog like. Children do not think that objects are living. Later the separate specialized intelligences connect with general intelligence. By age 12, creativity has developed, the result of cognitive fluidity between general and the specialised intelligences. As a result they overlap.

He describes evolution over the longue durée, taking into account research in archaeology, anthropology, biology, cognitive science, primatology and art history.

He starts with the chimp, which lives in extended family groups of between 20 and 120 animals. They have a fission-fusion social organization, which can break into smaller interchangeable groups, which periodically come together. The chimp brain is described as comprising spheres of general and social intelligence and an incipient nature intelligence.

There were two spurts in brain enlargement.

The first occurred between 2 and 1.5 million years ago. It involved the emergence of technical and nature intelligence, and the first appearance of incipient language intelligence. Handaxes are evidence for technical intelligence. To produce them by removing flakes from a core stone required a mental image of the finished tool.  Evidence for nature intelligence is that Homo habilis developed hypotheses about carcass and predator location, unlike the chimp, which merely recognises fixed locations as sources of food.

The second spurt in brain size occurred between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. Mithen attributes this to the emergence of language. Language evolved to manage social exchanges, so specialist language intelligence overlaps general intelligence. Social exchange also contributed to the development of consciousness, the conscious awareness of thought. If I do this, what does he think about it? What will he do? These interactions are described as “orders of intentionality”. Chimps can cope with a maximum of 2, modern humans up to 5.

After a delay, the second spurt in brain size was followed by a cultural explosion, which occurred between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago. It featured colonisation of Australia, in Europe cave art and in the Near East blade cores replacing Levallois technology. Mithen attributes this delayed flowering to the emergence of creativity, resulting from cognitive fluidity between general and specialised intelligences.

The 40,000 year old Lion Man from Swabia Southern Germany

As a result of overlap between society and nature intelligence and cognitive fluidity between them, the culture of H sapiens hunter gatherers is very different from that of their predecessors. For modern hunter gatherers, there are not two worlds of society and nature, but one environment, saturated with personal powers and embracing man and the animals and plants on which they depend and the landscape in which they move. The cognitive fluidity explains the universality of totemism, believe in transformations between man and animal, and of anthropomorphic thinking, assuming animals think like humans. Mithen explains how this was useful in improving effectiveness of the hunt. Such fluidity clearly also contributed to the emergence of religious thought.

I loved this book and intend reading Mithen’s other books on prehistory.

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