Steven Mithen


A search for the origins of art, religion and science

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999). This review originally appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

The subtitle of this book promises quite a lot, but Steven Mithen makes a brave attempt at living up to the task he has set himself. As an archaeologist he believes, not surprisingly, that we cannot fully understand the way our minds function today unless we take account of the way they have developed. However, he does not rely on archaeology alone to construct his theory, but draws on evidence from psychology, linguistics, anthropology, observations of the behaviour of chimpanzees, and a variety of other sources.

He postulates two contrasting types of intelligence. One is "general intelligence". This is a capacity for non-specific learning, which can be applied to a wide range of problems. The "linguistic" abilities of chimpanzees are, he suggests, of this nature. The second type of intelligence is specific and is concerned with particular domains of knowledge, For example, there is technical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, social intelligence, and natural history intelligence. These kinds of mental ability are supposed to be added on to the core of general intelligence, and their presence can be detected in our evolutionary relatives; chimpanzees, for example, have a good deal of social intelligence, quite a lot of natural history intelligence, some technical intelligence (they make simple tools in the wild), but little or no linguistic intelligence. General intelligence underlies these specialized abilities and can to a certain extent stand in for any that are lacking or not fully developed, as happens when chimpanzees are taught to manipulate linguistic symbols to communicate.

One problem with these specialized intelligences is that they often can't communicate effectively with one another. In an interesting, if very speculative, chapter, Mithen suggests that this may have been the case with the Neanderthals and other types of "archaic homo sapiens", who in some ways seem so like us yet who seem never to have developed art or other forms of advanced culture. The decisive step that led to human awareness appears to have been an increase in communication among the various types of intelligence. Hence we have what Mithen believes to have been the essentially human tendency to attribute personality and social relationships to plants and animals, thanks to an integration of social and natural history intelligences. On the other hand, an integration of technical intelligence with natural history intelligence led to our tendency to manipulate animals and plants as if they were artifacts. We tend to think of this as an essentially modern capacity (perversion?), yet it probably goes far back into prehistory.

The essential thing to understand about the theory is that it is evolutionary; it is extended in time. Mithen believes that the mind has evolved in a cyclical or oscillating fashion. First, general intelligence develops; this allows its possessor to deal with a variety of problems as they arise, but not with maximum efficiency. Then specific intelligences evolve; these are more efficient than general intelligence in relation to the domains to which they pertain, but the penalty one pays for possessing them is that some aspects of awareness are cut off from the rest. Only when communication among specific intelligences develops can this disadvantage be overcome, but there may be a penalty to pay for allowing too much intercommunication.

As will be clear from this summary, Mithen is mainly concerned with the "easy questions" about consciousness: the form that consciousness takes rather than the existence of consciousness itself, which is the "hard question". He does however touch here and there on this latter problem, when he considers to what extent early humans may have been conscious. Here he takes the line that reflexive consciousness, in the modern sense, had to wait on the development of language that was flexible and rich enough to allow non-social ideas and information to be imported into the domain of social intelligence. The Neanderthals may be supposed to have had very compartmentalized minds and probably could not stand aside from whatever they were doing and think about themselves reflexively. The argument here is a little reminiscent of that put forward some years ago by Julian Jaynes.

For some readers, this book will probably seem too speculative. As Mithen himself points out, we can never get inside the minds of our evolutionary forebears. I think however that he was right to make the attempt, and I am sure that he is right to insist that no account of how the mind is constructed can be adequate unless it has this evolutionary dimension. Whether or not one agrees with his analysis, he has put his case together very well and there are ample references and suggestions for further reading for anyone who wants to go back to his sources. The book is also very readable and triumphantly bridges the gap between the scholarly and the popular. Some sections are tantalizingly short, particularly the couple of pages dealing with religion, but perhaps it would take another book to apply the theory fully to that.

%T The Prehistory of the Mind
%S A search for the origins of art, religion and science
%A Steven, Mithen
%I Thames and Hudson
%C London
%D 1996, 288 pp
%G ISBN 0-500-05081-3
%P 288 pp
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