July 9, 2008

Three Broad Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition

A Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind

By Merlin Donald

Origins of the Modern Mind (1991) was an attempt to synthesize various sources of information--neurobiological, psychological, archeological and anthropological, among others--about our cognitive origins, in the belief that the human mind co-evolved in close interaction with both brain and culture… This precis focuses on my core theory and disregards most of the background material reviewed at length in the book itself.

My central hypothesis is that there were three major cognitive transformations by which the modern human mind emerged over several million years, starting with a complex of skills presumably resembling those of the chimpanzee. These transformations left, on the one hand, three new, uniquely human systems of memory representation, and on the other, three interwoven layers of human culture, each supported by its corresponding set of representations.

I agree with multilevel evolutionary theorists like Plotkin who believe that selection pressures at this stage of human evolution were ultimately expressed and tested on the sociocultural level; hence I have described the evolutionary scenario as a series of cultural adaptations, even though individual cognition was really where the main event was taking place, since it provides the linkage between physical and cultural evolution.

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