How the mental life of humans has come to differ from that of the other great apes, and speculations about what lies ahead.
Calvin (Neurobiology/Univ. of Washington, Seattle) returns to his favorite subject (How Brains Think, 1996 etc.)—and, inspired by Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, produces a capsule history of the mind beginning seven million years ago, the time of the common ancestor of humans and other great apes. Calvin places the first brain boom at some 2.5 million years ago with the emergence of the first Homo species. Yet while the Homo sapiens of 100,000 years ago were anatomically modern and may have had some sort of protolanguage, it is only in the last 50,000 years that the modern mind of Homo sapiens sapiens appears, as evidenced by cave paintings and decorative carvings. To set the stage for the burst of creativity that he refers to as “The Mind’s Big Bang,” Calvin shows what the great apes are capable of. Bonobos, for example, are sociable in humanlike ways, but do not show evidence of foresight or much creativity. It is the step up to syntax, or structured thought, says Calvin, that distinguishes the modern brain and tunes it up to do other structured tasks—multistage planning, chains of logic, narratives, discovering hidden order, imagining how things hang together. As a “first of its kind,” Calvin cautions, the human intellect is very new in the scheme of things, a sort of version 1.0, prone to malfunctions and not yet well tested. Thus, he sees precarious times ahead as the speed of technological advance far outstrips ponderous political reaction times and society’s slow pace at problem-solving and consensus-building. Humans are also vulnerable, he warns, to climatic, economic, or diseased-caused “lurches” that we must become more competent at managing. Cultural innovation, not biological evolution, he says, holds the key to the future success of our species.
As always, the author’s erudition demands close attention but makes science entertaining and accessible for the layman.