Review of Merlin Donald's Origins of the Modern Mind and A Mind So Rare

by Trevor Stone
University of Colorado, Boulder
Issues and Methods in Cognitive Science
Spring 2002; completed Spring 2003

Examining Grand Ideas

In his 1991 book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Merlin Donald presents the evolution of human cognition as a sequence of three transitions in dominant representational systems. Humans progressed from other primates by developing gestural, linguistic, and written storage and thought structures, thereby developing what Donald calls "mimetic," "mythic," and "theoretic" cultures. His approach is interdisciplinary and somewhat speculative -- he combines data from anthropology, archaeology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, and neurobiology to reconstruct the stages of evolutionary human cognitive development.

After a decade replete with evolutionary accounts of human cognitive capacity, Donald wrote A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, arguing for the presence of a strong consciousness as one of the most important attributes of the human mind. Noting that a full account of human consciousness stands many years in the future, Donald sets out to describe what he can of the architecture, capabilities, and evolution of human consciousness. The result is a picture of a highly plastic domain-general capacity that can coordinate action, focus attention, and regulate activity, all typically in intermediate-term time frames. After ten years, Donald still holds the views expressed in Origins, and he ties the two books together at the end of AMSR.

In this review I aim primarily to explore a few of Donald's evocative ideas. I first summarize each of the two books in turn. I then present a few comments which have been made on Donald's work and comment on those comments. I then try to flesh out and critically examine what Donald has to say on the subject of artificial intelligence. I then describe some of my own experiences with mimetic ritual inspired by Donald's work. I then examine the role Donald ascribes to culture in evolution. Finally, I discuss Donald's possibly radical ideas about the loci of consciousness and cognition. I conclude with my overall impressions of the two books.

Summary of Origins of the Modern Mind

Donald spends the first quarter of Origins presenting an impressive collection of neurological, anthropological, and psychological information about the human brain and cognition and how it differs from those of other primates. This portion of the book culminates in a picture of primate memory, and hence cognition, as episodic. The only representational form of memory available to non-human primates, Donald shows, is the memory of specific events. Primate cognition thus consists in recalling specific past events and categorical judgments and applying them straightforwardly to present circumstances. They are able to use symbols by recalling their use in the past, but they are incapable of representational generation. In primate culture, information like tool use is spread by direct and literal imitation and new ideas are hard to come by.

Donald then proposes that Homo erectus underwent a fundamental cognitive shift that set them apart from all other primates, including Australiopithecus and Homo habilis. Erectus developed sophisticated tools, spread across vast territory and varied climates, and developed "society where cooperation and social coordination of action were central to the species' survival strategy." (p. 163) These advances were made possible not because of a simple increase in total brain mass, but through a radical new cognitive capability -- mimesis. Donald argues that while erectus couldn't speak, they had a generative intentional representational form of communication available in gestures and mime. Mimetic culture allowed our ancestors to model group structure, moving from relationships between individuals to relationships between social roles; establish group norms; voluntarily display emotion; coordinate hunting, allowing some hunters to drive the animal to an appropriate spot and others to attack it; and easily teach skills like tool-making. Knowledge was no longer passed purely through genes and memory of life events; erectus could pass hard-won knowledge like "don't eat these berries" directly to friends and family. Learning and reinforcement took the form of direct instruction, reciprocal games, and group ritual, "a collective act in which individuals play different roles" (p. 175).

Donald illustrates several of the ways in which mimesis still permeates modern human cognition. Pre-verbal children, deaf-mutes without sign language, and some people with brain damage are all able to communicate fairly effectively using only mime, gestures, facial expressions, and prosodic vocalizations. Group ritual (and its theatrical descendants) remains a crucial part of present-day hunting-gathering culture and even plays a role in modern western culture. Furthermore, mimetic action is more effective at conveying emotion, maintaining crowd control, and teaching certain tasks than language. Human mimetic skill has thus been retained vestigially, just as the mimetic adaptation retained and encapsulated our episodic memory capacity.

The second transition of human cognition that Donald presents is from mimetic culture to mythic culture. Mimesis could only take hominid culture so far, and language developed to allow for more precise, better developed, and better conveyed communication between individuals. Continuing his careful and critical examination of archaeological, neurological, psychological, and linguistic evidence, Donald states that intraspecies competition provided the selection pressure for the language adaptation. But social communication wasn't the only benefit of language. Just as mimesis offered people a memory and cognitive structure vastly better than that possessed in purely episodic culture, semantic symbolism offered a similar boon to the members of "oral-semiotic" culture. Lexical capacity, the root of semantics, doesn't depend on speech, and we therefore possess "a general-purpose capacity that extends beyond the vocal-auditory pathway" (p. 254).

Donald proposes that myth is the primary function of language in a culture dominated by linguistic cognition, which he therefore labels "mythic culture." Donald suggests that mythic cultures passed (and continue to pass) collective knowledge about survival through a vast mythic heritage, complete with oral lore, totemic art, and mimetic song, dance, and ritual. The fundamental (in terms of importance and function) aspects of linguistics thus reside at the narrative level, rather than at the level of the sentence and proposition, the primary focus of linguists. Although Dunbar's commentary proposes that basic social exchange, not myth, was the primary function of language, the primacy of narrative rather than syntax remains.

Just as the mimetic mental system can access the memories, conclusions, and abilities of the episodic, the linguistic center has access to the other two cognitive modes. We can thus linguistically present (though often not very clearly) information and skills we have learned by mimesis or direct experience. However, the mimetic system, Donald thinks, cannot access the internals of the linguistic system, nor can the episodic system access either of the others. Donald's presentation of Brother John, an epileptic who would lose access to internal and external linguistic skill, throws doubt on this flow -- during his episodic- and mimetic-only spells, he was able to act on information obtained during his lifetime of linguistic learning and interact within linguistically-based culture.

Also present in mythic culture, though appearing much later than Donald places speech, are symbolic pictures like those found in southern European caves. Donald argues that these hunting and fertility images were used "to explore and develop the mythic ideas that were already the governing cognitive constructs of human society" (p. 282). Symbolic art, in Donald's view, is handled by the same cognitive system that handles symbolic language, although he clearly shows that language and visual processing take place in separate places in the brain. Humans would later synthesize symbolic art and symbolic language, the third transition proposed by Donald.

The key new feature in the fourth stage of human cognition is writing. While words and semantic symbolic communication are tens if not hundreds of thousands of years old, only within the last 8,000 years or so have people systematically recorded them in external media. Beginning with cuneiform, hieroglyphs, and ideograms, human memory was no longer restricted to the bounds of the body, but could now be held in "external storage systems." The cognitive changes accompanying this memory change include the emergence of information retrieval knowledge as more important than rote memorization and the ability to overcome working memory limitations in thought processes using an "external memory field." The ability to critically examine, piece by piece, exact writings led to the rise of "theoretic culture" -- science, philosophy, and other deep investigations into the nature of the world.

Summary of A Mind So Rare

In the ten years after Origins of the Modern Mind was published, the cognitive science field changed significantly. Authors released a host of books with popular audiences in mind. The laboratory was supplemented with, and in some cases largely replaced by, a heavy dose of the armchair. The evolutionary psychology camp are among the most vocal of these authors, and may be the most influential among casual readers. These fundamentalist neo-Darwinists attempt to explain all aspects of the human mind by appeal to the principles of natural selection. In the process, most of them downplay or try to eliminate consciousness in the picture of cognition.

Donald begins AMSR by distancing his view of consciousness from that of what he calls "the Hardliners:" camp of neo-Darwinists and other reductionists, such as postmodernists. His project is to give a positive account of consciousness and how it came about. Unfortunately, Donald doesn't argue against any specific Hardliner arguments, nor does he credibly present the Hardliner views of his theory's key elements. The reader is thus left without a good understanding of why people hold Hardliner views. While this is philosophically somewhat disappointing, Donald's goal isn't so much to refute the Hardliners as it is to present his own theory on its own merits. His occasional jabs at Hardliners are meant to provide some context rather than to present a complete picture of existing work.

Although he doesn't respond to many specific arguments, Donald does battle with some commonly held beliefs, most remarkably by arguing in favor of a homunculus. He thinks that the "homunculus is heresy" idea is something of a knee-jerk reaction, and points out that Hardliners replace a single man-in-the-head with a cadre of men-in-the-head, even more impenetrable than the original, without explaining perceptual unity. In Origins, he says the homunculus "cannot be explained away as an epiphenomenon, "reduced" to algorithms or neural nets, or simply denied existence." (p. 365) The homunculus is what is to be explained, and in AMSR he aims to do so without invoking the spectre of Dualism.

After revealing his biases, Donald sets out to give an account of human consciousness while acknowledging that a complete account is many years away. His goal is to describe consciousness at the functional level, rather than providing an evolutionary account or a full description of how neurological activity produces consciousness. However, as a neuroscientist, he builds this functional model upon facts about the brain. He aims for an inclusive view of consciousness, "a multilayered, multifocal capacity and a deep, enduring cognitive system with roots far back in evolution." (p.10) For Donald, the words "consciousness" or "awareness" encompass many phenomena. The first is mental states such as sleep, wakefulness, and alertness. Second, consciousness is a central executive in the mind -- a self-regulating high-level processor that receives input from many sources, examines it, and directs action based on analysis. This form of consciousness is what we sometimes call thought or understanding. Functionally, such consciousness is domain-general processing power, attention, and general-purpose skill that can be brought to bear on unfamiliar or complex tasks. Finally, the third form of consciousness "has more to do with enlightenment, or illumination, than with mere attention," playing upon human symbolic capacity rather than just attention.

Fundamentally, Donald's theory of consciousness is quantitative rather than you-have-it-or-you-don't. Beings (animals so far as we know, but in principal computers as well) can be more or less conscious. Their conscious capacity can support more or less information. They can handle problems of varying levels of complexity. They may have the first form of consciousness but not the other two, and so on. With this backdrop, Donald allows many animals into "The Consciousness Club," starting with creatures like ants and bees which can construct a representation of the world divorced from their immediate sensory input. At progressively higher levels of consciousness are fish and vertebrates, birds, mammals, primates, and humans. Further, not all humans share the same level of consciousness, and a child becomes more conscious as she develops. Despite the views of some philosophers, and perhaps common sense, consciousness isn't like a light switch. Furthermore, more consciousness is not always better. Awareness comes at a resource cost, and most animals are able to thrive in their ecological niche without much consciousness.

Donald then presents the evolution of human consciousness. He groups the constituents of consciousness into three "levels of awareness." The first, associated with the sensory cortex, is binding or perceptual unity, the ability to combine perceptions to perceive complex phenomena like objects and events. This is the domain of "raw feeling." Level-2 awareness, which developed with the secondary cortex, is the domain of short-term memory and control. Here, birds and mammals have a sense of time and can focus on both an immediate perception and something which is out of sight but no longer out of mind. Such animals can also use their conscious power to learn new skills and create a new subconscious demon for them. Finally, humans and some other primates possess level-3 awareness, courtesy the tertiary cortex. We are able to maintain intermediate-term awareness, at the level of minutes or hours. We are able to perceive, dissect, and act upon very complex situations and events, and several of them at once. Level-3 is episodic awareness, as described in Origins.

Donald makes a big deal out of the intermediate-term awareness afforded by level-3 awareness. Results from clinical research indicate that people are remarkably limited in the here-and-now. The "seven plus or minus two" rule for short-term memory, its rapid degradation, and other findings understandably fuel the reductionist Hardliners. But Donald illustrates common human activities that seem to break these constraints demonstrated in the lab. In an ordinary conversation, a person may track far more than 9 things, including major points made by each speaker, rebuttals that have already been made, facts about the subject matter in question, points she has thought to make when the right opportunity presents itself, and so on, all on a scale of tens of minutes or even hours. Donald's example adds to the cognitive load even more by supposing that the conversation participants don't all share a common language. The intermediate-term is the domain of consciousness, which is brought to bear in everything from reading a book to pursuing a goal in the face of obstacles. In such a home, consciousness can coexist with fast, specialized modules for basic and time-critical tasks because their work is separate but linked.

Level-3 awareness is not sufficient for symbolic thought and culture, as Donald demonstrates with the examples of enculturated apes. Humans departed from their primate cousins, Donald thinks, by developing a superplastic brain and complex webs of culture, neither of which can feasibly exist without the other. "Deep" or "cognitive" enculturation is thus added to genes and environment as a driving factor of development. Deep enculturation, unlike the basic social environment, can alter the cognitive architecture, installing new modules and demons.

To demonstrate his point about deep enculturation, Donald leads the reader through the Condillac's statue thought experiment. Condillac asked his readers to imagine how a statue granted limited sensory power (such as just smell or smell, sound, and vision) would learn about the world. Condillac concluded that only once the statue had the powers of touch, action, and internal sensation (even without the other four senses) could it become fully conscious and thus understand the world in anything resembling a human way. "This," says Donald, "conveys one central tenet of Constructivism: Action begets self-knowledge."

Donald then presents a real-world "statue" in the story of Hellen Keller. After a year and a half of normal infant development, Keller lost her senses of sight and hearing, restricting her cognitive development for several years. Keller could communicate mimetically, modulated by her range of possible inputs, and had an internal model of the world, but couldn't communicate linguistically and had poor, if any, symbolic powers. After arduous attempts to teach her language through haptic sign language proved unsuccessful Keller's teacher, in a fit of frustration, signed "water" and then dunked Keller's hand in a bucket of water. This produced an epiphany as Keller realized the connection between symbols and her understanding and experience of the world. Symbolic capacity thus instilled, or at least linked to her sensory modality, Keller then quickly learned how to communicate linguistically through both haptic sign language and braille. She went on to lead a life of educated success that people with all normal senses would find quite challenging.

The example of Hellen Keller provides, in one glimpse, an understanding of Donald's arguments against modularity of high-level language and symbolism and in favor of deep enculturation and the mimetic/symbolic divide. Keller acquired language several years after most children and through several modalities, none of which were evolutionarily expected. Her superplastic human brain adapted to her unique experiences to allow her to lead a cognitively normal, if perceptually limited, human life. Since there is no selection pressure for the deaf and blind to learn language, the modularist has quite a bit of work to do to explain how Keller was able to develop skilled and full-fledged language.

The final two chapters of AMSR present a condensed version of the three transitions Donald describes in Origins, this time with an eye toward consciousness. I felt that these chapters provided an easier understanding of the key concepts of Origins, though I may have found it thus because I'd already understood Origins, and this section was mostly focused review. The material in these chapters is mostly covered in the above summary, so I will not repeat them here.

Comments on Comments

Commentaries on Origins of the Modern Mind in Behavioral and Brain Sciences by Bickerton, Thompson, and Mitchell & Miles criticized Donald's presentation of Brother John as an example of mimetic cognition without linguistic cognition. Brother John had the benefit of a lifetime of linguistic thought in his favor and he was also acting within a linguistic culture. In his response, Donald indicates that his purpose was to show that Brother John was able to be conscious and function without direct access to his linguistic skills. This resolves the first problem, but does little to dismiss the environmental point posed by Mitchell and Miles. How much of cognition is a function of a person's physical and social environment? Donald sketches an answer to this question on p. 309 of Origins when he says "The individual picks and chooses, acquires skills and knowledge from society, but nevertheless exists as an easily identifiable unit within that society... memory and thought occur only in the individual mind or brain and therefore are to be regarded as attributes of the individual." He then presents computer networks as a metaphor for the relationship between a person and external media. His network metaphor focuses on storage, even though he skirts with the idea of offloading computation to other society members. But the cognitive advantages of a social network go beyond data storage; Brother John was able to check into a hotel and perform other basic travel tasks because he could communicate his need for action by other parties. All coordinated social action, such as hunting and ritual performance, depends on such performance delegation. Donald's response is weak, considering the picture of collectivist consciousness he paints in AMSR.

Responding to Costall, who Donald interprets as "saying that psychology should abandon the internalist model altogether" (BBS p. 784), Donald indicates that the internalist approach remains valid on at least one level of investigation. This is certainly true; Donald just doesn't adequately explore the important approach of group cognition, though he suggests that "social coordination was one of the prime movers of both mimetic and linguistic evolution" (BBS p. 784). His reason for hesitancy to pursue this lead is revealed in his response to Feldman -- at his time of writing, the field of distributed computing was not well developed, and Donald was hesitant to call upon it for empirical and data and helpful models. Distributed computing has since blossomed, providing fertile modeling possibilities to explore the cognitive community as more than a storage device. The picture of group cognition that I have just presented differs from the earlier discussion of computer qua delegated thinker in that there the computer is used in a generative capacity, producing new knowledge. In social coordination, a shared representation of the situation is developed, the end of which is some group action.

Artificial Human Intelligence

Donald doesn't say much about artificial intelligence, and what he does say is quite skeptical of the grand dreams of researchers. He thinks that the current arc of connectionism may eventually be able to handle the complex social event perceptions and "approach the rim of the episodic world." To cross this boundary and create a mimetic AI, "a successful connectionist model of mimetic skill would ultimately have to be able to represent its perceptions of complex events in terms of its own outputs, spontaneously and intentionally." (Origins p. 366) Furthermore, he doesn't think we can work backwards -- "The first formal model of truly human representation, far in the future, will have to cope with the problem of mimesis before it considers the problem of linguistic invention."

One big reason for the reliance of simulated symbolic capacity on mimetic skill emerges in AMSR: Donald thinks metaphor is the fundamental operation of language. Metaphor ties linguistic constructs, and hence symbolic thought, to our base of episodic and mimetic experience. Furthermore, a child learns language and symbolic thought starting with associations between words and direct experiences. Only later can the child learn new symbols by reference to known symbols.

But metaphorizing of this sort is exactly what computers do. Symbolic information and instruction in a computer is repeatedly translated into some other symbol set understood by an interpreter until finally it reaches the level of the implementing hardware and is stored as voltages. In a sense, therefore, the episodic and mimetic foundation for machine consciousness has been in place for a long time. In fact, given Donald's view of consciousness as plastic domain-general coordinator and attention focuser, there is no reason to think that a computer system built today with the right structure couldn't be considered conscious.

What's missing, however, is human-like thought. Ordinary computers don't share an episodic or mimetic base similar to humans. Donald's claim is thus that models of human language and symbolic thought must be built on models of human episodic and mimetic thought. Perhaps the need for this dependency should be obvious. A significant portion of symbolic human thought is devoted to episodic and mimetic matters. Consider, for instance, getting dressed. When a person dresses with motive, he considers carefully what sort of person others will perceive him to be. A person on a date may closely scrutinize the gestures, facial expressions, prosody, and body language of the other person. At an even more obvious level, when people interact nonverbally with someone (such as a friend across a noisy room), they often explicitly encode and interpret gestures.

Mimetic modeling is important for a more subtle reason as well. The very language humans use is based on our episodic and mimetic framework. Donald's brief comments about metaphor don't demonstrate its importance as well as he could. Lakoff and Johnson (who Donald cites) catalog systematic metaphors, such as ARGUMENT IS WAR, most of which have a mimetic base to them. Even if someone is unfamiliar with the metaphor HAPPY IS UP, they may be able to discern the meaning of "I'm feeling up today" based on recalled images of erect posture, raised mouth corners, or arms thrown high in celebration. But spatial orientation is meaningless for a processor on a desk unless it has either an extensive knowledge base describing embodied human action or the capacity to analyze visual data at the granularity of people acting. To possess mimetic skill, a computer must have a generative capacity for new mime (or its equivalent) and the ability to assess the effects of such actions. It's not much of a stretch of the imagination that we could build such a machine in the near future. Fundamentally, Donald's claim is against the modularity of human symbolic capacity. At its strongest, his claim implies that a model of human symbolic thought cannot be built with a non-human mimetic and episodic model plugged in. However, he has not made a case for this strong claim, especially given his emergentist leanings.

While it's true that mimesis must be addressed in any full simulation of human cognitive skill, it may be more challenging to produce than linguistic skill. Mimetic skill arises from biological evolution and it is intimately tied to the mime's bodily self-image and depends on the assumption that the interlocutor possesses similar mimetic cognition. Even if mimetic culture was implemented among robots, they might not be able to use mimetic skill to communicate much with humans, unless the robot was fairly human in form (another set of profound challenges). Analogously, hundreds of years spent imitating birds were fruitless in producing human flight. This is not to discount such a work of robotics -- they would doubtless produce fascinating cultural adaptations to their environment -- they just wouldn't be the same adaptations that humans developed. Donald acknowledges Lutz's comment that mimetic robots must interact with other robots of the same type, and defers judgments until the necessary research has taken place.

On the other hand, producing a computer program capable of linguistic, and perhaps even mythic, thought seems less daunting, in part because we have linguistic computational models, but in larger part because we already have the tools needed to communicate linguistically without calling on biological properties of humans. An understanding of human mythic subtlety may require human experience, or at least simulated human cognition, but there is no reason to think that uniquely computer mythologies couldn't develop, given a linguistic (and even non-mimetic) base. More simply, rudimentary computer narrative understanding may be within our grasp within a few years. Donald provides no strong reason why computers can't take part in mythic culture.

The lofty goal of artificial intelligence able to reproduce or model all human cognitive abilities is, I think, misguided. Distant seems the need for a computer able to react to the biological challenges faced by humans, from determining which recently consumed food the stomach rejected to mimetically conveying how to care for a twisted ankle. At the furthest extreme, I see no reason we should design a robot which shares the subjective human experience of needing to pee. The physical challenges faced by an animal differ significantly from those faced by a robot, so we should expect different solutions and different ways of being conscious.

Experiential Mimetic Ritual

Inspired by Donald's description of mimetic ritual, I decided to experiment with it myself. On five separate occasions I led groups of people (some of whom had participated before) in a series of nonverbal exercises. I found that the context of the activities had a great effect on people's subjective experiences of the exercises.

I led three of these explorations in the context of Neo-Pagan rituals. In most eclectic Neo-Pagan rituals, participants use common formalisms, such as recognizing cardinal directions and calling and releasing elemental spirits, to set the spiritual and psychological context of the ritual. Neo-Pagan rituals differ greatly in the activities performed, words used, and goals implied, however. They typically blend mimicry of indigenous religious practices and symbols with activities and invocations designed by the ritual's leaders or other contemporaries. Participants hold different conceptions of their activities. Some believe that ritual and spells change the world, that gods and spirits exist externally and can respond to the actions of people, and so forth. Others believe that the entire process is symbolic and participate because they find spiritual or psychological benefit in doing so.

Participants in the nonverbal rituals I led had different amounts of experience with ritual, ranging from no experience to several years practicing a Neo-Pagan path such as Wicca. I explained the ritual structure to them and set out the rule that no words could be used, but that all other forms of communication were fair game, following Donald's description of mimesis as action, gesture, facial expression, and elementary prosody.

The rituals began with "quarter calls" that were recognizable by participants as marking the beginning and end of the ritual. However, unlike the pre-written quarter calls and dismissals with which participants were familiar, those who led the group in honoring the elements were asked to do so extemporaneously and nonverbally. Those performing this duty typically mimicked the element in question, for example blowing from their mouths and waving their arms to call the element of air or spitting and making wave-like motions to invoke water. Since participants already knew what elements would be called, the symbolism was always clear.

The next stage, I explained before beginning the ritual, was for each person to find another and have a "nonverbal conversation." I intentionally left this open-ended, but usually gave some suggestions, such as "get to know the other person," "play with space and personality," or "share an insight from personal contemplation" (in one case where I had participants find a place in the enclosing forest and sit for a while). After 15 minutes or so of pair interaction, participants were to gather into a group. Sometimes this happened with explicit signals to form a circle, other times people gradually and naturally came together in clumps. After 20 minutes or so of group activity, including sharing food and drink, participants led spontaneous quarter dismissals, marking the official end of the ritual. Even then, however, people were hesitant to talk, fully enjoying the nonverbal experience.

As the rituals began, people were typically a little uncomfortable. They felt and acted awkwardly, often tried to mime exact words, and became frustrated when people showed a confused face. However, after a few minutes of symbolic mime (which they'd been instructed to do), pairs of people started playing in nonsymbolic ways. Some waved their arms and moved their bodies to explore space and position. Some walked around the area and acted as animals. Some explored the nonverbal noises they could make. Some sat together and explored facial expressions.

Once together and standing in a circle, the group dynamics were much different than they were when the ritual began. People were comfortable with conveying information nonverbally. They had hit upon some techniques which everyone immediately understood, such as using vocal pitch to convey approval, disapproval, and questioning. The group typically built conventions quickly. In one case, an adult in the group motioned for a 4-year-old girl to push his nose, after which he made an odd noise. The girl then proceeded around the circle, pushing everyone's nose, to which they made up their own noise. The atmosphere could best be described as playful -- people would experiment with mimesis and try to get others to laugh. Almost everyone felt "close" to the others present, even those with which they had never spoken. People were typically hesitant to talk once the ritual was over, and in one case tried to engage other people in the area in nonverbal games.

Almost everyone thoroughly enjoyed the nonverbal ritual, and recalled the activities several months later. They remembered both specific activities (episodic memory), patterns of behavior (mimetic memory) and could articulate what others had shared (symbolic memory).

Twice I led nonverbal exercises outside of a ritual context, and the results were not nearly as positive. In one case, the participants were familiar with ritual and the exercises were intended to explore mimetic possibilities. Participants reported not feeling very engaged and thought the exercise wasn't worthwhile -- they would rather just talk. This was a qualitatively different feeling than in a ritual context.

On another occasion I followed a similar pattern as the rituals -- individual "conversations" followed by sharing in a group. However, this was done outside of a ritual or spiritual context and the participants had no experience with eclectic or Neo-Pagan ritual. Most members of this group felt rather uncomfortable not speaking for an extended time. They didn't put forth much of an effort to explore their mimetic range. They also felt at a loss when encouraged to share with the group.

This mostly anecdotal evidence helps demonstrate the cohesiveness of Donald's description of mimetic skill. During the short activity, people more-or-less spontaneously demonstrated all of the major properties of mimesis -- intentionality, generativity, communicativity, reference, representation limited in scope but not in span, and autocuing. Furthermore, even though Donald lists "group mimetic acts" as one social consequence of mimetic representation, the groups of experimenters showed several other consequences, including modeling social structure, reciprocal mimetic games, conformity and coordination. In people's everyday lives, full of language and other symbolic thought, the effect of mimesis is often more staid -- producing conformity, for instance, but without modeling social structure or producing mimetic games and leaving coordination to symbolic messages. The value of group mimetic experiments, therefore, lies in demonstrating how mimetic skill can support and reinforce a wide array of social activity on its own. A more rigorous experiment could be devised; for instance, a group of strangers could live together under a vow of silence, responding to challenges faced by our ancestors. I suppose it could also be turned into a hit reality TV comedy.

The mimetic rituals performed by our ancient ancestors certainly differed from those I've described. Most obviously, any mimetic ritual performed today plays upon a brain built for and a mind built upon symbolic memory and communication. Mimetic rituals today can use this basis to bypass many of the difficult problems that faced our ancestors. People can discuss the ritual and provide instructions in advance. People can depend on interlocutors' symbolizing minds in interactions that resemble charades, a very symbolic activity. Furthermore, people today aren't dependant upon the success of mimetic ritual for survival -- if information like "migrate south in the winter" isn't understood through mimesis, it is available through verbal instruction. In order to overcome these limitations, ancient rituals must have been performed with extreme precision and attention to traditional repetition. Participants interacted with the same people and watched and performed the same activities regularly. If recreationists today find a close bond in such a context, I can only imagine the psychological effect of ritual on ancient people.

The Evolutionary Role of Culture

In stark contrast to the Hardliners, Donald says precious little about selfish genes, selection pressures, fitness maximization, or other concepts typically associated with the evolution of specific features and abilities. Though not often made explicit, Donald takes an emergentist and mosaic approach to human cognitive evolution. While making clear that consciousness and culture must have developed through biological evolution, he is careful to avoid any implicit teleology. Readers may be frustrated by Donald's lack of explanation and speculation on, for instance, why increased brain size at the expense of increased childbirth fatality improves fitness. However, there is no reason to suppose that most of the capacities Donald discusses have just one effect on fitness. In fact, Donald's view of the human mind demands just the opposite sort of explanation. If consciousness provides additional domain-general attention and processing power, it helps a wide variety of survival tasks from foraging to mate selection to personal defense to child care. In fact, the biggest strength of consciousness is its lack of adaptation to any specific function.

The benefit of describing capabilities instead of function is even clearer in the cultural realm. Once humans had mimetic skill, for instance, a whole host of activities were possible, producing many important consequences. Donald says that humans armed with mimesis can share information, model social structure, play games, perform group ritual, coordinate action, produce social conformity, teach skills, and develop innovative ideas. Each of these provides significant survival benefits, and there is no reason to label one of these as the function or an evolutionary driver of mimetic skill. A a group which develops mimesis has a better chance of surviving than one which doesn't because mimesis helps a group survive. More mimetic skill is better. No more grand explanation is needed.

The temporal order of cultural adaptations isn't particularly important, either. Michael Chwe describes how public ritual creates "common knowledge." By this term Chwe means not only shared information, but also the knowledge that other people know that the information is shared. Such common knowledge is vital to coordination problems, where people will only participate if others do. He points out that rituals in which everyone stands in an inward-facing circle and can thus see each other provide an optimal circumstance to build common knowledge. It doesn't matter much whether societies adapted circular rituals to solve coordination problems or whether they were first used just as "pure" information vehicles, circular so that everyone could see the performer. Regardless of which was the "reason" why group ritual evolved, we must describe both functions, as well as the sense of spiritual fulfillment and other logically subsequent effects, in order to fully explain why people participate in ritual.

This is most clear in the examples of coordination problems in modern ritual that Chwe presents. He shows that a disproportionate number of advertisements during the Super Bowl are for goods and services which face a coordination problem. (Most) people don't watch the Super Bowl so that they can obtain an advantage in coordination problems; they watch for entertainment. But nonetheless, coordination problems have a big part to play in this modern-day mimetic ritual, even if each person watches the game alone.

The example of group coordination helps show the level of evolution Donald thinks produced language and other coordinating cultural webs. He proposes that competition between hominid subspecies "for roughly the same, huge ecological niche," and the general challenges of social coordination imposed by such a conflict, provided selection pressure for language. This "survival of the tribe" view, rather than individual or family fitness, is appropriate for a common-good like coordination or language. The value of an ability for coordinated action increases as the number of other potential cooperators increases. A big-game hunter is more effective if he can communicate and coordinate with other would-be hunters, regardless of their genetic similarity. Language is more useful to a person when more people share that language, even if their interests are otherwise opposed. Among hominids, an individual's fate is closely tied to that of the group -- a superstar alone is largely helpless, and a less-than-stellar individual can survive and thrive when the group does well. The triumph of social factors over genetic ones in human survival is clear in modern warfare, where technical weapon-making knowledge and tactical strategy matter much more than any innate fighting skill. This sort of argument (unfortunately not clearly stated by Donald) can provide a firm basis for Donald's view of human evolution and development driven by culture.

Expanding Consciousness

Perhaps the most radical piece of Donald's theory of mind is the role of the individual mind. He begins AMSR's 7th chapter by saying "We acquire our symbolic skills from the outside in. Therefore, we had to evolve them in the same way. Symbolic thought and language are inherently network phenomena. Thus their existence cannot be explained in a solipsistic manner. The problem calls for a paradigm shift, away from our mainstream theories of human evolution, which tend to assume that language evolved inside the brain box; that is, from the inside out." In this new paradigm, culture drives and humans respond. Symbols came first and humans learned to use them. That is, humans began using symbols and then internalized them.

Donald states "Collectivity has thus become the essence of human reality. Although we may have the feeling that we do our cognitive work in isolation, we do our most important intellectual work as connected members of cultural networks. This gives our minds a corporate dimension that has been largely ignored until recently." (AMSR, p. 298) In Donald's view it's not enough to describe what an individual person thinks. In order to fully describe human thought, we must describe culture, where each person plays a small role in constructing vast cultural concepts like myths, languages, customs, and common knowledge. This isn't a one-way street, either, where each person contributes to the product without the product influencing him as he would contribute to a tribe's total weight. Humans both produce and are produced by culture. Donald holds that culture directs human attention, determines what we learn, and mediates even our most private thoughts. Furthermore, very few of our thoughts are truly unique; we are mostly symbol manipulators and rarely symbolic inventors.

This isn't as radical of an idea as it might sound. Restated, it is essentially the point that ideas can be transmitted rather than merely generated from experience. In mimetic and mythic culture, people must still have the ideas in mind in order to do anything with them, though people can act as a group even if nobody has a complete mental representation of what's going on. It is, however, a departure from the Hardliner evolutionary psychology view that the human mind is programmed by genes and merely adjusts slightly to the local physical and social environment. For Donald, the adjustment is what programs the mind.

Donald's view of the external memory field challenges the "all in the head" view of cognition. Externally-stored symbols "change the long-standing relationship of consciousness to its representations." Unlike internal representations, external symbols are easily rearranged, reformatted, and related; can provide more (and more exact) detail; don't (usually) degrade over time; and (most importantly) are easy to organize for future retrieval. By using the right external representation, the human mind can offload most of the computation to the very structure of the information. A human faced with determining the correlation between, for instance, past and present population would be hard pressed to hold all of the data in working memory, let alone figure out the connection. But by simply graphing each piece of data, anyone can (literally) see the exponential nature of growth. Furthermore, by merely drawing a line between points on the graph, a person can make a sophisticated guess about an unknown data point. The external medium supports the brunt of this work -- the same person would have trouble coming to the same conclusions with a table of data pairs.

Donald states that "the locus of attentional control can reside, at least temporarily, in external memory" (Origins p. 372). By this and his examples, I take it he means that media like television can determine the object and flow of our awareness, a fact clear to anyone who watches a well-made film. This does not mean, as I understand it, that that thing which is attentive, and hence conscious, is anywhere outside of the person. Consciousness remains in the head, but some cognition is offloaded to external media.

There is a sense in which reference to external media isn't cognitively very new. Consulting a book isn't that much different than consulting an expert in the flesh-and-blood. In both actions, the desired information is stored outside the agent's brain; it is then imported and either acted upon or stored. The mind doesn't need to adapt much to use external symbols, regardless of how innate we suppose the mind to be. Thus, to explain the vast success of external media-enabled human cognition, we must appeal to the properties of the media themselves and the strategies humans have developed to harness them. Alphabetic indexing may be the greatest cognitive advance since language, eclipsed only recently by World Wide Web search engines. ("Search Google" plays an embarrassingly central role in my own cognition.)

Donald points out that properties of external symbol systems significantly influence how helpful they are to cognition. He notes that the difficulty of learning written Chinese prevented widespread literacy and that certain kinds of math are impossible with Roman numerals. However, the particular media of external representation may have a much more profound impact on thought than Donald lets on. Leonard Shlain traced how, throughout recorded history, the cultural arrival of alphabetic literacy co-occurred with ideological violence, suppression of women and feminine values, destruction of images, and a masculinization and monotheitizing of the culture's mythology. Furthermore, as photography and electromagnetic technologies spread, cultures became more ideologically tolerant, women's rights and values were honored, words became less powerful than images, and polytheistic feminine deities reemerged.

Shlain suggests an explanation that has one foot in metaphor and one in neuroscience to describe the counterpunctual interplay between alphabet literacy and "masculine hunter/killer values" on one hand and images and "feminine gatherer/nurturer values" on the other. The cognitive and neurological skills needed for reading and writing depend on predominantly "left brain" skills such as serial directed focus, abstract thought, and precise motor control of the right hand -- the same sorts of skills hunters and fighters must rely on. Image processing, on the other hand, relies on "right brain" functions like holistic and gestalt perception and concrete thinking -- the skill set needed by gatherers and caretakers. Metaphorically, therefore, a culture saturated with writing experiences is dominated by a collective hypertrophic left brain. Anecdotally, this mirrors my own cognitive development. When I was younger I held disdain for photography, movies, and art while harboring a desire to forcefully convert those who I thought held wrong beliefs or who did things in the "wrong" way. However, as I started watching more movies and seeing more images (largely on the World Wide Web), I became much more tolerant of other ideas and ways of doing things. These cultural and personal perspectives suggest that the external media, regardless of content, strongly influences the way people think. This isn't limited to theoretic culture and external media, of course; the same information, such as a message of trust, will be received and acted upon differently if it's conveyed mimetically versus orally.

The description of collective consciousness sounds rather like a computer network, where each computer can receive programs, instructions, and data from the network and respond in kind. Unfortunately, Donald seems uninterested in computers -- the references for AMSR contain but a few pointers to the literature, and he doesn't restate his response to Lutz that I cited earlier. As a well-understood domain, computer networks may help us understand the hazier aspects of human cultural interactions, especially from an emergentist framework. Furthermore, given Donald's view of culture as an active and powerful force in shaping cognition, it may be possible for a computer culture to emerge, producing symbolic capabilities that have largely eluded even the most diligent artificial intelligence researchers. How much of the human cognitive suite would computers need to produce and be produced by culture?

The research area known as Distributed Cognition primarily focuses on small groups of people and their work environment, such as an airplane cockpit or an office. However, their exploration of principles such as collective action with distributed knowledge and human-computer interaction could prove illuminating if applied to the distributed cognition of an entire society that Donald describes. Can we think of computers as our own "mental modules?" What about other people? We send them input and act on the output they provide. Is there a distinct hybrid culture of people plus computers that neither human nor computer societies produce on their own?

Overall Impressions

Structurally, Origins of the Modern Mind is slightly jarring. Donald has a tendency to jump from domain to domain and oscillate between detail and architecture. In many places, the reader is left to construct for herself the argument from data to theory. Furthermore, as has been noted by commentators, Donald is unclear about the source of many of his claims, especially archaeological and anthropological, many of which his reviewers dispute. Taken as a whole, however, his theory was not hard to discern, and it is not surprising that a work as broadly interdisciplinary as this one should encounter difficulties with material in dispute within a given field. I found the book highly illuminating and I have enjoyed applying its ideas widely.

A Mind So Rare continued the trend of vague reference, and doesn't clearly state many of the positions Donald argues for. The data is more focused to the task at hand than it was in the first work. Donald's goal was to present an architectural description of consciousness while acknowledging the limitations any grand theory of mind faces given our current poverty of data. Although it's fairly easy to meet such a goal, he makes his case well. Even if his exact account isn't convincing, he has made a very strong case for something like his theory which accounts for intermediate-term awareness and governance.

In the end, there is room for parts of both Hardliner and consciousness-embracing theories. Somewhere between the Swiss Army Knife and Silly Putty may lie an appropriate metaphor for mind. Donald acknowledges the presence of modules governing, for instance, vision and auditory speech elements. The battleground becomes "where do modules end and enculturation begin?" Do people perform better on the Wason selection task in the guise of a cheater detection problem because we have a cheater detection module? Or does our superior performance reflect the fact that the framework appeals to metaphors with the right learned mimetic context? Does our modern skull house a stone age mind, as Cosmides and Tooby state, or our is our sophisticated mind a tenant in an archaic skull, as Donald might propose? The exploration of the conscious mind is far from over, and it needs a healthy set of voices like Donald's on all sides.

If there is one basic theme I take from Donald's work it is the irony of power through relinquished control. Each step taken in human mental evolution and sophistication has replaced individual mental power with delegation and reliance upon other people and objects. We stand atop the cognitive hierarchy, not to mention the food chain, not as an all-powerful organism but as a minion for an ephemeral cultural web and a mouthpiece for a network of machines. Nietzsche said "Man is a rope, stretched between beast and Superman -- a rope across an abyss." It is too early to say what the Superman will be, but it clearly will not be a super beast, a stone age mind trapped in a futuristic skull.


Chwe, M. (2001). Rational Ritual. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1997). Evolutionary Psychology:A Primer.
Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Donald, M. (1993). "Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind" with multiple reviews and author's response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1993) 16:4 737-91.
Donald, M. (2001). A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. New York: W.W. Norton
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Nietzsche, F. (1886/1957). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Cowan, M (trans.) Chicago: Henry Regnery Company
Rogers, Y. (1997). "A Brief Introduction to Distributed Cognition"
Shlain, L. (1998). The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin