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The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science

3.95  ·  Rating Details ·  267 Ratings  ·  23 Reviews
Here is an exhilarating intellectual performance, in the tradition of Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. On the way to showing how the world of our ancient ancestors shaped our modern modular mind, Steven Mithen shares one provocative insight after another as he answers a series of fascinating questions:

Were our brains hard-wi
Paperback, 288 pages
Published April 17th 1999 by Thames & Hudson (first published October 17th 1996)
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J.M. Hushour
Sep 06, 2015 J.M. Hushour rated it it was amazing
Steven Mithen proves that we weren't the weird ejaculation of a supernatural force by showing how it was quite the opposite: religion (and art and science, all of our favorite things) sprang out of our long-developed cognitive fluidity when the time was just right to start anthropomorphizing things and hating Thog and Oog, the same-sex couple a few caves down.
The main argument, grounded in social psychology and child development science and a slew of other disciplines, is brought together in Mit
Jun 19, 2015 Liam rated it really liked it
This is a excellent book, appropriate for any general reader who is not deeply versed in the subject, such as I was not. Mithin writes with respect for the reader, explaining complicated ideas and interpretations of evidence without ever intimidating.

The book's theory deals with the birth of the modern mind, which Mithin says took place in 3 distinct phases. These "phases" represent the growth of the mind, which are deduced from the evidence of anthropologists and archaeologists. To illustrate t
Evolutionary psychologists could use a lesson from Steven Mithen. The Prehistory of the Mind is sweeping in its scope, synthesizing material from a whole array of fields from biology to psychology, and (of course) archaeology. Unlike your average work of evolutionary psychology, Mithen's account is heavily informed by his background in archaeology and the paleoarchaeological record. (In other words, tethered to some semblance of reality.)

However, Mithen trips up a bit when it comes to neuroscien
Richard Thomas
Nov 23, 2014 Richard Thomas rated it it was amazing
A very good, thought-provoking book, It's well written and in the end convincing in its central thesis.
This is exactly the type of thing I love to read. Mithen does a great job of setting out his theory in an accessible way, supported by copious notation, and even some dodgy-looking illustrations.

This is not to say I'm completely won over by his argument. Compelling though it is, I have some issues: for insurance, I only half-understand what Mithen means by 'general intelligence'; the whole idea is too vague, especially when he introduces his 'Swiss army knife' modulated mind model. I don't think
Jonathan Pearl
Aug 18, 2013 Jonathan Pearl rated it liked it
While the questions Mithen raises are among the most fascinating around, his approach leaves much to be desired. It is intriguing indeed to view cognitive issues from a variety of viewpoints. In fact, Cognitive Science itself is an amalgam of a great many fields. In some sense, the "new" cognitive science is a reformation of the old "psychology", a general purpose, and intentionally overarching field.
Mithen, an archeologist by trade, makes compelling arguments for his inclusion in the discussion
Sep 02, 2007 Tes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very good reading! The only misplaced note was the several times repeated phrase(once toward beginning & once in epilogue but nowhere really written about): "the human mind is a product of evolution, not supernatural creation." I thought the book was his theory of the evolution of the mind not an answer to creationists. Not that it isn't true just that it didn't seem to fit in with the rest of this well-written book, like an opinion that he just had to put in somewhere.
Unlike the Singing Nea
P.H.G. Haslam
May 09, 2016 P.H.G. Haslam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A gloriously punchy little book which lays out Mithen's theory for the evolution of the modern mind. I'm not someone who's in a position to pick a lot of holes in his reasoning, as my knowledge of science is truly deplorable. But it all gelled very well for me, logically. One gets a strong feeling for the sheer amount of time that Mithen has spent thinking about this issue, and he's clearly deeply passionate about his work. A pleasure to read from cover to cover; I've been left with a lot to mul ...more
Jack Bates
Jan 14, 2016 Jack Bates rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm particularly interested in the development of the mind and books about 'what makes a modern human' and the beginnings of art, and whether we're 'wired' to experience things in a spiritual or religious way - in other words, do humans look for God because of the way our brains work? Mithen is a great writer, and an archaeologist (his book about Mesolithic middens in the Hebrides is more fun than it sounds), and this is a well researched and thoughtful book.
Mar 30, 2013 Mark rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is all a bit crap, the archaeology is fine but this guy attempts to shoehorn Karmiloff-smith's developmental theory into an account of the development of mind in Homo sapiens and you very quickly realize that he has not a clue about cognition or computation or, indeed, what he is talking about. There are so many explanatory and evidential holes in it that it gave me the howlin fantods. This is not the right answer to the question of how the mind evolved.
Paul Taylor
Sep 21, 2014 Paul Taylor rated it really liked it
A natural partner to Sapiens. More analytical, scientific and academic in its approach it nonetheless retains the general reader's interest and articulates (the highly plausible) archaeologist's perspective on the evolution of the human mind including two interesting observations on humour and racism; the natural concomitant of "cognitive fluidity".
M. Bower
Dec 01, 2008 M. Bower rated it it was ok
This is a great book for people who want to learn how to use analogies in the most ineffective and confusing way possible. The idea of a "superchapel" would be better understood if it were spelled "souperchapel", because at least it would then be appropriate for containing "cognitive fluidity".
This is a very engaging read and a fascinating hypothesis of how human cognitive abilities evolved. I particularly enjoyed Mithen's thoughts on the possible differences between the mind of modern humankind on that of Neanderthals.
Dec 26, 2014 Naoise rated it really liked it
A very revealing book for me, configured how I believe humanity has come to be. The writing is quite poor, and there is not much scientific proof, so I see it more as a theory than fact, but what Steven Mithen proposes in this book makes a lot of sense… or at least for an interesting story.
Jan 02, 2008 Snicketts rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: archaeologists
This is a very cool book by a guy who makes the fringes look like the mainstream. His theories are expertly backed-up with cross-discipline illustrations. He dares to take a step further than most and gives a stunning range of "what-ifs".
May 22, 2014 dini rated it really liked it
Shelves: to-reread
Wonderfully explained ideas and well-researched. This definitely deserves a reread, as I had to stop halfway through and continued reading only a week later.
Daniel Wood
Interesting subject matter, interesting theories, but I found it a slow read. Too many lengthy analogies to church architecture, too much repetition, and perhaps just a little too serious for me.
Nancy Oddone
May 07, 2009 Nancy Oddone rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: my students and everybody else
A very important reading! Still amazed by the amount of data that the author has managed to deal with. Lovely stile of writing too!
Leon Limpens
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“[W]hen trying to understand the character of the modern mind, it is impossible to separate the effects of genes and the developmental environment.” 1 likes
“To gain an understanding of the mind leads on to an appreciation of what it means to be human.” 0 likes
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