posted 1 September 2003


William H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind (Oxford University Press 2004), preface. See also

William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington


The view from the community hearth outside the ceremonial cave?
(Grotte de Font de Gaume, France)





[History] is concerned not with events but with processes.  Processes are things which do not begin and end but which turn into one another.

                          – R. G. Collingwood, 1939



There is something about a big campfire.  Small cooking hearths are very useful but, beginning about 120,000 years ago in South Africa, the archaeologists start finding them supplemented by a bigger hearth.  Psychologically, it’s very attractive – a community bonfire pulls in people from all round the camp.

            Back then, did someone tell origin stories around the campfire?  That date, in the middle of the prior warm period in the ice ages, is an enigmatic date, as you’ll discover about halfway through my origin story.  Homo sapiens was around by then – they looked a lot like us, big brains and all – but behaviorally they weren’t yet us, the innovative species known as Homo sapiens sapiens, a people not doubly wise so much as far more creative.  It wasn’t until about 50,000 years ago that they were finally doing things that cause us to say, “They must have thought a lot like we do.”  At that point, they surely appreciated campfire storytelling.

          "Can you tell the story of the world in an evening around the campfire, the way an old-fashioned shaman used to do?"  This was the challenge that the historian David Fromkin took up in writing his short book, The Way of the World.  It mostly focused, as historians do, on the time scale of civilizations, going back perhaps 6,000 years.  There are other admirable short histories which have inspired me, such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, on the cosmological time scale of the 13 billion years that began with the Big Bang.

            My origin story starts at 7 million years ago, so as to cover the time since we emerged from the great apes.  To understand the emergence of mind – and particularly the higher aspects of consciousness that so set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom – we need to understand what the great apes are capable of.   And what they don’t do.  That will help us appreciate what happened in ape-to-human brain evolution since we last shared a common ancestor with the chimpanzees and bonobos of Africa.

            It is just in the last 1 percent of that up-from-the-apes period that human creativity and technological capabilities have really blossomed.  It’s been called “The Mind’s Big Bang.”  In our usual expansive sense of “mind,” the history of the mind is surprisingly brief, certainly when compared with the long increase in brain size and the halting march of toolmaking.  What came before was not, as we usually assume, a series of increasing approximations to the modern mind.  So what set the stage for this creative explosion?

            The modern mind of Homo sapiens sapiens is so startling, when seen against its evolutionary background, that it is worth the effort to tell the up-from-the-apes story in a space short enough so that all the intermediate stages will linger together in the reader’s working memory, reverberating off one another, creating a living contrast that might help illuminate mind’s future.


There are many ways to write a book like this, depending on the author’s viewpoint.  We all tend to deal with the same set of facts, but our intellectual backgrounds and interests differ.  Most people writing on the subject were trained in anthropology, linguistics, psychology, or evolutionary biology.

            I tend to look at the problem from the standpoint of a neurobiologist, always trying to figure out how nerve cells can analyze the world, make sensible plans for movement, and manage those interneurons that convert thought into action.  This is the brain mechanic’s time scale of how.  I was driven to looking into the evolutionary setup for why things work the way they presently do.  And, since I try to deal with brain circuitry for language and creative plans, I was looking for insights from the comparison of human brains to those of our closest cousins that lack these behaviors.  I tend to be impressed by self-organization, emergent properties of neural circuitry, and fast tracks in evolution.  For better or worse, this book reflects those issues more than would be found in most books on human evolution.  Read widely.

            Like most brain researchers, I am inconsistent in using the term ‘mind.’  Yes, the brain does it all.  It is something like the software-hardware distinction – but we are really dealing with the advanced products here, higher intellectual function, and ‘mind’ is the term that gets across the complexities.  This is not a brief history of the brain.


We tend to see ourselves as the narrator of a life story, always situated at a crossroads between past and future, swimming in speculation.  We can construct alternative explanations for how we got where we are, emphasizing one aspect or another as a path.  Looking ahead, we imagine various trajectories.  We refine our guesses, editing out the nonsense, and achieve a clearer glimpse of our crossroad choices.

            Because our less imaginative ancestors couldn’t think about the future in much detail, they were trapped in a here-and-now existence.  They could anticipate routine happenings (like meals), but not in our extended sense of speculation and worry.  No “what if” and “why me?”  They were conscious in the sense of choosing between alternative courses of action, but with their unstructured type of mental life, you couldn’t narrate a life story or conceive of dying someday.  Without creative intelligence, there’s no crossroad and no end of the road.

            I intend this brief history of the mind to itself be a vista from a crossroads, looking back at simpler versions of mental life, taking stock of what we have now, and then speculating about mind’s future.  For we are at a crossroads in another sense, that of a frontier where the rules are about to change, where mind shifts gears again.

            That’s my brief history (you’ll have to provide your own campfire).  Instead of starting with a big bang, I lead up to one – and then look beyond, to contemplate mind’s next advances.



The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become.  Americans have long honored the “self-made man,” but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what’s about to happen.  Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary.  After all, there are entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make for the first time.  But it’s the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species.  And it’s much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes.

   – Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 2003






Orangutan  (Borneo, also Indonesia)





        Gorilla (Central Africa)


Bonobos (shown here; left bank of the Congo) are more lightly built than the otherwise similar chimpanzees (not shown; found in East, Central, and West Africa).


Some Stage-setting Perspective



If you have trouble with the names, just remember that they nest inside one another:  Animals > mammals > primates > monkeys > apes > hominids > us.

                While animals have been around perhaps 800 million years, mammals are seen only in the last 200 million years or so.  Primates evolved from the mammals more than 60 million years ago.  Living examples of the early small-brained prosimian forms include tree shrews, lemurs, the slow loris, and the galagos.

                Monkeys evolved 40 million years ago from the prosimians.  Some of the Old World monkeys lost their tails to become apes about 25 million years ago.  The ape brain is about twice the size of a monkey brain; apes also have more versatile shoulder joints.  The lesser apes, the gibbon and the somewhat larger siamang, are examples of the early apes.

                The extant great apes are the orangutan (with whom we shared a common ancestor about 12 million years ago), the gorilla (about 8 to 10 million years ago) and the chimpanzee and bonobo (with whom we shared a common ancestor about 6 or 7 million years ago).  They all inhabit forests, though chimps can sometimes be found in the more open woodlands.

                Hominids (hominins in new-speak) are all the species between that last common ancestor and us humans.  They are upright in posture, live in the woodlands between forests and grasslands, and have lost the big canine teeth of the apes.  But brain size doesn’t change much until 2.5 million years ago with the earliest Homo species, and that’s about when sharp stone toolmaking starts.  By Homo erectus at 1.8 million years ago, they were eating a lot of meat and were probably inhabiting the grasslands and no longer nesting in trees.

                For this brief history of the mind, I will start about 7 million years ago when we shared a common ancestor with the chimp and the bonobo (the misnamed “pygmy chimp” of central Congo), the two great apes with which we have the most in common.  The width of the Congo River has kept bonobos isolated for the last several million years from the common chimpanzees, which extend from the East African Rift Valley in Uganda all the way to Senegal in westernmost Africa.  Behaviorally, bonobos and chimps have different styles, each of which give us some clues as to what that common ancestor (call it Pan prior) might have been thinking, just 7 million years back.


If you read the book on the web (uncomfortable but possible), consider buying a book as a gift for a friend.  (We live and learn and pass it on.)Click on a cover for the link to 

A Brief History of the Mind, 2004
A Brief History of the Mind

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

Table of Contents    Notes and References for this chapter    On to the NEXT CHAPTER

copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin
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