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Leonardo 34.3 (2001) 290-291

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The Multi-Track Evolution of Mind

There is an interesting story being told these days by a multitude of biologists (Humberto Maturana, J.J. Gibson, Ulric Neisser, Richard Dawkins), linguists (Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Merlin Donald), psychologists (Richard Gregory, Allan Hobson, Stephen Porges), physicists (Ilya Prigogine, Stuart Kauffman, Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp), neurologists (Gerald Edelman, Antonio Damasio, Rodolfo Llina, Michael Gazzaniga, Paul MacLean), philosophers (Daniel Dennett), archeologists (Steve Mithen), chemists (Martin Eigen, Graham Cairns-Smith), mathematicians, computer scientists--you name it. It is the story of how our mind came to be, of how "we were born," evolutionarily speaking.

It is a story that involves pretty much all the characteristics that define what a human being is: language, tools, ideas, emotions and, of course, the brain itself. After all, these things had to happen for us to be what we are.

The story that we are being told (although it is likely to change monthly, and, of course, each researcher would give it her/his own spin) starts way back when life was created, whether by accident or by divine intervention, and primitive cells started moving about their environment desperately seeking food.

The story goes on to describe how those cells evolved into more and more complex organisms, which developed nervous systems to coordinate their movements and, eventually, brains to control their nervous systems. This is Darwin's part of the story.

The story also describes how life-forms started using the environment. As "ecological" biologists like Neisser and Gibson showed us, we are not the only tool-making species. Tools are used by, and indispensable to the survival of, spiders (the spiderweb) and most birds (the nest), just to name two. In our hands tools took on a life (evolutionarily speaking) of their own: they started evolving and getting more and more complex and more and more useful. This was a by-product of our having a better brain. At the same time, tools shaped what the brain does, i.e. our mind. As Gregory argued, tools are an extension of our mind. Our mind has always been conditioned by the tools we use (and certainly is today).

The story (according to, for example, Cairns-Smith) also lets us guess that emotions evolved along with brains and tools. Emotions of pleasure and pain are present in every living organism we have observed (outside of mental institutions). It is just that our emotions are, again, more complex. It is likely that the availability of tools "freed" our mind of its daily duties. Emotions that were meant to help us survive in the wild started flowing through our "inactive" mind and evolved into what we call "thought." They, again, took on a life of their own. Mind shaped emotions, emotions shaped mind; mind shaped tools, tools shaped mind.

As Dawkins and Dennett take over, the story then shifts focus and deals with "memes" (the ideas that started populating our minds, and spreading from mind to mind, such as religions and ideologies). They also evolved and are still evolving (communism just got extinct and capitalism is splitting into new "species").

Finally, the story delves into language, as communication underwent a similar evolution, mutating from primitive forms of communication to William Shakespeare's sonnets to rock music's lyrics and TV commercials (as biologists like to point out, [End Page 290] evolution is not always progress). Donald, Mithen and Pinker have analyzed the transition from prehistory of mind to modern mind.

That's the story we are hearing these days. Hidden in this story is the secret of Art, which is part tool, part meme, part language and part emotion. Contrary to what artists fear, Art is far from being useless and impractical: Art embodies all parameters of human evolution, the process that has allowed us to survive.

Creativity (science, art, tool-making, technology, whatever form it takes) is something we do because we have to do it. Our mind is continuously reshaped by the tools we invent and continuously explores them. We tend to separate the direct, rational, explicit form...


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pp. 290-291
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