There’s something on my mind. I guess that’s the normal state of a conscious being. William H. Calvin’s A Brief History of the Mind might clarify that a bit. Although I have trouble accepting Calvin’s belief that mind is the same as brain, he does allow, in this wonderful little book, for a somewhat more expansive view. Subtitled From Apes to Intellect and Beyond, the story is more than just a survey of archaeological finds and their physiological counterparts. This is a story. It is a story of how we developed minds. Calvin approaches the topic with the realization that others will have different stories, and that future discoveries (some of which may have already been made in the decade since the book was written) may change it a bit. The book ranges from the quasi-technical (at least from the perspective of sitting on a bus) to the amusing, but always keeping in sight of the fact that this is of human interest.
Particularly compelling is Calvin’s consideration that we may have, at least from our modern perspective, gotten ahead of ourselves a time or two. In discussing the migration of hominids from Africa, he makes the brilliant point that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for that adjustment at that time. We seem to have perhaps driven other hominids to extinction. Our technology might have been outracing our conceptual knowledge of how to handle it. When he returns to this theme later in the story, the results are even a little frightening. We do sometimes get to the point where we can do things that we shouldn’t do. Before our minds have realized the full implications. Atomic bombs, anyone?
Unlike many scientists who believe in materialism, Calvin does not ridicule religion. He notes that it can be taken too literally, but does not suggest we are fools for believing. In fact, he discusses a couple of sects that have turned dangerous over time. He shows how they acted logically, following their thought process in an orderly, if clearly wrong, direction. Some would use this as a cudgel to bash religion in general. Instead, Calvin seems to suggest that we might learn from all of this. Minds, while impressive, are not perfect. Logic can have its flaws. We can, despite the tragedy, learn valuable things about how the mind works. This is an open-ended story; the future of mind is being constantly disclosed. If there is a future for us, we can perhaps prepare a bit better by understanding what’s on our minds.