Culture Magazine

Thinking Like a Caveman

By Fsrcoin

What is it like to be a bat? That famous essay by philosopher Thomas Nagel keeps nagging at us. Thinking like a cavemanWhat is it like to be me? Of this I should have some idea. But why is being me like that? — how does it work? — are questions that really bug me.

Science knows a lot about how our neurons work. Those doings of billions of neurons, each with very limited, specific, understandable functions, join to create one’s personhood. A leap we’re only beginning to understand.

Steven Mithen’s book, The Prehistory of the Mind, takes the problem back a step, asking how our minds came to exist in the first place. It’s a highly interesting inquiry.

Of course the simple answer is evolution. Life forms have natural variability, and variations that prove more successful in adapting to changing environments proliferate. This builds over eons. Our minds were a very successful adaptation.

But they could not have sprung up all at once. Doesn’t work that way. So by what steps did they evolve? The question is problematical given our difficulty in reverse-engineering the end product. But Mithen’s analysis actually helps toward such understanding.

Thinking like a cavemanHe uses two metaphors to describe what our more primitive, precursor minds were like. One is a Swiss Army knife. It’s a tool that’s really a tool kit. Leaving aside for the moment the elusive concept of “mind,” all living things have the equivalent of Swiss Army knives to guide their behavior in various separate domains. A cat, for example, has a program in its brain for jumping up to a ledge; another for catching a mouse; and so forth. The key point is that each is a separate tool, used separately; two or more can’t be combined.

Which brings in Mithen’s other metaphor for the early human mind: a cathedral. Within it, there are various chapels, each containing one of the Swiss Army knife tools, each one a brain program for dealing with a specific type of challenge.Thinking like a caveman The main ones Mithen identifies are a grasp of basic physics in connection with tool-making and the like; a feel for the natural world; one for social interaction; and language arts, related thereto.

This recalls Martin Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences. Departing from an idea that “intelligence” is a single capability that people have more or less of, Gardner posited numerous diverse particularized capabilities, such as interpersonal skills, musical, spatial-visual, etc. A person can be strong in one and weak in another.

Mithen agrees, yet nevertheless also hypothesizes what he calls “general intelligence.” By this he means “a suite of general-purpose learning rules, such as those for learning associations between events.” Here’s where his metaphors bite. The Swiss Army knife doesn’t have a general intelligence tool. That’s why a cat is extremely good at mousing but lacks a comprehensive viewpoint on its situation.

In Mithen’s cathedral, however, there is general intelligence, situated right in the central nave. However, the chapels, each containing their specific tools, are closed off from it and from each other. The toolmaking program doesn’t communicate with the social interaction program; none of them communicates with the general intelligence.

Thinking like a cavemanDoes this seem weird? Not at all. Mithen invokes an analogy to driving while conversing with a passenger. Two wholly separate competences are operating, but sealed off from each other, neither impinging on the other.

This, Mithen posits, was indeed totally the situation of early humans (like Neanderthals). Our own species arose something like 100,000 years ago, but for around half that time, it seems, we too had minds like Neanderthals, like Mithen’s compartmentalized cathedral, lacking pathways for the various competences to talk to each other. Thinking like a cavemanHe describes a “rolling” sort of consciousness that could go from one sphere to another, but was in something of a blur about seeing any kind of big picture.

Now, if you were intelligently building this cathedral, you wouldn’t do it this way. But evolution is not “intelligent design.” It has to work with what developed previously. And what it started with was much like the Swiss Army knife, with a bunch of wholly separate competences that each evolved independently.

That’s good enough for most living things, able to survive and reproduce without a “general intelligence.” Evolving the latter was something of a fluke for humans. (A few other creatures may have something like it.)

The next step was to integrate the whole tool kit; to open the doors of all the chapels leading into the central nave. The difference was that while a Neanderthal could be extremely skilled at making a stone tool, while he was doing it he really couldn’t ponder about it in the context of his whole life. We can. Mithen calls this “cognitive fluidity.”

The way I like to put it, the essence of our consciousness is that we don’t just have thoughts, we can think about our thoughts. That’s the integration Mithen talks about — a whole added layer of cognition. And it’s that layering, that thinking about our thinking, that gives us a sense of self, more powerfully than any other creature.

Thinking like a cavemanI’ve previously written too of how the mind makes sense of incoming information by creating representations. Like pictures in the mind, often using metaphors. And here too there’s layering; we make representations of representations; representations of ourselves perceiving those representations. That indeed is how we do perceive — and think about what we perceive. And we make representations of concepts and beliefs.

All this evolved because it was adaptive — enabling its possessors to better surmount the challenges of their environment. But this cognitive fluidity, Mithen says, is also at the heart of art, religion, science — all of human culture.

Once we achieved this capability, it blew the doors off the cathedral, and it was off to the races.

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