Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Inspirational Books

A Mithen Celebration

Recently I’ve been re-reading for research purposes a couple of books by Steven Mithen, so I thought the time was appropriate to write an appreciation of his enormous contribution to research into human evolution.

Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, his career has been decorated with many highlights. I first came across him when I stumbled upon a book entitled The Prehistory Of The Mind (1996), which turned out to be fascinating reading. Actually I didn’t get it at first, but after a second reading I realised what a remarkable description of the evolution of the human mind it was.

Mithen is known for his concept of cognitive fluidity, which, in a nutshell, suggests that “modular” aspects of the proto-human mind – in particular the social module, the language module, the technical module and the natural history module – all operated independently of one another during the long evolutionary process leading to homo sapiens. Slowly, these modules merged. Using supplementary ideas suggested by various other evolutionary scientists, Mithen’s book theorises that the language and social modules first merged, allowing the development of consciousness itself, which is a feature of the mind necessary for survival in highly complex social groups (cf Dunbar and Humphrey). The beauty of Mithen’s idea is that it explains the otherwise baffling: why cultural stasis marks hundreds of thousands of years of proto-human existence. This fact has always been difficult to explain. But if the mental modules were separate, no technical knowledge – for example how to sophisticate stone tools – could have been passed on, for example via language, leading to cultural stasis. All such knowledge would have been learned by imitation alone. The book is a brilliant description of the likely path of human mental evolution – an inspirational read.


A second work was the remarkable The Singing Neanderthals (2005). In this work Mithen delves deeper into one of the aspects of life not elaborated upon in his previous book: the evolution of language. This, of course, is a tricky and highly contentious area for debate, so Mithen’s contribution was always going to make fascinating reading. His essential thesis is this: proto-language was holistic, mimetic and musical. It consisted of sounds and gestures, which in one indivisible utterance described something. This was not compositional language like ours, which can be cut up into sections for infinite communicative possibilities. The brilliance of the work though is how Mithen develops this notion into a timeline for the separation of the proto-language into our kind of language and music, the latter of which, separated, became our vehicle for emotional expression. This book is another terrific, thought-provoking read.

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Between the above two books came After The Ice (2003). In it, the impact of alterations in climate owing to the planet’s Milankovitch Cycles was developed into a global description of massive changes in human culture, not least the change from hunter-gatherer societies to those depending on agriculture. Cutting edge research about life during the Ice Age brings veracity to a very well written narrative. (This book would benefit from being read alongside Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel, I think.) What might be called “eye-witness accounts” bring a vivid feel to much of the book. It’s more of a survey of prehistory than the two theoretical earlier works, and it’s a wonderful read.

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None of these three books require any prior knowledge other than that human beings evolved and there needs to be an explanation of the process. What the reader brings is a sense of wonder and the desire to learn about our prehistory.

Highly regarded by his peers, and a terrific writer, Steven Mithen has opened up the possibilities which we have for developing a description of our evolution. All three of these books come highly recommended from me.

(A Prehistory Of The Mind here.)


Dorothy Rowe RIP

I discovered Dorothy Rowe and her work by accident. Reading Erich Fromm and Nicholas Humphrey at the time, I was attracted by book cover quotes citing the humane quality of her work, her interest in meaning and uncertainty, and her capacity for compassion for those in psychological distress. As Fay Weldon put it: ‘She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.’

Born in Australia, ill during childhood, and suffering difficult family circumstances, she somehow had the inner strength not only to come through those times but to use her experiences in her work. A trailblazing explorer of depression, she came from an entirely different place than her overwhelmingly male counterparts, explaining that depression was a condition of meaning, not necessarily of biology.

As a feminist and an atheist she was fearless. I loved her quote that the Christian church “… gave her plenty of work as a psychologist.” She derided the way men run the world and did a huge amount for the feminist cause, for which we all, male or female, should be grateful.

Her books were amazing. Gifted with a clarity of prose that matched her insight, every book was full of gems. Beyond Fear was of particular importance to me, although the true significance of its message didn’t reveal itself to me until I was a bit older. Her work on money, meaning, success, and the nuclear bomb was all groundbreaking.

Alongside Fromm and Humphrey she was one of my great influences, which was why I dedicated the second volume of the Factory Girl trilogy, The Girl With One Friend, to her. Alas she was not as well known as she could have been. Her books were as complex and hard-hitting as real life, which meant she did not find the wide audience she deserved. She offered no easy answers because she grasped that life is difficult, requiring effort and persistence in order to find peace, love and happiness. Truth therefore was fundamental to her, and she realised that our best interests lie in facing up to it, not ignoring it or pretending some random spiritual belief system to be true. But even at the height of her writing success that was not an easy sell to those used to the platitudes of Californian self-help gurus.

We are fortunate to have so wonderful a legacy as the work of Dorothy Rowe. Perhaps in years to come her books will be reassessed and made more popular by those who, like me, consider the truth of our human lives to be the benchmark for a compassionate, peaceful, just and wise society.


Thinking Big: Gamble, Gowlett & Dunbar

This is one of the best surveys of the evolution of the human mind that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few…

Presented by Robin Dunbar (very well known in the field, and originator of the Dunbar Number), Clive Gamble and John Gowlett, Thinking Big: How The Evolution Of Social Life Shaped The Human Mind is the written culmination of a major, well-funded anthropology project called Lucy, whose intention was to investigate the social brain theory of human evolution. In a nutshell, this theory as presented in the book uses archaeological evidence, evidence from the great apes and from remaining hunter-gatherer societies to show how the need to grasp increasingly complex social interactions – represented by the Dunbar Number of the species in question – led to the evolution of the brain, of the human mind, and, although the authors almost never refer to it, of consciousness.

The Dunbar Number is the number of individuals that an individual can keep in mind in genuine social interactions, and for human beings it is around 150. This number comes up in all sorts of circumstances, showing how we, though technologically advanced, are true to our ancient roots. 150 comes up in social media, in military organisation, in English village life, and in a myriad other places. Apes have smaller numbers, chimps smaller still, reflecting the fact that their social networks are smaller.

Beginning with a survey of the anthropological field, the authors then move through our ancestors of 2.6 million years ago, through later hominids, and then through homo heidelbergensis, homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens to show how all the evidence links together in support of the social brain theory. Human ancestors living in increasingly complex societies faced immense selection pressures from themselves, as only those able to keep in mind complex relationships were able to thrive. Interestingly, the evolutionary pressure from environmental factors (eg climate change) is comparatively played down.

There is also an explanation for one of the more puzzling events in our past, the “cultural revolution” of 40,000 years ago, when music, sculpture and art all appear in the archaeological record. This mystifying and very sudden explosion of culture is more easily explained by the preceding slow and steady emotional and psychological development of homo sapiens, which the authors point out leaves no trace, but which is clear from their evidence. Here they cite laughter, music and chanting, and family life, with only the latter leaving faint “real” marks in our environment.

This really is an exceptional book, confirming Thames & Hudson’s place in providing outstanding work in the field of archaeology, anthropology and human evolution. The authors should be proud of their achievement.


Quiet by Susan Cain

There is a difference between extrovert and introvert, but it’s not the difference most people think of when they hear those descriptions. The standard view is of party animals versus non-party animals. Dorothy Rowe explained that extroverts feel a more real outer world, and are uncomfortable with being on their own since their inner world is more insubstantial, whereas introverts feel a more real inner world, and are often uncomfortable in the hurly burly of social life. Introverts can be happy in times of solitude: extroverts alone feel a void inside themselves, and seek company.

This is one useful explanation, given by a master of the field. Susan Cain’s equivalent in her remarkable book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking is based around the concept of sensitivity, which is in the main a biologically determined quality. We all have different types of brains. Our brains, linked to our many senses, operate at various levels of sensitivity – introverts tend towards maximal sensitivity, extroverts towards the norm, or less.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic… They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive… They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions – sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments – both physical and emotional – unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

When I was younger I wondered for a long time why I was so different to most of my friends and colleagues in this regard, and it all comes down to my high level of introversion. In fact I got a triple dose – one dose from each parent, plus being right-brained. That’s a hell of a lot of introversion to have to cope with.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Is this starting to ring some bells with you…? Then you’re an introvert, and you should stop trying to fit in with the extrovert world that we have in the West. (One of the most interesting chapters in Quiet is the one contrasting the Western ideal of extroversion with the Eastern ideal of introversion – although there is more to it than that dichotomy.) Susan Cain is strong and determined in her critique of Western extrovert standards:

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many people in the literary world will grasp all this; we literate types are quiet thinkers. If you feel likewise, then Quiet is for you.

The book is split into four sections. The first deals with what Susan Cain calls the extrovert ideal, and this is done mostly from an American perspective. Part two deals with the tricky subject of nature versus nurture – biology versus self, but also the role of free will in changing behaviour, and the roles of risk and reward. Examples given include the Roosevelts and Warren Buffett. Part three is a single chapter on Asian-Americans and how they deal with the American cultural standard of high sociability and constant conversation. Part four deals with strategies for the introvert, and for the extroverts who live with them.

This book is also great because it features some brilliant and pithy quotes:

“Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe”

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

Another crucial aspect of this book is Susan Cain’s separation of shyness and introversion, which many people use as interchangeable concepts. But they’re not:

“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

In a nutshell, for anybody who has gone through social hell or even just anxiety, and who wonders why they feel exhausted at the end of a whirl of socialising – even if that’s spending time with friends or family in the most relaxed of circumstances – this is the book for you. It made a big difference in my own life, as I was finally able to explain a few of my own puzzling character traits. Understanding introversion is the first step on the road to coping with it. I spent a long time not coping, but, luckily, now I do.

“Now that you’re an adult, you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Or maybe there’s another word for such people: thinkers.”

This was for me one of the most inspirational of books. It was given to me completely out of the blue by a friend of mine. I still thank him for that kindness when occasionally I see him.


The Earth After Us by Jan Zalasiewicz

In The Earth After Us, the noted field geologist and palaeontologist Jan Zalasiewicz imagines a time one hundred million years in the future when alien beings arrive at the Earth, find nobody home, and decide to investigate the rocks to determine what has happened to the planet over its lifetime. This brilliant set-up allows the author to describe how the aliens might do such a thing.

An experienced geologist who also teaches, the author is in his element here, describing the various types of geology, the scientific principles behind them, how fossils form, and how fossils appear and disappear in surface rocks. His ultimate aim is to show what a minuscule, almost invisibly small proportion of the sediments of planet Earth would contain any record of our presence, and this he brilliantly achieves – the book is beautifully written. For those, like me, who love works spanning huge time scales, this is an engaging read.

Towards the end of the book Zalasiewicz begins to home in on his goal – the nature of what might be found of our existence, and where that evidence might be. He concludes that if you wanted to have the best chance of existing in some way after your demise, you should let yourself or your artefacts drop into coastal sediments, where, over millions of years, they would be covered, compressed, and turned into sedimentary rock. That rock might be found millions more years later by the hypothetical aliens.

This is no dry text book, it’s a fascinating account of geological processes on Earth. I loved it.


Barefoot Economics by Manfred Max-Neef

One of the early influences in my adult life was E.F. Schumacher, and the Schumacher Society, the latter based in Devon where I used to live. E.F. Schumacher was a visionary ‘green economist’ way ahead of his time when it came to the environmental consequences of capitalism. Another man way ahead of his time was the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, who in 1981, at the request of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, wrote From The Outside Looking In: Experiences In Barefoot Economics.

In the telling and personal introduction to this book (which I bought via the Schumacher Society) Max-Neef describes his increasing disillusion with economics, which he could see was losing what small amount of humane philosophy it had begun with. He withdrew from the field to begin work on what E.F. Schumacher called “economics as if people mattered.”

In the small theoretical section of the book Max-Neef identifies four major problems: our obsession with giantism and ‘big solutions’; our mechanistic approach to solving economic problems, which anyway never relate to people but to issues of production and efficiency; our obsession with abstract, measurable quantities; and a tendency to oversimplify, and thus ignore the real complexities of human life.

The book is roughly split into two, with the first main section dealing with the lives of poor or deprived people in coastal Ecuador, and the second concerning artisans in Brazil. In both cases though the intention is to display the dependency of these people on big government, big social care and big organisations. Max-Neef’s ultimate goal was to make the people “invisible,” to use his term, by which he meant independent – invisible to the huge, uncaring, computational machines of capitalism. This could only be done on the community scale – the humane scale.

Alongside Schumacher’s classic Small Is Beautiful this book was my first introduction to the damage capitalism and ‘big society’ was doing both to the planet and to communities. Max-Neef is alas not so well known as Schumacher, but he had just as much to say; and every word of it is relevant today.


Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis’ Symbiotic Planet is another of those ‘pre Cambrian Explosion’ books which so inspire me. One of these days I really will get around to writing the Green Trilogy, which explores the very far future of life on Earth… but probably not for a while.

Symbiotic Planet is a wide-ranging, comprehensive, beautifully written and opinionated book about the way microscopic life evolved in the years between around 4 billion years ago and 541 million years ago. Central to Margulis’ case is the idea (radical and mocked when she suggested it) that small organisms entered into symbiotic relationships with one another over the course of immense periods of time. The mitochondria of eukaryotic cells for instance – which have their own DNA – were once free-floating organisms; but there is much more to her work than such observations.

This book covers the academic life of scientists, the nature of the classification of the kingdoms of life, the processes of incorporation, the possible origins of life, the nature and history of sexual reproduction, and a final chapter on Gaia.

Margulis has faced a few obstacles in her scientific life, partly because of being a woman, partly because of being married to Carl Sagan (at a very young age), and partly through her association with James Lovelock. None of this should make any difference to the reader. Her case is thorough, researched and compelling. Readers of Nick Lane’s work would particularly like this book I think, as the two authors have much in common. Short, but sweet.


The Buried Soul by Timothy Taylor

The origin of the human idea of the soul or spirit has always intrigued me. As an atheist I have no belief whatsoever in such an idea, and in fact think it’s ultimately a dangerous (though inevitable) notion. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is our most ancient ‘religious’ concept. Although some past evidence of Neanderthal burial rites (eg the Shanidar cave) have been reassessed and dismissed, there remains a strong body of evidence to show that Neanderthal people made special ritual at the graves of their dead, which means they had a concept of individuality, of self, and of the uniqueness of self. They would have been aware that everyone is a unique person, seemingly alive behind the eyes. An obvious, yet unanswerable question followed: what happens to that self when the person dies?

Timothy Taylor’s The Buried Soul offers many answers to this question, while tracing the history of the main idea from prehistoric to modern times. While strong on archaeological evidence and theory, Taylor to his great credit also imagines the thoughts and emotions of ancient people in these circumstances, for instance the Iceman of the Alps, Ötzi. Though alive only 5,300 years ago Ötzi still lived in a world numinous with supernatural forces, and these would have made his experience of death very different from ours.

The book passes through many cultural vistas: cannibalism in New Guinea, the ritual deaths of slaves in the Near East, embalming, and the European bog bodies. It’s in this latter chapter that one of the book’s main ideas begins to appear, that of death in liminal zones. A liminal zone is an area between two different geographical zones, for instance plains and woods. The peat bogs of Ireland, Denmark and elsewhere are in fact quite dangerous environments, and would have attracted prehistoric speculation and ritual via their status as liminal zones. That ritual includes the phenomenon of ‘multiple death,’ i.e. killing a person in two or three ways when such a process is apparently unnecessary.

Taylor also covers the famous Shanidar burial. Though the flower pollen ‘evidence’ is now discarded, there is no doubt that the individual was disabled, and therefore alive for social, cultural or humane reasons; and that means consciousness at the very least, if not compassion. In fact Taylor skotches any such ‘flower-people’ theories, as he calls them, and evokes a more ‘ruthlessly cohesive’ theory. But either way, the aeons of mere animal existence were hundreds of thousands of years in the past by the time of Shanidar.

This fascinating book covers much that we don’t wish to talk about in modern Western societies. Although I first read it as part of my own reading around the topic of the origin of ideas of the soul or spirit, it proved to be a more wide-ranging book than I expected – and certainly inspirational. This and other books were the subconscious foundation for the Factory Girl trilogy and some earlier works.


The Informed Heart by Bruno Bettelheim

In 1938, Bruno Bettelheim, along with a number of other Jewish-born Austrians, was sent by the Nazi regime to Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. There he began a process of analysing his own reactions to the camps, along with those of other victims, anti-Nazi German prisoners, and also the various types of officer. The result was two decades later written as The Informed Heart, which sought to explain and understand the meaning of such extreme situations.

Bettelheim is a controversial figure. Since his death in 1990 a number of controversies have developed – his explosive rages which sometimes fell upon his students, possible plagiarism in his excellent study of the deeper meanings of fairy stories The Uses Of Enchantment, misrepresentation of his own credentials when escaping to America in 1939, and more. He was greatly interested in autism, but became enamoured of a theory which blamed the mothers of such children, a theory now entirely discredited. But despite these major defects he did produce remarkable work, of which The Informed Heart is one of the best.

Bettelheim opens with a couple of introductory chapters before heading off into a discussion of freedom, in which he observes: It is not so much that modern man is so much quicker to surrender his freedom to society, nor that man was so much more autonomous in the good old days. It is rather that scientific and technological progress has relieved him of having to solve so many problems that he once had to solve by himself if he meant to survive…

Bettelheim saw a specific situation developing through the 20th century where: … [there is] less need to develop autonomy… and more need for it if he prefers not to have others making decisions for him.

This double whammy is one of Bettelheim’s central concerns. The rest of the book deals with the experiences themselves: methods of coercion in the camps, the defences used by victims, and what he called ‘the fluctuating price of life,’ in which a few of the more extraordinary and horrific situations are observed.

The book concludes by remarking that ‘men are not ants.’ The success or failure of any mass society, Bettelheim thinks, is dependent upon whether or not a humane society can be created by people who have ‘reshaped their personality.’ In this regard Bettelheim was close to Erich Fromm’s view that a humane society cannot possibly be created by inhumane individuals; he wanted to understand, as Fromm did. And Bettelheim states the dangers of people being coerced by technology, seeing that tyranny has its own momentum. I don’t think the various Bettelheim controversies reduce the impact and relevance of this book.

Perhaps our 21st century problem is that tyranny has become almost invisible.

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A History Of The Mind by Nicholas Humphrey

In 1992 Nicholas Humphrey followed his ground-breaking book The Inner Eye with an equally brilliant work, A History Of The Mind. The thesis behind this work was that the link between our experience of the mind and its physical place in our bodies can be explained: there is a solution to the mind-body problem. Humphrey in this book tells a tale of evolution, of sensations being related to two distinct experiences – the outside world and the body itself – and of the development of his evolutionary theory of the appearance of mind.

The book is set in twenty nine sections. Humphrey deals with the problem he faces; with the vital importance of physical boundaries to living creatures – me and not-me; with the evolution of the eye as an example of sensory perception, but with the proviso that perception and sensation may not be mutually exclusive; with blindness and blindsight; sensation as “copying” and perception as “storytelling”; five senses; sensory loops; thoughts on how our external surfaces (eg skin) may not be involved in sensations; inner models as substitutes for the real body… and then a new theory of consciousness based on what has gone before.

Many other philosophers have walked this path. In an ironic introduction, Humphrey acknowledges the importance of Daniel Dennett to his work, remarking that, since the two don’t agree on certain points of the theory, “he may sometimes have thought he had introduced a cuckoo to his nest.” Humphrey would later write more about his ideas in the somewhat challenging Seeing Red.

What’s great about this book though is how Humphrey proceeds from the evolutionary perspective (consciousness matters to human beings – it must therefore have a fundamental purpose), using biology, philosophy and the backbone of the ideas presented in The Inner Eye as jumping off points. The book does have a nuts-and-bolts feel to it, in contrast to The Inner Eye, which has more of a sweeping grandeur – not that the final chapters of A History Of The Mind don’t have their own grand rewards. Another wonderful work.