Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

The Smart Neanderthal by Clive Finlayson

The Smart Neanderthal is an important work which aims to reappraise Neanderthal hunting abilities, their grasp of the natural world, and their cognition and ability for symbolic thought. In the majority of cases the author is not only convincing but should be congratulated for knocking down some of the crude mistakes and generalisations made by earlier anthropologists and archaeologists. I do have some reservations, however.

The misleading strapline is: bird catching, cave art and the cognitive revolution. There is plenty on bird catching, almost nothing on cave art, and little on the cognitive revolution. However, unlike other reviewers, I don’t have a problem with the emphasis this author places on the natural world. Such emphasis is vital.

Essentially, this is a book which does not knock over prevailing views of the cognitive revolution, but which does almost as valuable a service in clearing away absurd black-and-white generalisations about the Neanderthals (especially their hunting skills) in favour of something much more nuanced and accurate, which the author provides by way of his decades of bird watching experience.

His main thesis is that we have to understand the Neanderthals via natural history. Across Europe, Neanderthals lived in very different environments and had very different diets, so they must be understood on this basis. The book spends a lot of time detailing bird species, their distribution, their distribution in confirmed Neanderthal sites (notably caves in Gibraltar, which Finlayson has spent decades excavating), and their habits. All of this is vital, albeit a tad long-winded. The main point of this book is to open our eyes to the variety of food sources many Neanderthals had access to, which the author does superbly.

Linked to this is Finlayson’s other main point, that the Neanderthals were the same as us cognitively. He rightly opposes earlier, cruder interpretations, and gives his own speculation, all of which is welcome. But here I think there is not enough supporting evidence. The material on feather colour and raptor talons is absolutely fascinating and will surely stand as a testament to Finlayson’s work, but the evidence for symbolic thought like ours seems slight. Of course, as is noted, lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.

My main worry with this second strand of the book is that speech and anatomy evidence suggests a qualitative difference in cognitive ability, not a quantitative one. As Lieberman & Crelin showed in their ground-breaking work, Neanderthals would have had great difficulty or been unable to pronounce the [i], [u] and [a] vowels, in addition to being unable to pronounce g and k consonants. The inability to pronounce [i] is particularly significant, since it is used in all human language as the main intelligibility marker. In addition, Neanderthal speech would have sounded nasal compared with ours. All these factors limit the ability (unconscious in all modern humans) to recognise the formant frequency of heard speech, which reduces speech capacity. Neanderthals undoubtedly had complex speech, but they would not in my opinion have been so exceptional as homo sapiens. This, to me, seems a qualitative difference not a quantitative one, acting against Finlayson’s hypothesis that there was effectively no cognitive difference between the two species.

Having said that, this book is significant, valuable and well worth reading. The author’s skill and experience in understanding birds translates well into his archaeological work, bringing a deep new insight into Neanderthal life. This emphasis on placing the Neanderthals into their environment is particularly brilliant – a welcome new aspect to our understanding of human origins.


21 Lessons For The 21st Century

21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

I loved Sapiens.

I did not love Homo Deus.

I love 21 Lessons For The 21st Century.

This is a massive return to form for Yuval Noah Harari. All the clarity and wisdom of Sapiens is here, with almost none of the partisan moralising that spoiled Homo Deus. Essentially, the book is about the challenges humanity faces now and during the century to come. It’s pretty depressing in places, though there are sections of optimism. But in general, especially with regard to AI and algorithms, the author is pessimistic.

The book has a few main sections: the technological challenge, the political challenge and, distributed in other sections, the ecological challenge. Other main areas covered are the nature of truth, not despairing (for instance because of terrorism), and, in conclusion, the importance of human resilience. Elsewhere there are fascinating chapters on nationalism and religion, liberty, and humility.

The last two chapters are particularly significant. The penultimate chapter deals with the fundamental importance of meaning, pointing out that humanity has rather lost its way here. In a telling analogy which is used elsewhere in the work, Harari points out that in the 20th century humanity told itself three stories: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. After WW2 the liberal story was the only show in town. But in the 21st century the problem is that we have no story. I think this is a particularly telling analogy, which should give concerned people much to think about.

What follows is a personal conclusion relating the author’s early life and his discovery of meditation. As he points out a few times, most people hardly know themselves and pay very little attention to their own minds and bodies. Change here would be good – perhaps vital.

A terrific book by a remarkable man.

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Eve Spoke by Philip Lieberman

In Eve Spoke, the noted linguist and cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman charts the evolution of human beings with respect to our ability to speak.

Much of this book tells the story of the evolution of speech, not least with regard to our unusual biology, but underlying it all is the standpoint of a man who recognises the fundamental importance of society and social learning in our evolution. The science here is impeccable, the story fascinating, the writing excellent.

Lieberman is particularly good when it comes to revealing the sleights of hand and other tricks employed by such people as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, both of whom take genetics as their starting point. Although Chomsky has contributed a huge amount to linguistics, his genetically reductionist star is fading, and hopefully Pinker’s will fade with it.

The book was published in 1998, and as a consequence is behind the times when it comes to the Neanderthals. Lieberman goes for the ‘genetically isolated’ theory when it comes to matters of evolutionary competition, whereas today we know that some interbreeding did take place between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. This is a minor matter however which doesn’t alter Lieberman’s main thesis in the slightest.

A terrific book!

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Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey

Soul Dust is Nicholas Humphrey’s fourth and perhaps final major popular work about consciousness. Subtitled the magic of consciousness, it takes the reader through some of his earlier concepts, especially those in Seeing Red, before providing a conclusion to decades of groundbreaking work.

This book emphasises the role of natural selection in the evolution of consciousness, first mentioned in the trailblazing The Inner Eye. Natural selection, Humphrey reasons, must have had something to work upon in order to select so strongly for  consciousness. That something, he suggests, is the joy of living – the fact that we are important, both to ourselves and to others, and that we delight in the experience of living, which makes survival in social groups all the more likely. It’s a brilliant notion, which he examines from the perspective of an Andromedan ‘psychological zombie,’ but also through wondering whether or not other species are conscious – Humphrey did research with monkeys and apes for many years, and even worked for a few months alongside Dian Fossey.

Once the main thesis is put forward and argued, there comes a third section, more philosophically speculative than the rest of the book, and indeed of his earlier work, in which he ponders the role of death in the evolution of consciousness. We, after all, are the only species who can fear death.

Here I have to admit I part company with Humphrey. In this book Humphrey deliberately uses the word soul – he posits a ‘soul niche,’ which emerges in parallel with the evolution of consciousness, and of course the word in plain for all to see in the book’s title. But Humphrey, an avowed atheist who has written extensively on atheism, is aware that the word soul has baggage. “Too much baggage?” he asks, coming to the answer no. My answer however is yes. Humphrey wisely points out that religion is parasitic upon spirituality, which, like me, he sees as a far earlier concept (my guess would be 80,000 – 100,00 years old: Humphrey wonders if spirituality arrived at the time of the Cultural Revolution 40,000 years ago, or is perhaps 200,000 years old, when homo sapiens first appeared in Africa). Spirituality he sees as a concept – the immortal spirit or soul – emerging from the experience of consciousness itself. It is, he suggests, an aspect of our deepest psychology. I see the concept as based in the experience of consciousness but having its roots in culture, not psychology. It is, I think, a human answer within the greater framework of meaning.

I also think that Humphrey, like other authors (Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking spring to mind), is unwise in using the vocabulary of religion to describe purely human concepts. The notion of spirit or soul, which Humphrey sees as an inevitable result of consciousness, he describes as something which allows human beings to survive better as individuals. I see the concept as one devised in cultural settings to explain a human experience. I agree with Humphrey that the concept of spirit was inevitable, but I think its roots lie in the prehistoric imagination, not in some deeper psychology which we can never escape. As a consequence, I think talk of spirits and souls in a book of this significance is flawed, if not imprudent.

Of course, that rather begs the question, “what would you use instead?” It’s not an easy one to answer, but I think when referring to human individuality, character or identity in discussions such as these we would be better off using a neutral word like self or being. Many years ago, when I was working for Waterstones, members of staff were asked to put questions to Philip Pullman (another noted atheist) for publication alongside his answers in the company magazine. My question was something along the lines of, “Do you think your use of religious terminology in His Dark Materials has somehow diminished your atheist stance?” Pullman acknowledged this to be a very interesting and pertinent question, but sided with Humphrey, suggesting that the amount of conceptual baggage was acceptable. So, I disagree with him too on this matter!

Soul Dust ends with a meditation on coping with death. As Humphrey observes, there are three main ways of coping: avoiding the concept entirely by living hedonistically for the moment; allowing yourself to merge with the greater human culture as you age; and positing an immortal soul, i.e. denying the obvious. This latter section of the book feels slightly out of place when set against the rest of the work, but only a little. And while I don’t agree with Humphrey here, his thoughts are, as ever, superbly argued and very well written.

This is another exceptional work, as thought provoking as all his previous books.

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Seeing Red by Nicholas Humphrey

A slim book, but a brilliant and important one. In Seeing Red, Nicholas Humphrey expands on the ‘private sensory experience’ idea first discussed in his groundbreaking A History Of The Mind. The theme here is the knotty problem of deciding what exactly is the ‘stuff of consciousness’ – what is usually referred to as the hard problem, i.e. of what philosophers of the mind call qualia.

The book is taken from a series of lectures given in 2005, and, as observed in a wry introduction, its text echoes the chatty style of the spoken word. But it’s a terrific read for all that informality. Essentially, it sets out in greater depth Humphrey’s notion of the separation into two ‘channels’ of sensation and perception, with the former being something actually generated by the mind, not simply responded to. Using this theory, Humphrey finds himself able to explain much that otherwise is mysterious about consciousness.

The final two chapters seem a tiny bit rushed compared with the brilliant first few, but that’s a quibble. This is a marvellous, insightful, lucid and superbly argued book.


The Lost Civilizations Of The Stone Age by Richard Rudgley

Prehistory is a difficult and potentially dangerous area to enter, even for an experienced archaeologist or palaeohistorian. Richard Rudgley has made a good career from debunking myths both historical and prehistorical, including in a couple of excellent television series, and in The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age he describes various aspects of Neolithic and Mesolithic life that he thinks need clarification. It’s all fascinating stuff, covering a wide range of subjects, from tallies and early astronomy, through art, sculpture, hunting equipment, understanding of environment and much more. The book takes a backwards journey through prehistory, a template which perfectly allows Rudgley to point out how much of what appears suddenly in the prehistorical record is in fact based on earlier, simpler beginnings.

On the whole, my feeling is that, although Rudgley has a few favoured authors whom he quotes and uses as support for his own ideas, he is fair-minded and reasonable in his outlook. Some reviewers (e.g. on Goodreads) have attacked him for setting up straw men and for trying to promote the notion of a Stone Age utopia. Although such criticism could be aimed at the book’s foreword and afterword, I think it’s well off the mark as a whole. Rudgley is scrupulous with the speculation of his chosen influences, for example the work of the American-Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, which he often quotes.

Overall, an excellent, insightful and fair book, recommended to all fascinated by human origins.


Evolving Insight by Richard W. Byrne

In Richard W. Byrne’s Evolving Insight, the author takes a rigorous, superbly researched and even-handed approach to deciding one of the most difficult questions in zoology – do animals have anything like human insight?

First of all, Byrne has to delineate his territory, which he does by looking at what insight might be, the role of cognition in animals, vocal and gestural communication, social complexity, cultural possibilities, theory of mind, and – crucial to his thesis – the different roles of technical and social understanding (i.e. insight). After all this, three quarters of the book is done, leaving the final quarter to the gist of the book, which is that insight evolved twice in our hominid ancestors, once as a kind of general social intelligence (in which the crucial work of Nicholas Humphrey is mentioned) and once as a particular form of technical insight related to complex feeding patterns in great apes.

As I’ve indicated, this is a brilliant piece of work – I wish all science books were as even-handed and rewarding as this one. Arguments are put with clarity, the writing is admirable and the whole work is fascinating.

Personally, I was hoping for a little more on the role of consciousness and on the social intelligence theory of consciousness, but that isn’t really the book’s remit. It’s actually quite a specialised work, albeit written with verve and clarity for the general reader. At the end I felt a little frustrated that the book’s argument wasn’t taken one step further, but, as I’ve indicated, that wasn’t the author’s purpose. I think this book would best be read alongside the outstanding Thinking Big: How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind, which I read and reviewed last year.

Kudos to Richard Byrne for this outstanding volume.


Inside the Real China by Xu Zhiyuan

Xu Zhiyuan is an exiled Chinese journalist who writes on political and cultural life in China. Described by the perhaps better known dissident and artist Ai Weiwei as “the most important young Chinese intellectual of his generation,” his book Paper Tiger: Inside the Real China is a no-holds-barred look at the devastation caused by the Chinese Communist Party in his native land. But although this is a profoundly anti-Party book, the pieces inside also reveal the positives of modern Chinese life.

These pieces – loosely organised into themes – are all short, but each packs a punch. Xu is scathing about the damage done to Chinese individuals and to the people as a whole through totalitarianism, obsessive secrecy, domination and arbitrary use of power, including detention and theft. And although, as expected, the political aspect of all this is centre stage, Xu makes a lot of how some pseudo-capitalist changes (rooted in the leadership of Deng Xiaoping) have robbed the Chinese of their ethics and indeed their selves. China is revealed through his writing as mostly shallow, trite, money-obsessed and incapable of anything other than disconnected thought.

It is a melancholy book in places, but there is insight enough to make it very readable, often fascinating. China is revealed as a country unique on the planet, with what appear to be Western style freedoms knocking around in the worst kind of twentieth century dystopia. Xu Zhiyuan himself offers little hope, but he does at least show the direction in which hope could be found.

The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett

In this excellent book Jamie Bartlett looks at the corrosive and malign effects of the internet on political democracy, and how online life affects the way people interact with government and authority generally. I bought the book having seen the author’s two part documentary on democracy and the online world, which made quite a few jaw-dropping assessments in its tale of political chicanery and corporate manipulation – not just Cambridge Analytica, not just Google, but much more. This book expands on what was conveyed in the tv programmes.

The book takes six crucial facets of democracy – including such things as independence of the political process, an informed electorate, civil society, a burgeoning middle class – and deals with the effects of social media and the internet generally upon them. There is little good news. Mostly the effects are malign and dangerous, causing democracy to buckle beneath the stress. In all cases the arguments are clear and well put; Jamie Bartlett is not only a good tv presenter, he can write very well. The whole book is concise, well argued and clear. And this is a worried author. After a fascinating chapter on crypto-anarchy, he states twenty things which could aid the great bargain made between people living in a democratic state and the state itself. Yet most of these statements seemed to me unlikely to come about. This book is in some ways a portent of danger, or perhaps even of dystopia. We are creating tools which will make us slaves, and because that is happening in an unregulated corporate environment nothing can be done to stop such tools appearing.

A highly recommended read.

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Mind Change by Susan Greenfield

Mind change is to human psychology as climate change is to the planet. Susan Greenfield’s thesis in this excellent book is that the digital world, especially the online world, is causing the brains and therefore the minds of billions of people around the world to change.

In some regards, this book is similar to Mary Aiken’s The Cyber Effect, but here the emphasis is more on a nuts-and-bolts approach. Dr Aiken is a cyber-psychologist. Susan Greenfield is one of Britain’s best known scientists – as a neuroscientist she has much to say on her subject.

The book makes similar warnings to The Cyber Effect, and it is clear that Greenfield is as concerned as Aiken. Both authors come to similar conclusions: online life is changing the default setting of the human brain, from local-scale, word-based and empathic to meaningless, visually overloaded, cold and shallow. The often repeated concern that far too many young people have the attention span of a gnat is here given a proper scientific basis. Her approach is commendable – often giving alternative interpretations, sometimes admitting that the truth is difficult to ascertain, sometimes demolishing her opponents. It’s also a very good read – she can write.

Enjoyable and interesting, then, but also a warning about a future humanity is sleepwalking into.