Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Tag: human condition

Mothers And Others by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

I came across Mothers And Others online as I was searching for books about human evolution. Never having heard of the author before, but impressed with the positive reviews, I decided to take a punt on it. Thank goodness I did! This is another exceptional book in a year of exceptional ones. Moreover, rather like The Human Cosmos and Mythos & Cosmos, which I read sequentially, this one has a distinct and rather exciting link to Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey, which I read and reviewed last month.


In essence, this ground-breaking book presents a new hypothesis for the evolution of human beings – the co-operative breeding hypothesis. In the latter quarter of the last century, anthropologists, particularly feminist ones, realised that earlier theories of human evolution were not only ridiculously biased towards men’s position in prehistoric society, not to mention all the things they want or are interested in – patriliny, control of women, social stratification – they were at best scantily resourced with evidence. Often, they were self-contradictory. What is so impressive about Mothers And Others is not only that it at last presents a hypothesis much better matched with reality, it is properly argued, scientifically sound and supported by excellent evidence.

Over nine fascinating chapters the author explains the evolutionary scenario, reviews the evidence, explains why only one branch of hominids felt the selection pressures of evolution which led to our line, and outlines anthropological similarities which reinforce her case. Comparatively little space is wasted complaining about male anthropologists’ hypotheses, most of the book being given over to intensive discussions of the evolution of parenting, predominantly by women (one chapter deals with fathers). It’s all compelling stuff, well written and with that indefinable essence of somebody sure of her case and with the confidence to present it. The book is also highly readable – lay readers welcome.


Towards the end, various strands are pulled together. The author explains the difference between emotionally modern individuals, a state of affairs which in her view goes back as far as 1.8 million years ago, and what in general has been focused on by others – cave art, language, symbol use. I was particularly struck by the synchrony between her subtle understanding of the attribution of mental states to others by children and by early hominids and the social intelligence theory of Nicholas Humphrey. This book can be read as the full evolutionary story first presented by him in The Inner Eye.


In summary: a very important book. I loved it.

Cover image

Sentience by Nicholas Humphrey

Regular readers of this blog and fans of my work in general will know the very high esteem in which I hold Nicholas Humphrey: our Darwin of the mind. Originator of the social intelligence theory of consciousness, philosopher and psychologist, his books have enthralled and inspired me ever since I saw his The Inner Eye television series in the mid-1980s. Now, eleven years after his last book, comes a new work.

First of all, Sentience is fascinating, beautifully written, thought-provoking and important. But more than that, to my mind it is true. Everything Humphrey writes here, which in some ways sum up his huge contribution to the field of the understanding of consciousness, has that feel of being fundamentally correct. The tale he is telling matches reality.

The book falls into three thirds, the first giving the background to Humphrey’s journey through life and the questions he asked himself as he pondered various unknowns: consciousness… why, and when? This summary is vital for the following two parts, one of which deals with our phenomenal experiences (the redness of a poppy, the sweetness of sugar, etc), and one of which sums it all up in a new perspective, drawing at all times from evolutionary reasoning.

It’s this latter third which I think is groundbreaking. The issue for the vast majority of philosophers dealing with qualia in the brain (that is, how the redness of red can be generated and experienced by “mere” neuron activity) is how to make the leap from neurons to private mental experience. There’s a couple of sentences in this book which I suspect may be the most important Humphrey has ever written. They read: Remember how it emerged in the earlier discussion that when, for example, you project phenomenal redness onto a poppy, you are in effect making a bridge to other sentient beings. You’re seeing the poppy as being ‘rubropotent’ – as having the power to evoke red qualia in another like yourself.

Isn’t that extraordinary? Other philosophers look at one brain in isolation and try to pin down the mind/body relationship therein, but that’s their mistake. Conscious brains, human brains, never exist in isolation. They grow, develop and mature only in social groups. Personally, I think this cultural blind spot has a lot to do with men dominating such intellectual discussions, men who in comparison with women have little grasp of the true importance of relationships.

This, then, is the brilliance of Nicholas Humphrey. He grasps the fundamental role of social relations in the evolution of consciousness. He never loses sight of that evolutionary history, and indeed uses it to underpin the truth of his theory.

As he notes early on in the book, his intellectual and philosophical journey has been rather a lonely furrow. I hope this exceptional work changes all that. It certainly deserves to. It’s more than worthy of being added to his outstanding canon of work. Trailblazing, compelling and true.


New book

I’m pleased to say that next year Iff Books will be publishing a new work called I Am Taurus. This is a bit of a departure for me, owing to events in the publishing world – a move from genre fiction to nonfiction. The book is short, and describes the history of the Sacred Bull, all the way from Lascaux in 17,000BCE to Spanish bullfighting. I wrote it this summer, and really enjoyed the experience. I am planning two sequels, I Am The Moon and I Am Mars. This new book was inspired by reading the very first page of Jo Marchant’s superb The Human Cosmos, which I reviewed on this blog in March. More details as they arrive…

Aurochs bull & Pleiades star cluster.

Deciphering Ancient Minds

Deciphering Ancient Minds by David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis

Continuing the theme of prehistoric images, art, belief and thought, this book by Sam Challis and (author of the outstanding The Mind In The Cave and Inside The Neolithic Mind) David Lewis-Williams covers a modern group of people, the San, of whom one remnant living today are the San of the Kalahari Desert.

The authors’ intent is to properly understand the methods, purpose and meaning of the beautiful and complex San cave and rock shelter paintings, in particular to clear up innumerable mistakes and assumptions made by Westerners. The opening chapters underline this prejudiced, unthinking attitude, which in the main bolts on Western concepts of art to San work. In particular, emphasis is given to shamanic practice and beliefs, whether it be “spiritual travelling,” “rain making” or interactions with animals.

The final chapter is particularly telling, pointing out the irrational, often ludicrous nature of Western beliefs which are presumed to be superior to non-Western ones, eg. the “Holy Ghost.” In the end, a marvellously vivid and satisfyingly complex picture is offered of the San, their art and their beliefs.

David Lewis-Williams is to be congratulated on another profound book which is at once illuminating and readable. Highly recommended to students of the human condition.

5 Best Books On Consciousness

Recently I was approached by Ben Shepherd at and asked to choose five books for a list of my designing. I decided at once to choose the five best books explaining the mystery of consciousness, and my choices have just been published. Regular fans of my blog will recognise most or all of the titles, but on the page I’ve also added more personal description of how I came across each book and what they mean to me. Here’s the page!

my 5 choices