Author’s Commentary
A Brand New Mind
How Culture, Cognition, Myth, and Language Came Together To Make Us What We Are, and What Has Happened in Us Since

The book is informed in its structure by the organizing threads of two authorities: Merlin Donald’s theory of the stages of cultural evolution (Origins of the Modern Mind, 1991; A Mind So Rare, 2001); and Peter Richerson’s and Robert Boyd’s work on the co-evolution of genes and culture (Not By Genes Alone, 2005; The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, 2005).

Not to bear down too heavily on the work of the above authorities — I emphasize that my sources are varied and numerous, as are my sources’ own — but to demonstrate the feasibility of my thesis, I invoke them illustratively. Donald’s mimetic stage of human culture opens the way to the evolution of a highly developed semiotic capacity, but one nevertheless lacking the capacity of supporting fluent language. Even so, I hold, large-brained modern humans fully developed physiologically and equipped with sophisticated means of communicating by sign, were able to sustain, for thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands of years, their traditional hunting and gathering way of life into the Neolithic period, at which point they converted to a sedentary lifestyle based on farming and herding.

Following a different track, Richerson and Boyd find that “cumulative cultural adaptation” has ultimately freed cultural evolution from the slow mechanics of genetic natural selection to the point where, today, culture evolves on its own, and at an ever-increasing rate. They relate our modernity to the Pleistocene/Holocene climatic transition of 11,600 years ago. Using computer-based modeling, they show that, before the change in climate, a sedentary, agriculture-based subsistence could not have been sustained, whereas, afterward, it became all but inevitable.

The two scholarly systems sketched out above fit together in a mutually supportive way, but there is an additional piece yet to be added to the Richerson-Boyd account. A change of the sort they describe in a society’s means of subsistence would have perforce been accompanied by corresponding changes in its culture. Richerson and Boyd, for historical reasons, found themselves unable to point to such a change, but an explanation is to be had. It is to be found in myth, which, as Donald points out, shapes, in every detail, the lives of virtually all “Stone Age” societies come upon in the modern era.

Turning, then, to myth, I find the first symbolic figures on the archaeological record around which a myth might have been generated to be a goddess and a bull. Much has been made of theories of a mother goddess at the onset of agriculture and all that followed, and it infiltrated the popular mind, but the idea is not widely credited in present-day Middle East archaeology. It was, nevertheless, given authoritative credence by Jacques Cauvin (The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture (1994/trans. 2000), discoverer of the first goddess figurines to be found in the northern Levant, in the “Fertile Crescent”. He further found that shortly after materializing these statuettes proliferated, and came to be associated with a masculine principle in the form of a bull, a figure that had had a traceable symbolic presence in the region for about 500 years.

Cauvin was not always an outlier to the orthodoxy. The first excavator of the celebrated archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in south-central Turkey, James Mellaart, shared Cauvin’s view of a goddess at the onset of agriculture; Klaus Schmidt the first to excavate Göbekli Tepe in the same region, the most important Neolithic hunter-gatherer site yet discovered, found at the heart of it a “transcendental sphere”; and prominent Middle East archaeologist, Trevor Watkins, with whom I am in touch, still holds the view — shared by me — that the gigantic anthropomorphic pillars at Göbekli represent — not deities themselves — but the ritual making of gods. (I have worked out an article for a scholarly journal along these lines that could be deployed before or after the publication of the book, in furtherance of wider recognition).

The reason I am laboring the goddess point is that it marks, quite simply, the crucial turning point in human history. The goddess/bull tandem signals the emergence from a magic-based form of mentation (sometimes called animism — I devote a chapter to this subject), to a form of thought pointing to myth, and ultimately to religion. The core of the argument is that what has been termed the Neolithic Revolution was the product, not of subsistence strategies, but of an entirely new way in which humankind had come to view the world.

Subsequent history bears this out. Cauvin had pointed out that female/bull imagery, much in evidence at the pre-pottery sixth-century BC settlement of Çatalhöyük, is carried forward in the iconography of the pottery of the Halaf culture (circa 6500 to 5500 BC) which flourished in the same region as Çatalhöyük, and within its time horizon. There follows from there, in a straight line of mythic development, the Great Mother/ Son-Lover combination of the religions of the Bronze Age civilizations of Mesopotamia that prevailed into classical times. (The masculine principle represented by the bull was
anthropomorphized into the Son-Lover in subsequent iterations while remaining subordinate to, and a dependent of, the mother goddess.)

All this, it is to be remembered, has taken place in the last twelve thousand years, a tiny sliver of time on the evolutionary scale. What brought it about was a cultural change, change that has reached a point where the cumulative cultural evolution of Richerson and Boyd, operating within the framework of increasingly concentrated and integrated cultural interaction, evolves independently of the genes. Culture had slowly taken wings and it has, with continually gathering momentum, brought us to the complex, technology-based civilizations of the world today.

Thomas T. Lawson