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 New York, NY: Norton); and Peter Richerson’s and Robert Boyd’s work on the coevolution of genes and culture (Not By Genes Alone, 2005; The Origin and Evolution of Cultures, 2005).
I do not mean to bear down too heavily here on the work of these authorities. I invoke them by way of illustration, in order to demonstrate the solid ground of my thesis. At the same time, I emphasize that my sources are varied and numerous, just as are those of these authorities.
Donald’s mimetic stage of human culture opened the way, in time, to a semiotic capability. The ability to communicate by signs, however, as he makes clear, is not of a sort as might metamorphose into language. Human language, as we shall see, is a different matter altogether.
Even so, I demonstrate in the book that a highly evolved semiotic capacity afforded humans all that was needed to sustain, without language, their ancient ancestral hunting and gathering way of life up into the Neolithic period, when populations converted to a sedentary lifestyle based on farming and herding. It was during this time that language made its appearance.
Following a different track from Donald, 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. Richerson and Boyd relate our modernity to the Pleistocene/Holocene climatic transition of 1,600 years ago. Using computerized modeling, they show that, before this change in climate, a sedentary, agriculture-based subsistence could not have been sustained, whereas, afterward, it became all but inevitable.
The scholarly systems of Donald and Richerson and Boyd 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 in this period. However, there is an explanation 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 has infiltrated the popular mind, but the idea is not widely credited in present-day Middle East archaeology. It has otherwise, nevertheless, been given authoritative credence, most pronouncedly by Jacques Cauvin (The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture (1994/trans. 2000). Cauvin unearthed the first goddess figurines to be found in the northern Levant — in the ”Fertile Crescent” of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Cauvin further found that within a short time such statuettes proliferated, and then 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 orthodoxy. The first excavator of the venerated 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, continues to be of the view — shared by me — that the gigantic anthropomorphic pillars at Göbekli Tepe represent — not deities themselves — but the ritual making of the gods.
It was at this point in my researches that I stumbled upon extensive and persuasive evidence not heretofore put together. In my earlier career as a trial lawyer I had the good fortune to argue before every sort of tribunal short of the U. S. Supreme Court, and I know a good case when I see one. This, I take to be such a case, and I felt the material sufficiently important on its own as to warrant fashioning it into an article. As it would bear on the reception of the book, I am at this point reserving for the publisher the decision as to whether to submit the article to a scholarly journal now or to await publication of the book.
The article, In Plain Sight The identity of the Twin Pillars of Göbekli Tepe, (see also Author’s Commentary, Göbekli Tepe Article) concludes that the woman and the bull were a presence at the famed hunter-gatherer archaeological site Göbekli Tepe itself. The evidence is of different sorts and is spread across time and throughout the sprawling Göbekli Tepe site, and it makes a solid case, heretofore undetected, that the fabled twin pillars, centerpieces of this site and others in the area, represent the woman and the bull. Indeed, the evidence is so commanding as to compel the conclusion that the two figures were not just a presence at, but were in fact the focus of, Göbekli Tepe ritual life.
This brings us back to the goddess, whose arrival marks, quite simply, the crucial turning point in human history. The goddess/bull tandem signals the emergence from a primitive 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, following Cauvin and the others mentioned with him above, that the development of agriculture, and all that followed upon it, was the product, not first of an advance in subsistence strategies, but rather of the arrival 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 Great 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 is most significant in this development, however, viewed over the long evolutionary sweep, was the fact that, operating within the framework of increasingly concentrated and integrated cultural interaction, culture came to evolve 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.
The crucial instrument brought to bear in this process was human language. And this is the element in the book that — along with that of the Göbekli Tepe twin pillars — is likely to generate the most controversy. The book’s findings inexorably lead to the conclusion that fully human language did not begin to materialize until the seminal period we have been focusing on; that is, not before 12,000 years ago. Although scholarly opinions as to when language might have come about are all over the place, almost no one in the field subscribes to so late a starting point for it. The evidence accumulated in the book, however, is very strong to the point.
There are explanations for the failure of the scholarly world to take into account the possibility of a late development for language. Language leaves no visible markers — no stones or bones to mark its presence; hence it is a blank on the archaeological record. And it is such an innate part of what it’s like to be human that it is hard to imagine physically modern humans 50,000 years ago — or even archaic Homo sapiens 250,000 years ago— without it. Moreover, for historical reasons reviewed in the book, only in relatively quite recent times has the evolution of language been considered a proper field of study for linguists.
Millions of years of evolution were required to achieve the phenomenon of language, with its infinite capacity to express any concept the mind can conjure up. Separately evolving threads of cognition, myth, culture, and semiotics, had to be braided together in a process Richerson and Boyd have termed “coevolving mutualisms”: ultimately at a critical point separate evolutionary threads come together to produce in combination a thing not implicit in any of them.
At bottom, fully human language was just incredibly difficult to come by. Consider: fluent language entails an individual’s ability to formulate and convey, independently of context, a complex communication — and a hearer’s even more difficult task of grasping clearly its meaning. And the conveyance is analogue in nature; that is to say, a message, digitally infinite in its capacity of expression, has to be delivered by means of lips, tongue, larynx, and breathing apparatus, all working smoothly together at breakneck speed. And then consider the cognitive capacity necessary to such a performance: it has to be learned and made second-nature in the period of just a few years — by children.
It is no wonder that, in the vast history of the species, language was the last of the skills to evolve that make us truly human. It was also the final key to the astonishing pace, for better or worse, of cultural momentum today.