A Brand New Mind:
How Cognition, Language, Myth, and Culture
Came Together To Make Us What We Are
This 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). Although these authorities have central places in the work, I introduce them at this point primarily by way of illustration, as I also rely heavily on many other sources. I will not generally employ further citations here, but in the book every assertion not explicitly owned by me is supported with references to competent authorities.
The second of the cultural stages posited by Donald, mimetic culture, opens the way in humans to the evolution of a highly developed semiotic capacity. The culture did not have the capacity to generate language, but, nevertheless, I hold that these large brained modern humans, fully developed anatomically and equipped with sophisticated means of communicating by sign, were able to sustain, for thousands of years, and maybe hundreds of thousands, their traditional hunting and gathering way of life — all the way into the Neolithic period, at which point began the conversion to sedentary lifestyles based on farming and herding.
Following a different track, Richerson and Boyd find that cumulative cultural adaptation, building on a capacity for social learning, has ultimately freed human 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 that introduced the Neolithic period, 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, afterwards, it became all but inevitable.
The two broad 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. For historical reasons, Richerson and Boyd found themselves unable to fix upon such a change, coincident with the shift in food sources, but an explanation is to be had. The cultural shift they were looking for lay in the beginnings at that time of the formation of myth. It pointed humans in a new direction. Myth, as Donald points out, shaped, in every detail, the lives of virtually all “Stone Age” societies encountered 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 consort, a bull. Much has been made of theories of a mother goddess at the onset of agriculture, and what has been termed the Neolithic Revolution that followed, and the idea has infiltrated the popular mind, but it is not widely credited in present-day Middle East archaeology. Scholars tend, understandably, to be chary of suggestions of a divine intervention of any sort at a crucial turning point in human culture. The mother goddess 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. He further determined that, shortly after these appeared, statuettes of the same sort proliferated in the Fertile Crescent, 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 500 years.
Cauvin had not always been an outlier to the orthodoxy. The first excavator of the celebrated archaeological site of Çatalhöyük in south central Turkey, James Mellaart, adopted 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 huntergatherer site ever discovered — found at the heart of it a “transcendental sphere”; and prominent Middle East archaeologist, Trevor Watkins, holds a view that I find quite persuasive: the gigantic anthropomorphic pillars at Göbekli Tepe represent — not deities themselves — but the ritual making of gods.
I have prepared an article on this subject, as respects which I have traded ideas with Watkins. The article is ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal either before or after publication of the book, whichever might serve best the book’s promotion: https://ttlawson.com/in-plain-sight-the-identity-of-the-twin-pillars-of-gobeklitepe/
The reason I am belaboring fact of the arrival of the goddess is that she 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 the subject), to a form of thought pointing to myth, and ultimately to religion. The kernel of the argument is that the Neolithic Revolution was the product, not of environmental or subsistence factors, but was cultural: a people had come to view the world in an entirely new way.
History bears this out. Cauvin informs us that the goddess/bull imagery spread by diffusion from northern Syria into Turkey, and was central there to the culture of the much studied Çatalhöyük. The divine pair is further evidenced in the iconography of the pottery of the Halaf culture (circa 6500 to 5500 BC), which flourished in the same region, and within the time horizon of Çatalhöyük. From there, there follow, in a straight line of mythic development, the Great Mother/Son-Lover religions of the Bronze Age civilizations of Mesopotamia that prevailed into classical times. (The masculine principle represented by the bull was anthropomorphized over time into the Son-Lover.)
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 cultural change, change that has reached a point where the cumulative cultural adaptation 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 has now brought us — with continuously gathering momentum — to the complex, technology-based civilizations of the world today.
The crucial instrument of this process was language. And this is the element in the book — along with revelations in the Göbekli Tepe article — that is likely to generate the most controversy. The book’s findings lead inexorably to the conclusion that fully human language did not begin to materialize until the seminal time we have been focusing on — 11,600 years ago. Although scholarly opinions as to when language might have come about are all over the place, virtually no one in the field subscribes to so late a beginning. The accumulated evidence of the book, however, is multifaceted and very tight 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. Evolutionary linguists, however, are today hard to the point of the obstacles posed to such a skill and to the time necessarily entailed in attaining it.
Millions of years of evolution were required to come upon an infinite capacity to express any concept a mind can conjure up. Separately evolving threads of cognition, myth, culture, and semiotics, had to be braided together in what Richerson and Boyd termed “coevolving mutualisms” so that, ultimately, at a critical juncture, the separate evolutionary threads came together to produce in combination a thing not implicit in any of them.
Certainly the most difficult element to develop for language, from an evolutionary standpoint, would have been the necessary degree of cognitive power. It makes sense, therefore, that cognition would have supplied the final key. And getting there would not have happened over night. An evolutionary push of great magnitude would have been required to bring about such a phenomenon. Psychically, there was a felt need to make sense of things, and that could have been met only through a means of assembling and holding in mind the thoughts necessary to form a coherent worldview. Myth was the answer, and a mythic narrative could be generated only through language.
The practical background for the pressure to break through to language was to be found in the expanding populations of the late Upper Paleolithic, accompanied as they were by increasingly sedentary societies with larger resident communities. People had to come to terms with extended social relationships, and develop measures by which they could be worked out and maintained. Speech provided the answer.
All said, fully human language was just incredibly difficult to come by. The required brain-power entails the ability of one individual to formulate with abstract signs, and to convey, independently of context, a complex communication — and another’s even more difficult task of grasping its meaning. Moreover, 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 there is the final peek to be climbed: it has to be learned and made second-nature in the period of just a few years — by children.
Language cannot exist without consciousness, and vice versa. It is no wonder, then, that, in the long history of the species, language was the last to evolve of the skills that make us truly human. It was also the final key to the breakneck pace, for better or worse, of cultural momentum today.