Keywords: Psychology, consciousness, popular science

Title: A Mind So Rare

Author: Merlin Donald

Publisher: WW Norton

ISBN: 0393323196


Your Mind's An Illusion claimed John Gray in an essay in New Scientist (Sept 14, 2002). Drawing on a variety of sources from neuroscience, Gray, argued that:

We are assemblages of perceptions and behaviours in which consciousness figures only intermittently.

Gray articulates an increasingly prevalent idea that consciousness, and ultimately our feelings of self, are illusory - post-facto rationalisations, convenient fictions we conjure up to convince ourselves that our we are real and in control. According to this view, we are constantly buffeted from sensation to sensation, reacting always to the environment around us and then pretending to ourselves that we are in control. Or, as psychologist Susan Blackmore puts it:

All human actions, whether conscious or not, come from complex interactions between memes, genes and all their products, in complicated environments. The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not 'have' consciousness, and it does not 'do' the deliberating. There is no truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will.

Merlin Donald's A Mind So Rare is a masterful rebuttal of this idea. He makes no secret of his attitude to consciousness:

I lionise it. In my world consciousness is king. It defines human nature.

Building on evolutionary principles, cognitive science, developmental psychology and cultural anthropology he makes a convincing case for consciousness as the central core of the mind. More than this, Donald also argues that we cannot divorce 'mind' from its cultural context. Mind is a product both of genetic and environmental forces and also a by-product of human culture.

An evolutionary approach is a central element of the theory that he elaborates. Given that many of those who are attempting to dethrone King Consciousness are neo-Darwinians, it is right that evolutionary principles are used to show both what consciousness is, how it developed and what it is for. Along the way there are useful discussions of such topics as Richard Dawkins influential but ultimately confused theory of memes, Vygotsky and social constructivist psychology, the limits of experimental psychology and much more.

Donald takes care to construct his argument carefully, and it is a pleasure to read from start to finish. Not only are his arguments clear and to the point, he also writes with an easy, witty style. For example he has this to say when discussing cognitive relativism (the idea that we cannot say that one species has greater cognitive capacity than another):

By this criterion, corporate CEOs are no more or less intelligent in an adaptive biological sense than, say, maggots, a conclusion that may have a certain emotional resonance but falls a bit short on the evidence.

In order to fully develop this Darwinian theory of the evolution of consciousness, it is of course necessary to tackle such topics as biological determinism and aspects of evolutionary psychology. These are hotly contested, and of necessity, highly political waters. What is at stake here is our conception of humanity. How we see ourselves influences culture, society and politics. In his New Scientist piece, John Gray made this explicit:

For our lives to be dictated by our choices, we must - at least potentially - be conscious of what we are doing.

In essence we have two radically opposed concepts of humanity. One view sees us as biologically programmed by DNA, operating largely on an unconscious level with our minds creating an illusion of consciousness and hence an image of self. In contrast the view developed in this book is that we are conscious beings, capable of rational choice and engaged in cultural communities which extend our cognitive abilities in order to fully express our shared humanity.

One view leads to an idea of human nature that is fixed, unchangeable and essentially primitive, the other promotes an idea of human nature that is flexible, conscious and shared. The political consequences of these contrasting views of humanity should not need spelling out.

A Mind So Rare is a timely and compelling book, is should be essential reading for anybody interested in science, philosophy and politics.

Review © Pan Pantziarka, 2006. Site © London Book Review 2006. Published October 23 2006