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Why Neanderthals Hate Poetry: A Critical Notice of Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of Mind

J. Sarnecki and M. Sponheimer
Philosophical Psychology, 2002, 15 (2): 173-184.


The significance of historical advances in human development has been widely debated within cognitive science. Steven Mithen's recent book, The prehistory of mind (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996), presents an archeologist's attempt to explain the details of cognitive development within the framework of modern anthropology and cognitive psychology. We argue that Mithen's attempt fails for a number of different reasons. The relationship between the archeological evidence he considers and his conclusions is problematic. We maintain that it is difficult to draw biological conclusions from strictly behavioral artifactual evidence. To buttress his claims, Mithen borrows heavily from the very cognitive science literature to which he hopes to contribute. As a consequence, his analysis of the archeological evidence cannot promote a particular cognitive theory, since his interpretation is only as strong as those theories from which he borrows. We are also concerned that the specific details of Mithen's program are equally problematic. Mithen's claim that modular intelligences did not exist outside of hominid evolution is likely false and unwarranted. As a consequence, we argue that the central component of his claim that the uniquely human feature of our development, the move from modular to fluid minds, depends on poorly defined distinctions between a wide range of mental processes. Whether we can accept Mithen's characterization of these claims will depend, we argue, on how he chooses to clarify these terms. We suggest that the various choices will be difficult to reconcile with his theory. Moreover, we suggest that the phenomena that Mithen hopes to explain in human development cannot be explained strictly in terms of analogical reasoning. We nevertheless find Mithen's attempt at answering these questions to be both a constructive and fascinating foray into what is an under-explored topic.