56 internautes sur 60 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
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You can tell the ambitious scope of this book by its subtitle: "the origins of music, language, mind, and body." Wow! Is that all? Actually, the task the author sets out to do isn't as vast as one might at first suppose because they are seen as related in the way early hominids arose and then evolved further. Steven Mithen is less concerned with the origin of music than the way in which the homo sapiens mind differed from its ancestors and the then contemporary hominids.
But before I get to my attempt at summarizing what Mithen says about these matters, I want to address something else. The speculative stories that professional anthropologists and archaeologists tell have a very different meaning to them than they end up meaning for the general public and there is some small danger in that difference. Science professionals are all aware of the raw evidence and the context and conjecture surrounding each piece. There are always ambiguities and tentative "conclusions" arrived at by one authority or another and they often conflict. However, to make sense of a broad collection of data a story is created as a kind of summary of what is known at that time.
These stories are always fragile as art glass. But they can be a useful way of organizing what is known and if new evidence found fits within the model it is strengthened. However, it is known that any new evidence found might undo a part of the story or overthrow it altogether. The problem is that the general reader doesn't know the evidence and has no idea of its context. Such a reader is unlikely to read broadly enough to gain some sense of the strength of such a story and whether its speculation is more mainstream or something radical.
Whether the story is fairly constructed from the evidence, or is highly skewed in its presentation and is in fact untrustworthy cannot be known by the casual reader. Yet the story becomes the way the general reader is likely to discuss the topic, as if the story were fact. This can actually impede understanding rather than help because it freezes things in the reader's mind because work continues in the field and the story may be overthrown rather quickly. The author actually mentions this kind of effect when discussing the Divje Babe I "flute" which is more likely a bone bitten into by a bear than a flute. But in the popular imagination it remains a flute.
I am certainly not qualified to judge the evidence presented in this book nor any of the authors speculations or conclusions. What I can say is that the author tells his story well, is quite interesting, and does present the ambiguities of the evidence and various sides on many of the issues he discusses. I think such openness and fair-mindedness is a good sign even while one is advocating for a particular point of view.
Mithen's thrust in this book (if I understand it correctly) is that as early hominids developed into upright narrow-hipped creatures certain biological adaptations accompanied these developments that allowed homo ergaster and homo neanderthalensis and homo heidelbergensis and all the later hominids to make more flexible sounds than other related creatures. We can see the extension of those differences as we look at what the apes and monkeys do with "song" versus humans. (It is essential when reading this book when reading the words music and song to maintain the rudimentary nature of what he is describing versus the pieces by Bach, Brubeck, and Miles Davis that he refers to occasionally.) The author sees the sources of rhythm and music within the nature of our bodies and the way it moves and the sounds we are able to make because of our high larynx and flexible throat and mouth. I think this is exactly right.
But isn't this getting a bit ahead of the story? Surely language came before singing and dance? The author says no and his explanation is the main story of this book and is quite fascinating. There are two broad divisions about the rise of language. The first is the one most of us would have intuitively expected, that language started with one or two semi-grunted words and slowly evolved into Shakespeare. This is the compositional school. The other, that I had known nothing of until I read this book and am now quite persuaded by (see how being ignorant in the face of a great story teller can draw one in?) is known as the holistic development of speech.
In the holistic view, early hominids made certain calls that were not symbolic and contained whole meetings in the single utterance. One call might mean "give that to her" and another might mean "beware of the bear over there". But they were not words in our sense and could not be used to develop new phrases or sentences. They could not compose as we do. These calls rose out of the way early hominids, had to care for their young and can even be seen in remnant in our Infant Directed Speech and our penchant for phrases that we say without thinking or meaning, but preserve a function (such as "Howareyoudoing" "Iamfine"). He calls this early form of verbalization with the surprising acronym "Hmmmmm", which stands for Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic.
The Neanderthals referred to in the title lived tough lives. The author believes that all the evidence available about them shows they lived short (about 35 years) hard lives. He thinks they had a "domain intelligence". That is, their brains were capable of doing certain things like making fire or making and using tools, but did not have the interconnections and mental fluidity that developed in homo sapiens. They did not paint on walls, they did not make huts, and the author believes they could not speak in words. They used holistic song and dance to communicate, comfort their young, and develop interpersonal connectedness that strengthened their tribes.
Neanderthals were always on the precarious edge of survival and when homo sapiens showed up they disappeared. Mithen assures us that our ancestors didn't slaughter them to extinction, but offers no evidence for this. To me it sounds like a kind of political correctness borne of modern sensibilities against wanton killing. But I don't believe there is evidence one way or the other.
This book covers a great deal of ground that I can't even summarize here. It is worth reading for its valuable content and is also enjoyable if you like anthropology. As a musician, I did find his explanations of music a bit weak, but they made more sense as he developed his thesis. However, if you are looking for the explanation of how Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven came to be, you won't find it here. This is much more basic and about how the raw musical potential came to be.
I am reminded of the cartoon of a detailed equation on a blackboard that is labeled in various steps. Two scientists are standing in front of step two which says "and then a great miracle occurs" and one says to the other "I think you need to flesh out this step a bit more". It isn't that Mithen has left anything out for his story, but that for music to become something more than communal folk singing to the high art of Western Culture does require something more than the dismissal of such music as "elite" implying that it is somehow a prejudice not worthy of serious examination.
But that is beside the point. If you are interested in the development of early hominids, you will likely learn things from this book. If you want to learn about the holistic view of language development, this is a fine explanation. If you want to know more about how and when Neanderthals lived and how Homo Sapiens arose and filled the earth, this is a fine explanation. If you want to know about the differences in our musical potential versus other creatures in nature and what adaptations had to take place for that to happen, this is fascinating stuff.
So, recommended and enjoy!
14 internautes sur 14 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
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Mithen's "The Prehistory of the Mind" was one of the most intellectually exciting books that I can remember reading. His thesis is that the sudden flowering of symbolic representation - like the beautiful cave art of Lascaux - only 40-50,000 years ago could only be explained by a radical change in the mind of homo sapiens. The apparent paradox he addresses, is why the undoubted technical abilities of early man and his ancestors - as evidenced in the abundant and often exquisitely fashioned stone and flint tools - had remained essentially at the same level for many hundreds of thousands of years. Throughout this time - including the period from about 190,000 to 50,000 yag during which anatomically modern humans existed - there is virtually no evidence of any use of these abilities to make anything that could be described as art or decoration. Mithen's solution to this paradox is that early homo sapiens had a "modular" mind - consisting of a "social" module, that allowed them to conduct their relationships with others, a "technical" module that helped them learn to manipulate materials and make tools, and a "natural history" module that understood the animals and plants in the world about them. What they lacked was an integration of these modules - "cognitive fluidity" - which would for example have allowed crossover between social and technical modules, and enabled man to use their technical abilities to fashion art or ornamentation which could be used to modulate or manipulate their relationships with others. It was the evolution of this integrative ability which caused the cultural/artistic florescence that we find so remarkeable.
Perhaps because I have followed and found very logical the arguments of the Evolutionary Psychologists, who see the mind as a collection of evolved adaptations to a series of specific fitness problems, I found Mithen's thesis very intuitive and appealing - even though it inevitably involves a great deal of speculation and extrapolation from evidence which can only be described as circumstantial (what the late S.J. Gould unkindly referred to as "Just So" stories).
Because of my enthusiasm for "Prehistory", I eagerly awaited subsequent books from Mithen. His second book "After the Ice - a Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 BC" was a huge disappointment; suffice it to say, that this was one of the few books I have started, and failed to read through to the end. The present book - although not in any way as groundbreaking or as stimulating as "Prehistory" - is a worthwhile read.
In fact it is a very "worthy" book; the central argument is that, as man's early ancestors evolved into fully bipedal hominids, they developed a means of communication, which was not language, which Mithen refers to as "Hmmmmm" - Holistic (consisting of whole sounds not parseable into words and syntax), Manipulative (designed to achieve ends, rather than describe), Multi-Modal (sound and body movement), Musical and Mimetic (using mimicry and immitation). The two two main supporting strands for this thesis involve, on the one hand consideration of the neurological and behavioral aspects of music and language, and on the other, hypotheses based on what is known about the lifestyles and selection pressures on early humans at different stages of evolution.
In the early chapters, Mithen's review of the similarities and differences between music and language, leads to the conclusion that they both evolved from some kind of primitive proto-language-music combination. He then reveals some fascinating aspects about what can only be described as the "competition" between linguistic and musical abilities for brain space. For example, that people with either congenital or acquired neural speech disorders often have enhanced musical abilities e.g perfect pitch - "musical savants". Or, that most infants possess perfect pitch (like many people suffering from autism). It appears that most babies are born with perfect pitch, which is gradually replaced by a bias toward relative pitch. Language acquisition involves the "unlearning" of perfect pitch (which is disadvantageous, because it prevents "generalization" - understanding that songs sung in different keys, or words spoken at different fundamental frequencies are the same.)
The second half of the book descibes what is known about the lifestyles of various early humans - homo ergaster, homo heidelbergiensis, and the neanderthals of the title - . Mithen's objective is to demonstrate that, at each of these stages, those individuals best able to communicate with their fellows, be trusted by them and gain their cooperation would have been the fittest (in darwinian terms). There would therefore have been a strong selective pressure for developing effective communication, and Mithen's argument is that this would have led to the progressive elaboration of communication into his "Hmmmm" - but not to language as we know it. Arguments involving many, many occurrences of words like "might have" and "we can imagine that" (which later morph into less speculative "did" and "were") are inevitable, given the paucity of hard evidence. They require the reader to very comprehensively "suspend disbelief" until the end, in order to see whether the whole edifice stands up or not.
Where Mithen is able to provide evidence or deductive argument from evidence, he does so. He also very conscientiously presents and evaluates evidence and counter-arguments that might contradict his thesis. Personally, I found the argument that, even the neanderthals - perhaps the closest and most recent relatives of modern humans - lacked language, quite convincing. However, Mithen's conclusion from this - that music played a major role in their lives (to the extent of having "performance spaces" in their caves) - left me unconvinced.