Barbara King reviews The Singing Neanderthal

2 minute read

At the online book review section of Bookslut, the new Steven Mithen book, The Singing Neanderthal: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body is reviewed by primatologist Barbara J. King. It's a good review to get the main themes of the book, and generally positive. Here's an excerpt:

On page five, Mithen commands attention by announcing a dual intention to take on academic superstar Steve Pinker's (The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, The Language Instinct) views on the evolution of music and to atone for his own "embarrassing" past neglect of music (The Prehistory of the Mind). I was hooked; Pinker-worthy, non-ego-driven scientists don't grow on trees. Happily, this initial promise of provocation is fulfilled, for Mithen offers a fascinating argument about the evolutionary relationship between music and language. To be precise, it is provocative, fascinating and, I think, quite wrong on multiple points. But how much fun is it, really, to curl up with a book that lulls you into placid agreement?
Somewhat convoluted, Mithen's argument depends on three key moves. First, he starkly splits apart language and music: language tells us about the world, music manipulates our emotions. Second, he proposes a single evolutionary precursor to both language and music. This is the communication system he calls "Hmmmm" for holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, and musical: "Its essence would have been a large number of holistic utterances, each functioning as a complete message in itself rather than as words that could be combined to generate new meanings." Though elements of Hmmmm are present in the communication of modern day apes (and thus, probably, our apelike ancestors), this system really took off once bipedalism evolved in the human lineage. Walking on two legs changed much in our ancestors' anatomy and behavior, and promoted the use of Hmmmm in specific ways.

I may review it myself when I can get my hands on a copy.

I often discuss Mithen's previous book The Prehistory of the Mind in classes. In this earlier book also, Mithen argues that the evolution of human minds involved breaking apart old cognitive systems and stitching them back together in different ways after a period of independent development. It's a sort of mosaic theory of cognitive evolution, coupled with a terminal period of intertentaclation of different mental services into a single conscious experience.

What's "intertentaclation"? I figure it's the octopus equivalent of interdigitation. I guess you could say it makes me go "Hmmmm".