EXPLORING THE LANDSCAPE OF THE MIND:
UNDERSTANDING HUMAN THOUGHT AND BEHAVIOR
Dr Stephen S Clark
This book is based on the premise that humankind is first and foremost the outcome of the process of biological evolution. Recognition of this is fundamental to our understanding of who we are and how we behave. All living things have evolved the physical and mental attributes that promote their prospects for survival; they are good at doing the things that enable them to pass on their genes to succeeding generations and we are no exception. Of course, through the development of culture we have gained some freedom from our biological origins. Nevertheless, evolution has constructed the foundation upon which culture is built.
The first part of the book, ‘Ourselves Interacting with the World,’ presents an overview of the main capabilities that evolution has endowed us with and that enable us to interact with the environment in advantageous ways. This begins with our senses, including seeing, hearing, touching and tasting, which act as ‘windows on the world.’ We then go on to consider our emotions which make possible a timely response to unexpected challenges, and our memory, which opens the way to a knowledge of the past and an ability to imagine the future. Thinking is perhaps the crowning achievement of our evolutionary journey. It enables us to construct a mental model of the world and how it works, to solve problems and decide what to do next. Thought, together with memory, sets the stage for action. We learn from the past; rewarding and punishing experiences offer a guide to what to do and what not to do in the future. One of the most remarkable attributes we possess is a sense of self which enables us to see ourselves as actors in the world. Equipped with this ability we can step into the minds of others and even empathise with them, the very foundation of social behaviour.
The second part of the book, ‘Living Together,’ traces the history of how we became social creatures. To be truly human we had to develop an enhanced ability to care for others, to be willing to share and cooperate. This was a development of major significance because being able to live amicably with others of our species was crucial to our survival. These newly emergent qualities did not, however, mean that we left our evolutionary past behind us. We retained, and if anything, refined our talent for deception, anger and aggressive behaviour, and these traits remain serious problems for us to this day. Nevertheless, through caring and the need to belong to the group, we were able to become trusting of one another, to agree upon values and norms of behaviour that enhanced our ability to get along. We settled down, making the transition from hunter-gatherers to urban dwellers. Ultimately, we came to see good and bad as a morality of right and wrong, further augmenting group cohesiveness. Through the development of culture, we freed ourselves, to a degree, from the biological imperatives that had gripped us. Nevertheless, we would do well to remember that in all that we think and do we still ‘dance with the ghosts of the past.’
In the final part of the book, ‘Challenges and Opportunities,’ attention turns to a consideration of the constraints and possibilities that must be considered in looking to the future. Though we get along remarkably well, it must also be accepted that conflict of interests is a human universal; individually, we want different things and there is also the difficult challenge of balancing the interests of individuals vs. the interests of the social group as a whole. These realities can be seen to play out in four social arenas: the pursuit of fairness, the seeking of justice, the interplay of political beliefs and good government and, ultimately, a united society that is, at the same time a true community. Our quest for these things will be greatly aided by a deep knowledge and appreciation of our evolutionary past and the indelible imprint it has left upon us. Such an understanding may also lead us to that most elusive of all things, happiness.
US REVIEW OF BOOKS
Exploring the Landscape of the Mind
by Stephen S. Clark
reviewed by Michael Radon
"Society, even today, is a fundamentally competitive place as individuals jostle for advantage over others."
The human brain has been throughout history something of a paradox: a tool that we have used to understand the mysteries of the universe while not revealing a thorough understanding of itself. While much of how the brain works or the nature of the more nebulous concept of the mind remains elusive, science has progressed rapidly to try and answer these questions. In this book, the author combines science, philosophy, and sociology, providing a compendium of knowledge as to how the human mind both separates and links us to the rest of the animal kingdom. This exploration begins first with the scientific reasons behind simple things that are easy to take for granted or avoid considering the causes rather than the effects; things like emotions, motivations, and memories. Using evolution as a starting point and drawing comparisons to the animal kingdoms, these functions of our minds are related to simple things we can understand while also being explained using technical geography of the brain.
From there, the author transitions from the scientific side of things to the more sociological perspective, without abandoning the former. Human society examined throughout history, and how the changes from being a hunter-gatherer society to living in big city life with hundreds of thousands of other people affects us psychologically. At the same time, our modern actions are explained using analogies from both older structured societies and the natural order of things, giving a deeper understanding into the why of minute social phenomena. Charity, empathy, the importance of family, and more are all investigated logically and practically, providing a potential reason for their continued existence and how they contribute to our evolving idea of community. Moving from micro to macro, this investigation of the human existence begins with the chemical reactions that take place in the individual human animal all the way up to the culture and cities we have built, and whether or not they are sustainable on the path that we are currently traveling.
The content and the concept of a book such as this can seem to be too wide in scope at first. Covering so much ground and so many abstract ideas is certainly daunting from the outset, but the author makes the subject matter surprisingly accessible. Using a mixture of both hard and soft sciences, the bulk of the language used to convey the findings and material of this text is simple and easy to comprehend. The author's own conclusions are supplemented by quotes from classic texts written by prominent thinkers such as Aristotle, Nietzsche, Pascal, Proust, and even revered fiction authors like Shakespeare and Melville. The end result is a way to answer big questions that makes sense to readers who may not be intimately familiar with all the different parts of the brain.
One of the aspects of this book that makes it a success is the author's passion for and interest in the subject at hand. As a nonfiction book, the tone is as objective and professional as possible, but because much of the science involved is still progressing or is theoretical, there are plenty of opportunities for hypotheses and conjecture. Where the exuberance of the author is confirmed, it is not a matter of something that can be read directly, but rather something that is easy to infer from the curiosity openly on display. Whether readers are seasoned at studying the nature and complexity of the human mind or are broaching the topic for the first time, this is an excellent study that opens up more than just a few facts here and there, but a new way of approaching everyday situations. The extensive bibliography also provides plenty of opportunities to continue studying these concerns long after this text has ended. Occupying a space between science and social science, this book is a fascinating read that manages to capture both the objective and subjective aspects of what it means to think like a human.