The human mind – a history

Book Review: The Evolution of the Human Mind: From Supernaturalism to Naturalism – An Anthropological Perspective by Robert L Carneiro

Price: US$95.00, (paperback US$39.95); NZ$172.00

Hardcover: 506 pages
Publisher: Eliot Werner Publications (July 23, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0979773113
ISBN-13: 978-0979773112

With a subtitle “From Supernaturalism to Naturalism” this book obviously covers a breathtaking view of the human mind’s evolution. It’s well over 400 pages long and has 35 pages of references.  It could be intimidating but it is not. Far from it.

This is not a dry academic tome.  The writing style is economical but clear. Also, each of the 26 chapters is broken into brief sections rarely more than a few page long. The reader has no time to get bored or distracted from the content.

Carneiro’s description of the early stages of human thought must be, to some extent, speculative. However, as an anthropologist he can draw on the studies of existing and recent primitive cultures.

The spirit world

Carneiro suggests that supernaturalism was inevitable to early humans. “Very little goes unexplained by the pre-scientific but ever-curious mind. It is uncomfortable not to know something and the imagination is always ready to fill in the gaps in true knowledge with supernatural interpretations. Explanation always consists of casting the unfamiliar into terms of the familiar, and of course there is nothing more familiar to people than themselves.”

The existence of the mental world, and dreams, lead to the human soul. This lead on to the idea of spirits, firstly inhabiting animate bodies and eventually incorporated into the inanimate. The idea of “bush spirits.”

“The spirit world – devised to satisfy man’s craving to know –became, over countless millennia, a progressively more embroidered tapestry. With the human soul as the germ and the prototype, all manner of spiritual beings were conjured up, mythical creatures who engaged in a variety of activities – more often than not, evil ones. From the strictly scientific point of view, these spirit beings were, of course, illusory. But the native’s own belief in their existence was implicit and unquestioning. And in a certain sense they were correct. As the anthropologist Leslie White used to say in class at the University of Michigan, ‘The spirits are real, all right. The question is, is the locus of their reality in the mind or the external world?’”

Primitive peoples believed in various spirits and while these were important they were not yet gods. “It is safe to say that in the history of religion, gods started out as spiritual beings of a lesser order. And gradually – and only in some places – did they evolve into fully-fledged deities.”

“The Evolution of the Human Mind” describes this evolution of god ideas – from bush spirits of limited scope and power, to “culture heroes” with responsibilities for natural phenomena like thunder and lightning, to fully fledged gods. From polytheistic ideas to monotheism. With their increase in power and prestige the gods attracted, even demanded, greater veneration. They had to be placated. This lead to worship, reverence, prayers or entreaties, sacrifice (even human sacrifice) and submission.  And a religious bureaucracy. “A high god – as he becomes more grandiose and essential to human welfare – becomes more difficult to reach and influence . . – a body of religious specialists (priests) conveniently emerges to carry out this very function. Ostensibly they do this for the benefit of the entire society; in practice they benefit greatly from it themselves.”

The rise of scientific thinking

Eventually scientific thinking also developed in the human mind. There was an unavoidable conflict with supernatural thinking. And the transition from supernaturalism to a modern scientific naturalism was by no means simple or linear. Often it was a story of one step forward followed by two steps back. This would describe the reversal into the Christian mysticism of the European middle ages after the progress made by the ancient Greeks.

Carneiro briefly discusses the science and philosophy of the ancient Greeks but spends more time on the renewal and rise of scientific thinking with the scientific revolution of the 16th Century. Here there was an obvious contradiction between the urge to see reality as rational and adherence to religious dogma of the time. To some extent this was the only safe way of challenging mystical dogma (and even then there were famous casualties), but it also represented the thinking of those early scientists. On the one hand they could sincerely claim their discoveries for their god, as somehow revealing the logic of their god. On the other hand these discoveries reduced the need for such gods.

The progress of science inevitably loosened the power of supernatural thinking. But again this progress was not uniform. The book considers many of the philosophers and scientists involved in the scientific revolution and the subsequent period.  People like Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Gassendi, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Berkeley, Schelling, Fichte, Hegel, Kant and others. He shows how even within the individuals there was a struggle between the new materialist thinking of science and the supernaturalism or idealism of their philosophy and cultural background.

This continued to the present day where theist scientists will sometimes claim support for the god beliefs from their science. The book quotes philosopher Susan Stebbing on this: “Every scientist turned philosopher tends to find support in his special studies for the metaphysical theory which on other grounds he finds attractive.”

The book has a chapter on “The Twin Specters of Atheism and Materialism” which I think is useful. It shows the connection between atheism and scientific thinking. And it covers the various attitudes to, and presentations of, philosophical materialism and how this has changed over time. Starting with the ancient Greeks it takes us through French materialism and atheism, British attitudes and German materialism.

The science-religion conflict

Of course the struggle between supernaturalism and naturalism still goes on today and the book brings us right up to current times. It discusses Gould’s idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria where defining a separate space for science and religion removes the conflict between them (see Morals, values and the limits of science). But the book shows how this essentially fails as science and religion inevitably encroach on each other’s “territories.”  Surely the lessons of history displayed in this book convincingly show the religion-science conflict is unavoidable – purely because of the diametrical opposition of the worldviews of supernaturalism and naturalism.

And this is not a simple either/or choice.  No longer can theologians deny or ignore the findings of science. “Today clerics and theologians alike must come to terms with science as best they can – or suffer the consequences. . . And of course the other side of the debate, science feels no need – to say nothing of an obligation – to trim its sails to conform to any religious doctrine.”

However, “Religion remains to this day a powerful voice in the debates about how the universe began, what attributes it manifests, and how it continues to run.” Perhaps not surprising. “If our survey of the development of human thought has revealed anything at all, it is that advances in science – incontestable and irresistible as they may be – have been met grudgingly and with resistance.  When such advances have challenged some strongly held religious belief or seemed to threaten religious institutions, they have been vigorously opposed.”

Such a wide-ranging book inevitably must cover some areas superficially. But it is well referenced for those who wish to pursue particular aspects in depth. From my perspective the only obvious deficiency was its portrayal of quantum indetirminacy purely as resulting from the effect of the photon needed for observation on the momentum and position of the observed particle. I felt this avoided the more basic underlying indeterminacy at the quantum level.

I am sure some philosophers and theologians will criticise the book because Carneiro has no standing in their fields. The old hubris that only philosophers and theologians are entitled to study, let alone pontificate on, the supernatural and religious ideas.

However, Carneiro argues “the deepest understanding of why people believe in God or in other representatives of the supernatural comes not from the astronomer, nor from the biologist (for that matter), both of whom are far removed from the repository of supernatural lore. It comes instead from the dedicated student of those individuals whose ancestors invented supernatural beings in the first place. It comes from the anthropologist.”

This comment is also true for philosopher and theologian critics. “Anthropologists regard religion – as something to be studied and explained, rather than believed. For anthropologists, then, religious beliefs constitute phenomena – “phenomena” being simply things and events viewed as the subject of science.”


I think the book is excellent. Easy to read – both because of its writing style and the layout in relatively brief sections. This makes it a pleasure to read – and the subject is so exhilarating! It’s obviously aimed at the layperson, but may still be of use to the student or specialist who wishes to get a broad view of the evolution of the human mind in which to place their specialist studies.

A book to read and then keep for reference.

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3 responses to “The human mind – a history

  1. Pingback: Faith, Science and the Modern world. « Transient Reflections

  2. Pingback: Faith, Science and the Modern world. « One Lifetime

  3. Pingback: Faith, Science and the Modern world. – Mind Exposure

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