FIGMENTS OF REALITY --- THE EVOLUTION OF THE CURIOUS MIND
by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Cambridge University Press, 1997
PROLOGUE --- Isn't it strange that the animal we used to be developed into the creature that we
now are? How and why did human intelligence and culture evolve? How did we evolve minds,
philosophies and technologies? And now that we have them, where are they taking us?
The usual answer to these questions looks inside our brains to see what they are made of and how
the various components operate. This leads to a story based upon DNA biochemistry, the
evolution of nerve cells as pathways for sensory information, and their organization into complex
networks, called "brains," that can manipulate neural models of natural objects and processes.
Mind is seen as a property of an unusual brain, complex enough to develop culture. Many people
see "mind" as something that transcends ordinary matter altogether. However, in this book, the
idea of a "complementary" theory is explored, namely, that minds and culture co-evolved within a
wider context. In other words, every step of our human development is affected by our
surroundings. Our "minds" are rooted in ordinary matter. They are complex processes, or
complexes of processes, that happen in material brains. Our brains are linked to reality by their
molecules. But they are also linked to reality on another level, their ability within themselves!
Our minds co-evolve with everything that influences them. Minds are "figments of reality,"
processes going on inside structures made from ordinary matter whose behavior evolved in order
to mimic, model and manipulate natural processes. This explains why minds are so effective at
perceiving and reorganizing their environment. The human condition is a "complicit" interaction
between culture and individual minds, each shaping the other!
Culture depends upon communication, which we achieve with language. Language is the first
step towards "extelligence." Language co-evolved with brains and made minds, complicit with
hands and technology, and the discovery of patterns and laws. Mind can only "think" about mind
once language equips it with a recursive or self-referential "feature-detection" system. Once it has
this, "self" awareness is an immediate, essentially trivial property of Life. This is because "self" is
a feature too. The existence of "features" makes it possible to employ a "mental map" instead of
the real territory.
The greatest step so far in our cultural evolution has been the aggregation of different cultures to
make "multicultures." There are many kinds of multicultures. The self-complication of human
culture will not stop there, because it is a self-propelled process. Tomorrow's multicultures will
be more like genuine multicellular organisms. Our new communication technologies are
beginning to knit all of the different multicultures into a new entity, a "superculture" that can be
called "Humanity!" (p1-4)
1) The origins of life (p5-32)
The prologue to this book is one way to tell the story of who we are and how we got here on
planet earth. The story demonstrates how utterly incomprehensible the universe in its entirety is,
and how difficult it is for a newly intelligent upright ape to close the conceptual circle by
encapsulating the sheer vastness of that universe inside its tiny brain case.
Each of us inhabits a personal universe. In a sense, each of us is a personal universe, for if we are
destroyed then our personal universe vanishes with us. Nevertheless, the universe of cosmology
is made up of fundamental particles, such as electrons, and radiation such as light. But our
personal universes are made of very different kinds of things. Most of the interesting "features"
of our personal universes are people and their activities, friends and lovers, enemies and
acquaintances from our work and play. Thus, what occupies most of our daily thoughts is
2) The reductionist nightmare (p33-62)
What science really offers us is not facts, but understanding; not answers but contingency plans.
Everything we think we know about the world is based upon assumptions. The aim of science is
to devise coherent points of view that can be used to understand the way the world works.
The idea of "embedding" a system in its surroundings, thereby studying not just what it does, but
what it might have done in slightly different circumstances, opens up completely different ways of
thinking about the universe!
3) Ant country (p63-76)
4) Winning ways (p77-108)
5) Universals and parochials (p109-134)
6) Neural nests (p135-164)
7) Features great and small (165-192)
8) What is it like to be a "Human?" (P193-226)
9) We wanted to have a chapter on "free will," but we decided not to, so here it is (p227-243)
10) Extelligence (p243-271)
11) Simplex, complex, multiplex (p271-300)
How did such a peculiar animal as the human gain such a grip upon the planet?
What is it that makes you the way you are?
FURTHER READING (p313-316)