Mithen, Steven J. 1960–
Mithen, Steven J. 1960–
(Steven Mithen, Steven John Mithen)
PERSONAL: Born October 16, 1960, in Ashford, Kent, England; son of William and Pat Mithen; married; wife's name Susan; children: Hannah, Nicholas, Heather. Education: Sheffield University, B.A., 1983; York University, M.S., 1984; Cambridge University, Ph.D., 1988.
ADDRESSES: Office—School of Human and Environmental Sciences, University of Reading, Whiteknights, P.O. Box 227, Reading RG6 6AB, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Trinity Hall, Cambridge, England, research fellow, 1987–91; McDonald Institute for Archeological Research, Cambridge, research associate, 1990–92; University of Reading, Reading, England, lecturer, 1992–96, reader, 1998–2000, professor of early history, 2000–, head of department.
MEMBER: British Academy (fellow), Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (fellow), Society of Antiquaries of London.
The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1996.
(Editor and contributor) Creativity in Human Evolution and Prehistory, Routledge (New York, NY), 1998.
Hunter-Gatherer Landscape Archaeology, 2000.
After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 B.C., Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 2005.
Contributor to books, including Evolutionary Aesthetics, edited by E. Voland, Springer-Verlag, 2003; Mesolithic Scotland: The Early Holocene Prehistory of Scotland and Its European Context, edited by A. Saville, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2004; Theorizing Religions Past, edited by H. Whitehouse and L.H. Martin, AltaMira Press, 2004; Substance, Memory, Display: Archaeology and Art, edited by C. Renfrew, E. DeMarrais, and C. Gosden, McDonald Institute for Archeological Research, 2004; and The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, Thames & Hudson, 2004. Contributor to professional journals, including the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, British Academy Review, Times Educational Supplement Teacher Magazine, Documenta Prahistorica, Planet Earth NERC, and New Scientist.
SIDELIGHTS: A professor of early human history in England, Steven J. Mithen has become known for his books about the evolution of the human mind and its psychology, and what is known as cognitive archeology, or the study of archeological findings and as evidence of how humans evolved intellectually over time. Since the 1990s, he has published a number of books that speculate on how the environment and evolution have molded the brain, affecting such human traits as language, reasoning, and the arts. Book reviewers and colleagues of Mithen's have often found his ideas stimulating.
In his The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, Mithen further expounds upon the already established theory of modality—the idea that different types of cognition are maintained in separate areas of the brain and do not communicate with one another—and theorizes that the great leap in human evolution at the time of the rise of Homo sapiens came when the brain suddenly was able to integrate all these functions. This gave humans the ability to think in creative new ways that helped them to survive, as well as making art, imagination, and even religion possible. "Mithen's tale of separate intelligences evolving for millions of years in parallel, with the barriers between them finally crashing down, makes a fine narrative," reported T. Sambrook in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. "But on the whole natural selection has little regard for narratives and is more of a messy mosaic. "Although Sambrook felt Mithen does not support his ideas with enough evidence, he admitted that the author offers "a startlingly new idea in human evolution, intelligently incorporating contemporary psychology." Antiquity contributor Jan F. Simek commented, "Overall, Mithen takes an interesting approach to the problem of the evolution of the human mind, but the details of his exposition detract greatly from his argument. He clearly has a standard to bear, that modern humans are a breed apart, and he chooses his data carefully to avoid contradicting this basic premise." Despite such qualms, a number of reviewers concluded that the book has a lot to offer, with Kent Anderson, for one, stating in a School Arts review that The Prehistory of the Mind "is a significant contribution from the discipline of archaeology and is worth reading."
Mithen wrote about the mysteries of intellectual evolution in his The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. Here, in contrast to noted psychologist Steven Pinker, Mithen posits that music, and the mind's ability to create songs, was not an accident that offers no evolutionary benefits for hu-man survival. Rather, the author hypothesizes that music first developed out of Homo sapiens's need to convey emotion by altering pitch in the voice, thus making communication more effective. The alteration in pitch eventually evolved into singing and music. While London Observer reviewer Peter Forbes pointed out that much of what Mithen relates is "unprovable conjecture," he added that the author provides "some suggestive insights" such as the "connection between music and walking upright," which has to do with the human ability to maintain a regular rhythm, something that chimpanzees cannot do. This ability then led to a discovery of the four-beat measure.
Although some of the scientific hypotheses Mithen has proposed in The Prehistory of the Mind and The Singing Neanderthals have been questioned, critics have consistently praised his more general discussion of human evolution and archeology in After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 B.C. Here, the author creatively invents a fictional guide, nineteenth-century polymath James Lubbock, to lead readers around the world's many archeological finds that have helped scientists understand thousands of years of human history. Through his narrator, Mithen explains for the general reader how archeologists can examine ancient tools, bits of pottery, and other evidence to figure out how people once lived and how they intellectualized their world. Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor praised After the Ice as "a successful marriage of fact and imagination." Anna Belfer-Cohen, writing in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, felt that the author's narrative technique can be "quite demanding, [but] one can enjoy it thoroughly and in the process gain fascinating insights as to how the human mind works."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Antiquity, October, 1997, LeRoy McDermott, review of The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, p. 760; October, 2000, Marcia-Anne Dobres, review of Creativity in Human Evolution and Prehistory, p. 768.
Antiquity, June, 1998, Jan F. Simek, review of The Prehistory of the Mind, p. 444; December, 1999, N. James, review of Creativity in Human Evolution and Prehistory, p. 924.
Booklist, September 1, 2004, Gilbert Taylor, review of After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5,000 B.C., p. 42.
Current Anthropology, December, 1997, Raymond Corbey and Wil Roebroeks, review of The Prehistory of the Mind, p. 917.
Independent (London, England), February 19, 2006, Marek Kohn, review of The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March, 1999, T. Sambrook, review of The Prehistory of the Mind, p. 107; September, 2004, Anna Belfer-Cohen, review of After the Ice, p. 714.
New Statesman, October 18, 1996, Christopher Bad-cock, review of The Prehistory of the Mind, p. 42.
New York Review of Books, May 28, 1998, Merlin Donald, Steven Mithen, and Howard Gardner, "The Prehistory of the Mind: An Exchange."
Observer (London, England), July 2, 2005, Peter Forbes, review of The Singing Neanderthals.
School Arts, December, 1997, Kent Anderson, review of The Prehistory of the Mind, p. 41.
Science News, March 5, 2005, review of After the Ice, p. 159.