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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 88 ( 26 February )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/evans.html

Book Review

The Mind Made Flesh: Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution
by Nicholas Humphrey
Oxford University Press
2002 (paperback, x + 366pp.)

Reviewed by Dylan Evans*, Research Officer in Evolutionary Robotics at the University of Bath, United Kingdom.

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For such a young discipline, it is remarkable how much of a consensus has already been established in evolutionary psychology. It is widely agreed, for example, that modern human traits such as language had already evolved by the time our ancestors first left Africa. Certainly, by the time our ancestors were painting caves in Europe, they must have had distinctly modern minds. But perhaps this consensus is premature. For those who are unafraid to question received opinions and consider alternative hypotheses, Nicholas Humphrey’s new collection of essays is an intellectual goldmine.

Humphrey is a distinguished scientist, a psychologist and neuroscientist whose early work in the 1970s helped to pioneer the theory of Machiavellian intelligence. But he is also a maverick, an intellectual guerrilla who is always willing to ask the difficult questions, to point to the evidence that doesn’t quite fit with the established wisdom. Needless to say, Humphrey’s stubborn refusal to treat any theory as immune from criticism has rocked several boats. His Oxford Amnesty lecture in 1997, ‘What shall we tell the children’, shocked many of the audience with its persuasive attack on certain forms of religious education. When his provocative paper on ‘Cave art, autism, and the evolution of the human mind’ was published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal in 1998, several members of the editorial board were incensed by the audacious suggestion that language might have evolved as recently as 20,000 years ago. Both of these pieces are included in the new book.

Yet Humphrey is no mere sensationalist. It is immediately clear to the reader that his radical suggestions are always based on rigorous argument and scrupulously examined evidence. Underneath all of the essays in this collection, it is not hard to detect a single-minded and passionate concern to uncover the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. The essay on human nature and supernatural belief, for example, offers the most realistic - and the most original - hypothesis about the historical Jesus that I have ever read. Jesus, Humphrey argues, was a conjuror who ended up believing his own tricks, rather like Uri Geller.

Thankfully, Humphrey is careful to coat the bitter pill of truth with the some of the sweetest prose. His style is by turns elegant, intimate, and entertaining. His essay on the history of animal trials (by which I mean court cases, not scientific experiments) is both amusing and thought-provoking. This is a far cry from those worthy but tedious collections that one finds gathering dust on library shelves; it is a real page-turner.

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© Dylan Evans. 

* Dylan Evans is currently undertaking research in evolutionary robotics, exploring ways to make robots more biologically realistic, under the auspices of the Biomimetics Group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath. Before moving to Bath Dr. Evans was a research fellow in the Department of Philosophy at King's College London. His most recent book is Emotion: The Science of Sentiment [US|UK], Oxford University Press, 2001.


Evans, D. (2002). Review of The Mind Made Flesh: Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution by Nicholas Humphrey. Human Nature Review. 2: 88.

Additional Information

Table of Contents of The Mind Made Flesh

1 On Taking Another Look
2 One Self: a Meditation on the Unity of Consciousness
3 What Is Your Substance, Whereof Are You Made?
4 Speaking for Our Selves: an Assessment of Multiple Personality
5 Love Knots
6 The Uses of Consciousness
7 Farewell, Thou Art Too Dear for My Possessing
8 Great Expectations: the Evolutionary Psychology of Faith Healing and the Placebo Effect
9 Scientific Shakespeare
10 How to solve the Mind Body Problem
11 The Privatization of Sensation
12 Mind in Nature
13 Cave Art, Autism and the Evolution of the Human Mind
14 The Deformed Transformed
15 Varieties of Altruism and the Common Ground between Them
16 Bugs and Beasts before the Law
17 The Number of the Beast
18 Behold the Man
19 Tall Stories from Little Acorns Grow
20 Hello Aquarius
21 What Shall We Tell the Children?
22 Arms and the Man
23 Death in Tripoli
24 Follow my leader

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