The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization

The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization

The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization

The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization


The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. "I think, therefore I am," is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental "time travel"--the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Drawing on neuroscience, psychology, animal behavior, anthropology, and archaeology, Corballis demonstrates how these recursive structures led to the emergence of language and speech, which ultimately enabled us to share our thoughts, plan with others, and reshape our environment to better reflect our creative imaginations. He shows how the recursive mind was critical to survival in the harsh conditions of the Pleistocene epoch, and how it evolved to foster social cohesion. He traces how language itself adapted to recursive thinking, first through manual gestures, then later, with the emergence of Homo sapiens, vocally. Toolmaking and manufacture arose, and the application of recursive principles to these activities in turn led to the complexities of human civilization, the extinction of fellow large-brained hominins like the Neandertals, and our species' supremacy over the physical world.


We humans like to think that we have capacities that make us not only distinct from all other creatures on the planet, but also superior to them. What other species, you might ask, has measured the speed of light, figured out how the universe began, invented the laptop computer, or painted a portrait? Our species has even succeeded in escaping from the planet altogether, even if only fleetingly. You might also ask, I suppose, why any other species would care to do these things, and we do need to be wary of our comfortable assumption that we are at the top of the earthly hierarchy, since it provides a too-easy justification of the appalling way we treat other animals. Let’s face it: We eat them, kill them for sport, drink their milk, wear their skins, ride on their backs, ridicule them, house them in zoos, and breed them to our own specifications.

By the same token, though, it cannot be denied that our species has dominated the earth like no other. Not only do we subjugate other creatures to our needs and whims, but we also mold the physical environment to our specifications, to the point that our success may prove to be our undoing. Unless we make better use of our vaunted intelligence, we run the risk of succumbing to pollution, global warming, or weapons of mass destruction—or, to think recursively, of weapons for the mass destruction of weapons of mass destruction. and yet we are biologically almost indistinguishable from the other great apes, and share a common ancestor with the chimpanzee and bonobo dating from only about six or seven million years ago—a mere eye-blink in evolutionary time. in marked contrast to human triumphalism, the great apes have been forced into ever-diminishing habitats, and they too are threatened with extinction.

Many have conjectured about why our species is so dominant on the planet. Assuredly, the reason is mental rather than physical—any number of animals out there can easily beat us in physical combat. Descartes argued that only humans are capable of free will. Aristotle suggested that man is the only political animal, and . . .

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