Friday, April 05, 2024

Merlin Donald - evolution, culture and ezternal sketchpad

Merlin Donald is a Canadian cognitive psychologist at Case West Reserve University, with a specific reputation in cognitive evolution, the evolution of the human mind. His particular focus is on the role of culture and technology in shaping human cognitive development, best known for his theory of cognitive evolution, which proposes that human cognition has evolved through several key stages, including episodic, mimetic, mythic, and theoretic culture.

He has extensively studied and written about consciousness, memory, and the neural basis of human cognitive abilities. He is also noted for examining the relationship between the mind and culture and how external symbolic systems such as language and art have influenced cognitive development.

Three Stages in Evolution and Culture

His book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (1991), is a seminal work in the field of cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology. Fior Merlin, human cognition has evolved through major stages:

1. Episodic Culture

Characterised by a reliance on episodic memory, where information is remembered as personal experiences without much abstract or symbolic representation.

This earliest stage of cognitive evolution is has a style of thinking and memory similar to that of non-human primates. It is called 'episodic' because it is primarily based on episodic memory, which is the recall of specific events and experiences, without the capacity for abstract reflection on these events. Numerous animal species seem to possess episodic memory, or the ability to recall specific past events along with the sights, sounds, and smells associated with them. Donald has labelled the early culture of hominids as episodic, paralleling that of chimpanzees. These early hominid communities, comparable in size to chimpanzee groups, used tools, imitated conspecifics with tools, and shared similar vocal apparatuses, with chimps producing up to 35 distinct vocalisations.

In this stage, humans would perceive and react to the world directly and immediately, much like other animals do. This stage is evidenced by early human fossils and the behaviour of modern primates. The absence of symbolic artifacts and tools from early human archaeological sites suggests a lack of symbolic thought, which is a key component of later cognitive stages.

2. Mimetic Culture

Humans developed the capability for mime or gesture, which enabled them to communicate more effectively and start building social cultures. This stage laid the foundation for the development of language.

This stage represents a significant leap in human cognition. It involves the development of mime or gesture, which enabled early humans to communicate through imitation and performance. This allowed for the transmission of skills and knowledge without relying solely on genetic inheritance. Mimetic culture laid the groundwork for more complex forms of communication, such as language, and represents the first form of cultural learning and transmission in human evolution.

'Mimetic' here doesn't refer to simple mimicry or imitation with adaptation. It signifies the capacity to use symbols for representation, particularly in communication. This opened the door to enhanced communication through vocalisations and gestures, more intricate social structures, and refined tool-making and hunting practices – hallmarks of Homo erectus. This species not only exhibited a significantly increased encephalisation quotient (EQ) but also crafted complex tools, harnessed fire, and traveled extensively. The emergence of more sophisticated tools and evidence of cooperative hunting and gathering in archaeological records suggest enhanced communication and social organisation. Cave paintings and other forms of prehistoric art provide indirect evidence of the ability to represent experiences through mime and gestures.

3. Mythic Culture

The advent of speech and language, allowing for the creation and transmission of complex narratives, myths, and cultural knowledge.

This phase sees the assimilation of segmented mimetic knowledge into unified and comprehensive narratives shared within communities. Such integration of knowledge facilitated its reorganisation and problem-solving. Homo sapiens, associated with mythic culture, innovated by creating new tools like needles, garments, and cave art. Homo sapiens also presented marked changes in skull and jaw structure, indicative of a developed vocal apparatus conducive to speech – which is speculated to have arisen even earlier.

The advent of spoken language marks this stage. The advent of spoken language marks this stage. With language, humans could create and transmit complex stories, myths, and collective knowledge. This allowed for the formation of larger social groups and more complex societal structures. Mythic culture is defined by the ability to narrate and construct shared myths, which served as the foundation for early forms of education, religion, and social cohesion. With language, humans could create and transmit complex stories, myths, and collective knowledge. This allowed for the formation of larger social groups and more complex societal structures. Mythic culture is defined by the ability to narrate and construct shared myths, which served as the foundation for early forms of education, religion, and social cohesion.

The evidence for this stage is found in ancient texts, oral traditions, and the sudden explosion of cultural artifacts in the archaeological record. The development of different languages and the complexity of ancient myths and stories reflect the cognitive abilities to think abstractly and symbolically.

Theoretic Culture

We are now in a ‘Theoretic Culture’, marked by the development of writing, formal systems of knowledge, and scientific thinking. The last cultural shift is marked by the documentation of symbolic forms on clay, wax tablets, papyrus, parchment, paper, and later on digital media. Human cognitive capacity, despite advanced brain function and is restricted by short-term memory, limiting the simultaneous processing and retention of information. This constraint makes recalling extensive knowledge to address intricate problems challenging. The invention of writing, particularly through the use of an alphabet, revolutionised this aspect.

His theory emphasizes the role of culture and external symbolic systems in shaping human cognition and posits that each stage of cognitive evolution builds upon and integrates with previous stages, leading to the complex and diverse forms of cognition we observe in humans today.

These stages highlight the gradual evolution of human cognition, emphasising the role of culture and symbolic thought in shaping our minds. Donald's theory suggests that each stage builds upon and integrates with the previous stages, leading to the complex forms of cognition we observe in humans today. This model has profound implications for understanding not only our past but also the nature of contemporary human thought and culture.

Merlin Donald, a cognitive psychologist, has made significant contributions to understanding human cognition and memory, particularly through his "Sketchpad Theory." This theory, more accurately referred to as his theories on cognitive evolution and external memory systems, emphasises the role of external symbolic systems in human memory and cognition.

External sketchpad

He argues that human memory and cognition have co-evolved with the use of external symbolic systems, such as art, writing, and other media. These external systems function as ‘memory storage’, an external sketchpad that enhances and extends our cognitive capacities.

This Theoretic Culture stage sees the development of external symbolic systems, such as writing, which allowed for more complex and abstract forms of knowledge representation. This is where his idea of an ‘external memory field’ or ‘external sketchpad’ arises, suggesting that these external systems are not just record-keeping tools but integral to the thought process itself.

He emphasises that human cognition is deeply intertwined with our interaction with external symbols. These systems do not just store information; they shape the way we think, reason, and remember. This is in line with the idea of the ‘extended mind’ put forward by Clark and Chalmers.


He drew on the ideas of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner in the field of cognitive psychology. Both he and Geary have published similar books with similar titles but they come at the problem from different perspectives. Donald’s book was published before Geary’s but oddly, he fails to cite Donald’s work. Yet Donald’s work has continued to be influential for those who see brain science as being hugely influenced by the simple fact that it is an evolved organ.


The archaeological and history of our species have both moved on human cognition likely involves more overlap and interaction between these stages than the theory suggests. For example, oral traditions and mimetic skills continue to coexist alongside literate and digital cultures, suggesting a more integrated and less linear progression. His theories may underestimate the complexity of non-human cognition and some critics argue that Donald’s theory simplifies the complexity of cognitive processes. Human cognition involves a myriad of processes that are deeply interconnected, and reducing them to a sequence of evolutionary stages might not capture the full scope of these complexities.

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