Department of Psychology

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Merlin Donald

Photo of Merlin Donald

Professor Emeritus

B.A., Loyola College Montreal, 1960
M.A., University of Ottawa, 1962
Ph.D., McGill University, 1968
P.D.F., Yale University Medical School and VA Medical Centre, West Haven

T: 905.885.7483

Psychology Department
Queen's University
Kingston, ON K7L 3N6

About Merlin Donald

Merlin Donald is a Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology and Faculty of Education, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. A cognitive neuroscientist with a background in philosophy, he is the author of many scientific papers, and two influential books: Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition (Harvard, 1991), and A Mind So Rare: The evolution of human consciousness (Norton, 2001).

His PhD was obtained from McGill in 1968, and subsequently he spent two years at the School of Medicine, Yale University, as an NRC Post-Doctoral Fellow, followed by almost three years at the West Haven Veterans Administration Medical Center as a Research Neuropsychologist. He has been at Queen’s University since 1972. He has also been a visiting professor at University College, London (three times), Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at San Diego, and elsewhere. He has also been a Visitor at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioural Sciences, at Stanford, California. He was awarded a Killam Research Fellowship from 1994 to 1996, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association (1984), and the Royal Society of Canada (1995).

Most of Dr. Donald’s early empirical work was in the field of human cognitive and clinical neuroscience, with a specialization in electrophysiology. During the past 15 years he has returned to the topic that drew him to psychology in the first place: human intellectual and cognitive origins. This work bridges several disciplines in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. His central thesis is that human beings have evolved a completely novel cognitive strategy: brain-culture symbiosis. As a consequence, the human brain cannot realize its design potential unless it is immersed in a distributed communication network, that is, a culture, during its development. The human brain is, quite literally, specifically adapted for functioning in a complex symbolic culture.

Where would these complex communication networks have come from in the first place, if they were largely absent in our ancestors, the Miocene apes? This question was first addressed in his first book, Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition, published by Harvard University Press in 1991. The central thesis of that work was that symbolic thought and language were ultimately products of changes in the primate executive brain, rather than of a specific language “chip.” These changes expanded some basic attentional, metacognitive, and retrieval capacities that were nascent in primates, and highly evolved in hominids. These capacities were crucial in meeting the adaptive challenges of increasing social complexity, with an associated need for very rapid learning and an optimally flexible epigenetic strategy. This idea was further developed in a series of papers and in a book entitled A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness (W. W. Norton, April, 2001).

Dr. Donald is currently trying to understand how the slow-moving biology of the brain can deal with the changing cognitive ecology. Humanity is greatly concerned about changes in the physical ecology, but has largely ignored equally massive changes in the cognitive ecology, even though the latter will probably set our future direction as a species.

Research Interests
  • Human cognitive evolution
  • Human brain mapping
  • Mimesis and creativity
  • Origins of language
  • Effects of material culture and technology on cognition
  • Evolution of cultural-cognitive networks
Selected Articles

Donald, M.,2010. The Exographic Revolution: Neuropsychological Sequelae. In Malafouris L. & Renfrew C. (eds) The Cognitive Life of Things: Recasting the boundaries of the mind. Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute Monographs, pp.71-79. (PDF, 233 KB)

Donald, M. The definition of human nature, in the context of modern neurobiology. In D. A.Rees and S. P. R. Rose, eds, The new brain sciences: Perils and prospects. Cambridge,UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 34-58. (PDF, 3.09 MB)

Donald, M. The slow process: A hypothetical cognitive adaptation for distributed cognitive networks. Journal of Physiology (Paris), 2007, 101:214-222. (PDF, 2.98 MB)

Donald, M. How culture and brain mechanisms interact in decision making. In C. Engel and W. Singer, Better than conscious? Decision-making, the Human Mind, and Implications for institutions. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2008, 191-225. (PDF, 2.3 MB)

Boyd, R., Cohen, J, Donald, M., Guth, W., Johnson, E., Kurzban, R., Schooler, L,J., Schooler, J, Spelke, E., & Trommershauser, J. Explicit and implicit strategies in decision making. In C. Engel and W. Singer,Better than conscious? Decision-making, the Human Mind, and Implications for institutions. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2008, 225-258. (PDF, 5.44 MB)

Donald, M. A view from cognitive science. In D. Genten, V. Gerhardt, J.-C. Heilinger and J. Nida-Rumalin, eds, What is a human being?, Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008, 45-49. (PDF, 721 KB)

Donald, M. The sapient paradox: Can cognitive neuroscience solve it? Brain, December 2, 2008, doi: 10.1093/brain/awn290 (PDF, 1.43 MB)

Consciousness and Governance: From embodiment to enculturation - an interview. In L. Andreassen, L. Brandt, & J. Vang, (Eds.) Cognitive Semiotics. 2007, 68-83. (PDF, 1.87 MB)

Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain. In O. Vilarroya, & F.F i Argimon, (Eds.) Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Rodopi, 2007, 18: 215-222. (PDF, 1.29 MB)

Art and Cognitive Evolution. In M. Turner, (Ed.) The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity. Oxford University Press, 2006, 1:3-20.  (PDF, 2.61 MB)

Imitation and Mimesis. In S. Hurley, & N. Chater, (Eds.) Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, Volume 2: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture. MIT Press, 2005, 14:282-300. (PDF, 2.34 MB)

The Application of Ideomotor Theory to Imitation. In. S. Hurley, & N. Chater, (Eds.) Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, Volume 1: Mechanisms of Imitation and Imitation in Animals. MIT Press, 2005, 8: 217-218. (PDF, 311 KB)

The Relation between Language and (Mimetic) Culture. Morten H. Christiansen on Donald.  Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science, Volume 2: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture. MIT Press, 2005, 19:390-398 (PDF, 1.0 MB)

Is a Picture Really Worth a 1,000 Words? Review essay of David S. Staley, Computers, Visualization and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past. History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, 43:3, 379-385, 2004. (PDF, 112 KB)

The Primacy of Motor Evolution and The Mimetic Origins of Language. ( translated in Japanese). In Kaguku (Science), A. Iriki, ed, Special Issue on the Origins of Language, 74:7, 878-881, July 2004. (PDF, 455 KB)

The virtues of rigorous interdisciplinarity. In  J.M. Lucariello, J.A. Hudson, R. Fivush & P.J. Bauer (Eds.) The Development of the Mediated Mind Development, Ch.12,. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.  (PDF, 136 MB)

Il tessuto dei sensi: Ordito della cultura, la trama della mente. (translated into Italian). In Le tattiche dei sensi, Antomarini A., Biscuso M., and Traversa, A., eds, I libri di Montag, 85-93, 2001. (PDF, 4.10 MB)

Memory Palaces: The Revolutionary Function of Libraries. Queen's Quarterly 108/4 (Winter 2001) pp. 559-572.  (PDF, 1.30 MB)

Towards a new agenda for neurolinguistics. Review of Philip Lieberman's Human Language and our Reptilian Brain: The subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax and Thought. Cortex, 2001, XXXVII:2, 279-283. (PDF, 1.11 MB)

Cognitive Evolution and the Definition of Human Nature. Philosophy of Science Monographs, Morris Foundation, Little Rock, Arkansas, 2000, 31pp. (PDF, 3.12 MB)  Abstract (PDF, 87 KB)    

The central role of culture in cognitive evolution: a reflection on the myth of the 'isolated mind'. In L. Nucci, ed. Culture, Thought and Development, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000, 19-38. (PDF, 1.76 MB)   Abstract (PDF, 90 KB)

Preconditions for the evolution of protolanguages. In The Descent of Mind, Ed. M.C.Corballis & I.Lea. Oxford University Press, 1999, 355-365. (PDF, 1.83 MB)  Abstract (PDF, 123 KB)

The Widening Gyre: Religion, Culture and Evolution. Science & Spirit, 10:2, 22-30, July/August 1999. (PDF, 5.04 MB)

Hominid enculturation and cognitive evolution. In C. Renfrew, P. Mellars, & C. Scarre, eds. Cognition and Material Culture: the archaeology of external symbolic storage. Cambridge, U.K., The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1998, 7-17.   (PDF, 1.90 MB)

Material Culture and Cognition: Concluding Thoughts. In C. Renfrew & C. Scarre (Eds) Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage. Cambridge, U.K., The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1998, 181-187.  (PDF, 1.15 MB)

Mimesis and the Executive Suite: missing links in language evolution. In J. R. Hurford. M.Studdert-Kennedy, & C. Knight, eds. Approaches to the Evolution of language: social and cognitive bases. Cambridge University Press, 1998, 44-67. (PDF, 2.92 MB)  Abstract (PDF, 87 KB)

The mind considered from a historical perspective: human cognitive phylogenesis and the possibility of continuing cognitive evolution. In D. Johnson & C. Ermeling (Eds.) The Future of the Cognitive Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1997, 478-492.  (PDF, 1.24 MB)

Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind (3) Continuing Commentary,  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1996, 19: 155-164. (PDF, 1.78 MB)

The neurobiology of human consciousness: an evolutionary approach. Neuropsychologia,1995, 33:1087-1102. (PDF, 2.22 MB)

Human cognitive evolution: what we were, what we are becoming, Social Research, 1993, 60: 143-170. (PDF, 2.06 MB)#1

Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind with multiple review and author's response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16: 737-791, 1993.  Part A  (PDF, 1.63 MB)     Part B (PDF, 8.83 MB)


Origins of the Modern Mind book cover

Origins of the Modern Mind

(Available in both hardcover and paperback. Paperback: Reprint edition February 1993)

Publisher: Harvard University Pr; [ISBN: 0674644840]
Origins of the Modern Mind : Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition by Merlin Donald

"A fine, provocative and absorbing account of what makes humans human." - Kirkus Reviews

"Neuropsychology and cognitive science are concerned largely with the fundamental structure of the modern human mind. Although some attention has been paid to the phylogenetic succession of changes that must have led to the modern mind (see, for instance, Anderson, 1983), emphasis has been placed mostly upon the modern structure of human mental capacities, without taking their evolution into account. It is not an exaggeration to say that theories of cognitive structure are built mostly upon studies of the human mind as manifest in literate, postindustrial society and upon studies of the capabilities of computers. The extraordinary range of theory that has resulted was constructed for the most part without the constraints that must be applied to evolutionary hypotheses: continuity with previous forms, consistency with selection pressures, parsimony with regard to the number and complexity of successive adaptations, and so on. The result is that structural, that is, modular, models of mind proliferate without regard to their biological feasibility, even with neuropsychology."


A Mind So Rare book cover

A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness

(Hardcover - June 2001) 

Publisher: WW Norton [ISBN 0-393-04950-7]

A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness by Merlin Donald

 "Merlin Donald transcends the simplistic claims of evolutionary psychology. He offers a true Darwinian perspective on the evolution of consciousness-one which takes account, in Darwin's words, of "the infinitely complex relations between organic beings and external nature", in this instance the complex adaptive relationships that hold between the human mind-brain and human culture." - Philip Lieberman, author of Eve Spoke


A Mind So Rare book cover

A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness

(Paperback - June 2002)

Publisher: WW Norton [ISBN: 0393323196]

A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness by Merlin Donald

"In A Mind So Rare, Merlin Donald has achieved the almost impossible--an elegant, witty, and accessible account of mind and consciousness which is always respectful of, but never subservient to, the take-over demands of the neurosciences. In his insistence that minds are open systems, constituted both by a person's biology and the society and culture in which that biology is embedded, Donald has rescued minds from those who would reduce them to information processing computers and the naiveté of evolutionary psychology. The most significant contribution yet to the rapidly growing literature of minds, brains, and consciousness." - Steven Rose author of Lifelines, Biology beyond Determinism.

Les Origines de L'Esprit Moderne book cover

Les Origines de L'Esprit Moderne

(Traduction de la 1re édition americaine par Christele Emenegger et Francis Eustache - French translation by C. Ermenegger & F. Eustache)

Publisher: DeBoeck Université [ISBN 2-7445-0042-9]

Les Origines de L’Esprit Moderne: Trois étapes dans l’évolution de la culture et de la cognition by Merlin Donald

Cet ouvrage porte sur un sujet encore peu envisagé par les psychologues et les neuropsychologues, tout au moins en Europe. Comment intégrer, et sur quelles bases empiriques, les vestiges de l'évolution phylogénétique dans les théories cognitives et neuropsychologiques de l'homme d'aujourd´hui?

L'Evoluzione Della Mente: Per una teoria darwiniana della coscienza book cover

L'Evoluzione Della Mente: Per una teoria darwiniana della coscienza

(Italian translation by Laura Montixi Comoglio)

Publisher: Garzanti [ISBN 88-11-59310-7]

L'Evoluzione Della Menta Per una teoria darwiniana della coscienza by Merlin Donald

I tre stadi dello sviluppo della coscienza: dalla capacità di reppresentare il proprio sapere attraverso gesti volontari allo stadio <>, connesso all'elaborazione del linguaggio, fino all'elaborazione di sistemi simbolici complessi.

Origens Do Pensamento Moderno book cover

Origens Do Pensamento Moderno

Servico de Educacao [ISBN 972-31-0820-8]

Fundacão Calouste Gulbenkian

Depósito Legal N.o 140 501/99

Origens Do Pensamento Moderno by Merlin Donald