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McGinn, Colin. Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity.

McGINN, Colin. Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2015. ix + 208 pp. Cloth, $24.95--Evolutionary accounts of various phenotypes had a long history before Darwin's epic-making treatise of 1859. Ancient Greek explanations of the origin of various types (for instance, Anaximander and Xenophanes in the sixth century B.C.) traced contemporary forms to preexisting types and even cited fossil evidence in support of suggestive but utterly incomplete accounts. Aristotle (c. 350 B.C.) seemed cognizant of epigenetic processes and was the first to install the diversity of animal types into a systematic scheme of classification. But, then, just what makes the human type so special? This is the insistent question addressed by many and now in a very interesting way by Colin McGinn.

The centrality of the hand to evolution has been a fixture in the field of paleoanthropology. John Napier, who began as an orthopaedic surgeon, wrote influentially in defense of the thesis in his 1980 volume Hands, and Colin McGinn expands the story to account for the singular achievements of a species whose brain has been shaped by the work of the hands. Human language was originally gestural, writes McGinn, so it is again the movement of the body, the expressions of the face, and the intonation of vocalizations that provide the primitive framework for linguistic prowess. (Thomas Reid had said as much!)

As the hand shapes the functions of the brain, so, too, does the mouth in its strenuous as well as its gentle and refined operations. Hand and mouth both "grasp," not in a merely metaphorical sense but in the architectonic sense. In this way, cognition as a mental mode of grasping arises from a pattern of grasping functions that favor certain complex computational neural circuits over others. McGinn's more global thesis is that the liberation of the human hand from the trees placed our species in settings that called forth a kind of cleverness, this being the compensation for less than satisfactory adaptation. The making and using of tools thereupon imposed an organization on brain processes and, in feedback-fashion, the process soon generated nothing less than intelligence. The old saw according to which intelligence invented the method of invention would have a special place in the handy world envisaged by McGinn, the story indebted to allegiance to evolutionary science, and the evidence drawn from the interesting suggestion that intelligence and prehension display a tethered developmental history.

Perhaps. However, there are arguable terms and invented "computations" punctuating McGinn's story and leaving the uncommitted with the nagging sense that what is finally on offer is yet another story. It is scarcely clear how the brain "represents" anything or why the appearance of intelligence was (or could be known to be) improbable, or a defensible sense in which only we have it. Then, too, to be told that our ancestors were forced out of the trees--perhaps because of climate change--leaves open the question of just how other arboreal primates made the adjustment and why we simply did not disappear. McGinn relates demonstrations of how syntax is prefigured or even behaviorally represented. Swing the right hand to the front of the body and catch it with the extended index finger of the left hand. In this way, we have scripted subject, verb, and object by way of movement. Judge for yourself.

Prehension is an interesting book written by an established philosopher. It is a serious attempt to identify the conditions that enabled what we take to be the distinctly human achievements. The conclusions reached, though not new, have the benefit of that steady flow of data generated by the great industry that is science. This much granted, it seems more scientistic than scientific.--Daniel N. Robinson, University of Oxford
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Author:Robinson, Daniel N.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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