35. Life and consciousness evolve: We primates

(continued) Chapter 3.           Long Evolution: Life Emerging

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Pause, refresh perspective

Primates are next – the latest in line, the most highly evolved – because they are the most complex of all the placental mammals we’ve been discussing up to now. I promised we would save the best for last and we’re working our way up to it. “Up” is precisely the right word. All the pages in this and the preceding chapter confront us with long evolution’s evolving, flowing continuum of increasing self organization and rising complexity throughout the universe, of further increasing deep complexity and rising consciousness in the parade of evolving life and its unceasing diversification all over the earth. The unchallengeable phylogenetic tree of life, based on highly decipherable genetic patterns just above the molecular level, continues to evolve, diversify, spread and branch outward even as ingenious living complexity, intelligence and consciousness continue to emerge upward. Outward, Upward. Do not for a moment think it’s Either/Or, it’s AND.

 

If we are possibly able to hold our human little mindsets the merest crack open to the possibility, the inspired thought, that a non-material all-knowing panentheistic God-spirit of infinite Self and infinite creativity may have planned and set All This Un-designed Order in motion to grow as it will – as we shall examine at length later in this book – then the unfolding action produced on a universe’s scale by that Great Spirit’s self-apparent Godly Algorithm is unquestionably the most glorious story ever told, unfathomable in its breathtaking scope, exceeding by uncountable orders of magnitude the most fantastic imaginings of all the holy books ever penned by passionate little men along with all the scientific laws ever discovered or hypothesized by mere mortal minds in their self-limiting little mindsets.

 

We are at the moment talking about mammalian animals, which just happen to be made of atoms – atoms which are energy and nothing more – but are we able to remember, and see clearly the connection? Inasmuch as “non-material reality” is the question and the focus of dark energy, zero vacuum energy, the dynamics of quantum particle-wave energy, so-called matter/anti-matter positive-negative energy, origin of the big bang’s infinite energy, and a very great deal more, there are as yet – if ever – no grounds other than closed mindsets for excluding the possibility of a Super, Natural, God’s motivations and super ingenious self-organizing complexity-emerging Algorithm that self evidently is in action everywhere around us and inside us, every moment, all our lives. Can we manage to just consider it? But wait – it’s much too early to be entering into such dread controversy. We must continue examining the undeniable evidence of science which, for the most part, has its mind quite made up that no such thing as a God is possible.

 

Order Primates

Far, far out on the phylogenetic tree of life’s outermost branches, far distant from the central trunk and larger limbs, one particular small branch – the placental mammals – has a small branching twig which is the primates. If one merely glances at the tree it is unlikely this twig would even be noticed because, like any full-branched tree, there are so many thousands of other twigs out there at the ends of all the branches. But this is no ordinary tree. This tree, constructed by careful scientific analysis of DNA, is nature’s truthteller (who would guess that big elephants and little hyraxes are close relatives?).

 

Simply because the  primate twig is small and far out from center, let us not make the mistake so popular among deterministic scientific deniers of insisting that the twig is therefore insignificant. It is not. It could not possibly be more significant. Certain scientists seek to elevate their little egos by calling it insignificant, and many churchmen reinforce themselves by claiming the tree was magically created shazam in a single day rather than naturally grown over fourteen billion long years. But in fact, phooey to them all, this particular twig is more highly emerged, therefore more highly significant, than any other twig on the entire exquisitely complex tree. This twig is a revealing product of the Godly Algorithm, and it contains higher levels of consciousness and complexity than any other we have looked at so far (so far).

 

This twig contains the thirteen families of primates, and they all reside precisely on that twig because they all have several things in common which are unquestionably distinct from all other branches and twigs on the tree. For example: In general, all primates have in common that they are omnivorous, are unusually dextrous in use of their hands (not paws), and exhibit uniquely varied and skilled locomotion whatever their form. Of considerable further significance in terms of the continuously emerging complexity we have observed since the big bang, primates exhibit highly flexible behavior in their social interactions and cultural adaptability. Nobody else on the entire tree, anywhere on those by-now hundreds of outer branches and thousands of twigs, possesses consciousness to as high a measure of complexity as do the primates. And so we now redistribute the thirteen primate families into three easy-to-remember groups for special attention.

 

Group 1 (Tarsioidea).  Family: tarsiers

Modern tarsiers, once found on all continents but Antarctica, are now extinct everywhere but a few islands in Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Their populations continue declining as they lose habitat to rapid human expansion in these remaining places. Arboreal and insectivorous, these small nocturnal primates have very large eyes, a long tufted tail, long hind limbs and prominent pads on the fingers and toes.

 

Group 2 (Prosimii). Six families: Lemurs and sifakas; lorises and pottos; aye-ayes; galagos (bushbabies); marmosets and tamarins; titis, sakis and uakaris.

 

Prosimians are found throughout Asia and Africa, and in Madagascar where they are the only native primates. As “pro-simians,” they have features considered “more primitive” than those of the “simians” (monkeys, apes and humans). This simply means that they look and are built a bit more like the common ancestor from which both lines derive, and are today distinguished by “older” traits that are otherwise more common in non-primate mammals. All prosimians, for instance, have two flattened “toilet claws” they use for grooming. Reinforcing their primitive reputation, prosimians have small brain cases with still smaller brains weighing about as much as an eyeball. They do display cognitive abilities that non-primates lack, but not as much as other primates of comparable size. Prosimians live in simpler social settings than their simian relatives. Lemurs display the most complex social arrangements by living in social groups of up to 20 individuals. Prosimians retain other primitive mammalian features, such as a two-chambered uterus and production of litters rather than the single-offspring norm in higher primates.

 

Prosimians are solitary hunters, preying on small animals and insects and eating less fruit than other primates. They are arboreal everywhere except Madagascar. Their nocturnal habits tend to preclude direct competition with the simian primates. Their lack of the color vision possessed by higher primates means they have room for more rod cells in the retina, thus ensuring enhanced vision in nocturnal low-light conditions.

 

Group 3 (Anthropoidea). Six families (four monkeys, one gibbons, one great apes):

Family: “old world monkeys” include macaques, mangabeys, baboons, mandrills, colobus, langurs and several dozen miscellaneous species

Family: howler, spider and wooly monkeys

Family: capuchins and squirrel monkeys

Family: night or owl monkeys

Family: “gibbons or lesser apes”

Family: “great apes” include orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and the dozen or so human species (all believed extinct except homo sapiens, though homo neanderthalis will be discussed as a special case). The great ape family, though covered in the following general description, will be addressed in more detail further below.

 

Larger, more complex brains dramatically distinguish monkeys, apes and humans from the other primate families. Brains indeed set them apart from – and above – all other living entities upon the earth. “Above” means higher levels of consciousness and intelligence, thus having a larger and more complex brain correlates with these attributes. However, it does not necessarily mean that the more complex larger brain “causes” them. Perhaps it “enables” them, the way a television set enables you to tune in to TV waves that are already “out there.”  It appears to be true that possessing higher consciousness and higher intelligence are possible only with a larger brain, but there are valid questions about what causes or enables what.

 

Human brains are of course consistently larger than monkey brains, so our superior mental ability seems obvious. But compare the brain size of an African gray parrot (small) to that of a dolphin (large) – then consider the very considerable intellect each animal can display. Comparable examples abound, so be assured this is not a trivial matter. One line of inquiry reveals that the human heart contains more neuron (brain-type) cells than muscle cells (for pumping blood), and may act as a “thinking” center separate from the brain. What are we to make of that? The relationship of brain to intellect and consciousness is complex indeed, and one invariably winds up trying to define “intelligence” and “consciousness,” as we shall do later in this book. Just as we’ve been annoyingly persistent in asking What is energy, really?, we will be compelled to ask What is consciousness, really? For now, we can proceed with certainty that a clear correlation exists between brain size and smarts.

 

Among these three groups – monkeys, apes and humans – complexity of group behavior and group culture, as well as size and complexity of brains, create further distinctions. For ease of understanding, the entire six-family Anthropoidea group may be reasonably discussed as two categories: the monkeys (four types) and the hominoids (apes and humans).

 

1.  Monkeys flourish in tropical regions of Africa and Asia (Old world monkeys) and the Americas (New World monkeys), plus a few temperate to cooler regions of Asia and Africa. They have similar external appearances everywhere, but some unique differences characterize the New World and Old World types. Since we are now approaching the top regions of the morphological and intellectual complexity that has been produced by the natural evolution of the universe in its history to date, let us slow down and get to know our fellow upperclassmen a bit better than we usually bother to take time for. With monkeys, the major distinctions are between those that evolved in relative proximity to each other in the “old world” of Africa/Asia and those evolved in the relative isolation of the “new world” American continents. Here are some simple examples.

 

Noses: New World (NW) monkeys’ noses are platyrrhine (flattened) with nostrils open sided and far apart, while Old World (OW) monkeys have catarrhine (downfacing) noses  with nostrils close together and opening forward or downward (a feature shared by their Old World relatives the apes and humans). Tails: Some of the NW monkeys (spider and howler monkeys) have prehensile tails, a feature lacking in OW monkeys’ tails, but OW monkeys have calloused skin areas around the tail which support them when sitting. Hands: NW monkeys’ thumbs line up beside their other digits and spider monkeys have lost their thumbs altogether. OW monkeys’ thumbs are more opposable and rotated, like ours, though here too a few have no thumbs. Some NW species have nails on the big toe, while all OW species have nails on all fingers and toes as humans do. Estrous: OW female monkeys’ genital area swells noticeably during estrous; NW females don’t.

 

Habitats: NW monkeys are exclusively arboreal, whereas OW monkeys tend to spend much of their day on the ground and are highly flexible in choice of habitats from open savannah and rainforest to semiarid and mountain areas. Diet: OW monkeys rely on fruit much more than foliage whereas NW monkeys also process nutrition from low-nutrient leaves. Infant care: NW males commonly help care for the young, a trait rare or absent in most OW species.

 

2. Hominoids include gibbons, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos, and humans. But as you have already guessed, they divide into two subgroups: the great apes and us. Except that’s not exactly right either. Some definitional distinctions are in order for three related terms we encounter and seldom bother to clarify: hominoids (“oid”), hominids (“id”), and hominins (“in”). Be aware that controversy surrounds these terms and their every nuance, the combatants being both scientific (among themselves) and religious, but these general definitions are adequate for our temporary purpose.

 

Hominoids is a biological term inclusive of all genetically distinct apes, i.e., gorillas, chimpanzees (including bonobos), orangutans, gibbons and humans.

 

Hominids include the modern “great” apes, i.e., Gorillas, orangutans, chimps/bonobos, and their immediate (extinct) ancestors. The modern species are so familiar we need not dwell on descriptions here. Some scientific definitions include humans as one of the great apes, though most social convention balks at designating our species any kind of “ape” great or not. Gibbons, hominoid but not great, are considered a “lesser ape” of more monkey-like overall appearance and are therefore excluded from “hominid.” That notwithstanding, gibbons are the most bipedal among all non-human primates and are often studied by scientists trying to understand how human walking may have evolved.

 

Hominin – a term recently invented to enable designating modern humans and our extinct ancestors separate and apart from the great apes. The term encompasses early humanoid species that were more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees, our nearest relatives on the hominoid branch of the tree. Examples include (so far) the genuses homo, australopithecus, ardipithecus and paranthropus, but these remain subject to change. Ongoing discovery of new fossils may add new genuses or raise doubt about existing ones. Homo and australopithecus are the two “most certain” at this time.

 

Only in recent times have the terms hominid and (especially) hominin been formally accepted (mainly by archaeologists and anthropologists). They are still used loosely and interchangeably, and are absent from older textbooks.

 

And with that we arrive at the prime exhibit: Homo sapiens. Humans. Us.

*          ©          *

 

…to be continued in one week…

 

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