Phasing in and speeding up, again
Like that unexplained rising from inorganic to living molecule that invented life, evolution’s phase-in of transitioning from speciating-rising life to culturally-evolving life is hazy. We don’t know what caused it or exactly how it happened, but we’ve gradually learned enough to say something of its first glimmerings.
One thing to be immediately noticed is a second speeding up of evolution’s pace. After the universe had organized itself for 9.8 billion years, up to the complexity of planets, the equivalent evolution of living things upward to complex humans took only four more billion years. Life evolution produced far greater (higher) complexity than had universe evolution, and took far less than half the time to do so. That first speeding-up, after entering Phase 2, has been repeated by a still faster speeding up since we entered Phase 3. The speeding up has been logarithmic, exponential—galloping, one might say—which brings us practically down to the present moment.
And the speeding-up continues. Are you old enough to have noticed the pell-mell pace at which digital technology and a hundred other aspects of modern life seem to change faster, and still faster, every year? Is there no limit to this speeding up of our human cultural advance? Well—yes, there is, and this book is very much concerned with it. But for the moment let’s continue with how Phase 3 appears to have entered upon the scene.
Please recall the previous chapter’s one by one introduction of the emerging-rising of several human (Homo) species from their significant primate ancestors:
- By 5.8 million years ago (MYA): Orrorin tugenensis;
- By 5.5 MYA: Ardepithecus ramidus (brain size 300-350 cubic centimeters);
- By 4 MYA: Australopithecus afarensis (brain size 380-440 cc);
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
- By 2.5 MYA: Homo habilis(brain size 550-680 cc);
- By 2 MYA: Homo ergaster (brain size ~900 cc);
- By 2.0-1.5 MYA: Homo erectus (~1000 cc); Homo ergaster; Homo antecessor
- By 600,000 YA: Homo Heidelbergensis (~1350 cc): H. Neanderthalensis (1410 cc); H. Denisova (unknown).
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
- Up to 300,000 YA: Homo sapiens (brain size ~1350 cc).
The two dashed lines signify important thresholds in the phase transition from Life evolution into Cultural evolution. The first, between Australopithecus Afarensis and Homo habilis, the first truly human species, indicates when cultural evolution began emerging and evolving in its own, different, way. In other words, those first newly arrived proto-human species, though far less sophisticated than modern humans, had “something” within them that enabled culture to occur. And what was that something?
We don’t know. But we do know the nature of that first new culture they exhibited. The best archeological evidence dug up so far indicates that Homo habilis, with brain size of 550-680 cubic centimeters, had some ability to learn by observing, rather than relying on instinct alone as all animals had done since First Life. Habilis also exhibited ability to remember what they learned, and to pass that learning on so that learned knowledge accumulated with each new generation—a slowly growing store of knowledge held in minds instead of genes. Most important of all, this first human had a most dramatically un-instinctive habit of constantly choosing between options, every day, in just about all things. H. habilis may have been the first higher animal of its time to begin using this in-mind way of choosing, remembering and passing down knowledge, and even today we see only the beginnings of comparable advance in species that exhibit extraordinary intelligence such as elephants, the great apes, and some birds and cetaceans.
We also know that brain size correlates with mental ability. Notice I didn’t say brain size is mental ability—it only correlates with ability. Mental ability is a function of the mind, not the brain. The two are not the same thing, though they do depend on each other.
Cultural displacement of instinct
Rising above “animal instinct” is the foremost distinguishing difference between the last pre-human ancestor, Australopithecus, and humans represented by the first of our kind Homo habilis. If H. habilis was able to so rise because it had a larger brain, that fact is secondary to the rising itself. Certain intellectual capacities are clearly dependent on emerging larger, more complex brains, but the important distinction here is the rising from a lower to a higher condition—that upward directionality exhibited by all evolution.
Cultural learning was decidedly more prominent by the time Homo erectus appeared half a million years later, with its culturally purposeful use of fire and its greater culturally-learned sophistication in shaping stones for tools. Ability to retain learnings in the non-material mind, instead of relying on genetic instinct, and to pass such mentally-held learning on to descendants, defines the appearance of culture into the phases of evolution.
By the time of Homo sapiens, these abilities had further raised—moved front and center in fact—to fine arts setting the species far apart indeed from all others. And, maintaining the trend, their acquisition in human societies has continued speeding up. In today’s modern world, cultural advance is pell-melling forward like a runaway freight train. It’s called culture shock, and woe to those who can’t keep up. There are in fact many who simply can no longer cope, much less keep up with our runaway freight train. They’re called the economically deprived, and they await our attention. But that’s not all.
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Try this mind game with your friends: 1) How many examples can you name of a certain instinct being mutually exhibited in both human and animal behavior? 2) Of human behavior that cannot possibly be anything other than cultural learning? 3) Of animal behavior that cannot possibly be anything other than instinct?
Here’s some examples to get the game started: 1) All mammals, including human babies, are born instinctively knowing how to suckle at the breast. Suckling is an instinctual prerequisite for surviving and reproducing, and no infants of any species need to be taught how. 2) Infant humans, within a few days after being born, will often smile back when they see a hovering face smiling at them—an example of human choice, not to be confused with grimacing from gas as argued by disbelieving doctors with mindsets fixated on materialistic determinism devoid of free will. 3) A baby cuckoo, newly hatched into another species’ nest where its mother sneaked in and left her egg in deliberate parasitism, will invariably within its first few hours instinctively push any legitimate eggs and hatchlings out of the nest to eliminate competitors for the food to be brought in by the unwitting owner who thinks she’s got a really big healthy chick.
And then there’s that much rarer example: 4) Animal behavior that cannot possibly be anything but cultural learning. In the Introduction I mentioned the day we saw six fawns clearly, obviously, playing in a big leaf pile as a nanny doe stood by, watching the kids cavort in pure fun. Consider now what else my own eyes saw, also with a witness.
Mama was a lovely doe who lived on our farm for enough years that we gave her a name. For five years by our observed count, she had a new baby every year. Her right front leg had been somehow broken, probably in collision with a car, and had healed badly such that it bent the wrong way. She used it for walking but just barely—it was clearly painful to place any weight on, and she got about with a severe limp. One spring morning my wife and I happened to be near a window when we saw her cross the front yard followed by that year’s new fawn—still young enough that its spots were not yet faded. We watched as mother and child approached the edge of the yard, where a flower bed was backed by a rail fence, in turn backed by the adjacent woods.
Mama limped up to the low rail fence, turned and looked back at her fawn a moment, then made a graceful three-legged leap over the rails. She conspicuously turned and looked at the fawn again, standing there in what appeared to be expectancy. The fawn just stood there looking at her. After a moment of nothing happening, Mama leaped back over to the fawn’s side, walked over and nuzzled it. Then she again walked to the fence, easily repeated her jump, turned and again stood looking at the fawn. The fawn then approached the fence, not smoothly but with evident child-like hesitation. Reaching the fence it stood a moment—then leaped over and stood by Mama. She nuzzled it again, turned and walked slowly into the woods, the fawn following close behind.
If this be anthropomorphizing so be it—we saw what we saw, for two to three minutes beginning to end, and it certainly was not instinct. I am unable to place any interpretation on these observations other than that a mother deer knowingly and very deliberately taught her young one how to jump a fence, a skill she understood it would need to get by in our well fenced part of the world. I think it would be straining if not perverse to place any other interpretation on it. Logical inference—that intellectual device previously shown to be so well used by astronomers—further suggests Mama chose our rail fence, the only one in the neighborhood, for her teaching because it was low enough for her young fawn to negotiate.
But I can’t ask her. We haven’t seen Mama for three years now. Damn coyotes probably got her. In our way we loved her—and she stopped melting away into the woods when she saw us moving about the yard. By all scientific standards my interpretation of her observed actions cannot be proven true. What do you think? Have you yourself seen such animal teachings? And are scientific standards perhaps insufficient to reasonably admit all observable realities? Mama’s teaching of her fawn is not in the same league as human culture-based teaching, but it certainly is suggestive of the origins of culture—and long is the list of animal, bird, even reptile and fish species that exhibit pop-your-eyeball forms of rudimentary culture. A bit of reading up on the under-appreciated science of ethology will open eyes and minds wide—as so very many quite obviously need opening.
Abstract thinking, reasoning, assigning values
There is a second dashed line in those hominins listed above. It lies between us moderns, Homo sapiens, and our immediate predecessor Heidelbergensis (plus its derivative Neanderthals and Denisovans). In a word, it distinguishes modern humans from all (all) predecessors, and all other living things, with a difference that is truly amazing.
As to brain size, the correlation with intelligence and consciousness is important but not determinative. Something else drove our unique status as the highest-risen life form. Early human brain sizes averaged around 1350 cubic centimeters. Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans (1410 cc), but their archeological remains leave no doubt that throughout their 400,000-year lifespan they did not prosper culturally as we H. sapiens did apparently from our beginning. It is suspected that their brains were less complex than H. sapiens in the density of mental activity their synapses could sustain.
For instance, Neanderthals living on the west Italian coast 100,000 years ago collected clam shells, likely to use as cutting and scraping tools. One-fourth of the shells have shiny surfaces, indicating they were lifted from the seafloor by wading or diving, the remainder have dull surfaces indicating they had washed up on the beach and weathered. Neither this indirect evidence, nor any other evidence ever found, suggests the most sophisticated Neanderthals achieved anything approaching the conceptually improved and craft-savvy tool making that the earliest humans arrived with 50,000 years later.
I submit that this second threshold in human evolution unleashed an enormously significant driver of the third, cultural, phase of evolution. The driver this time was a toolbox of traits held by Homo sapiens alone—and not by any other animal or any other human species. The toolbox was (and is) characterized by these abilities:
- imaginative and abstract thinking;
- reasoning, especially of cause and effect, or from effect backward to cause;
- conception of, and assignment of, values—which led to barter and trade; and.
- ability to choose. Instinct does not permit much choice. Freedom to imagine and envision options, reason about them as causes or effects, conceive their values, and then choose among them, is an ultimate freedom. Only Homo sapiens has evolved, emerged, and risen upward far enough to have it full blown.
Though I have made a point of discussing brain size in evolving hominids and hominins, for it is important, I emphatically do not mean to imply that the size or synaptic density of our brains, per se, “caused” these highly emerged features. Rather, it “permitted” them, accommodated and enabled them. The unique brain that emerged in H. sapiens was both big enough and complex enough to accommodate a more densely concentrated—i.e., higher—measure of complex synaptic activity. The emerged level of activity enabled by this unique density apparently occurs at the quantum level, those same manifestations of energy that began their work immediately upon arriving “here” in the big bang. Thus our emerged brain complexity enables a level of intellectual functioning that is the highest, most complex phenomenon of any nature whatsoever that has ever evolved since the big bang to date. That emerged complexity is our claim and proof of claim to be the highest thing ever evolved in the universe and among living creatures, bar none.
Our unique status is self evidently an amazing if not miraculous thing. I have no patience with those scientific materialists who constantly carp about how we humans are “just” so ordinary, nothing special about us at all, “just” an accident of mindless evolution—just, just, signifying nothing—hell bent in their determination to drag the rest of us down to their cramped little view of a minimalist-materialist reality that is needlessly unable to marvel at and be grateful for our marvelously unique evolved-emerged upward status, stunted by mindsets unable to imagine that choosing arrogance is not our only option.
Our brains’ complex synaptic activity, feeding on culturally generated knowledge, has kept human knowledge ever growing, its accumulation gradually mounting and speeding up ever since Homo sapiens arrived on the scene. With the addition of its digital modern multipliers now resident and immanent in every dwelling, building, pocket, purse and satellite, Homo sapiens is now generating new technologies as a rate faster than s/he can learn to manage and control them. Our cultural evolution is in fact out of control. For example, astronomers seemingly cannot stop a private entrepreneur from putting up thousands of shiny communications satellites that have potential to put astronomy out of business. This latest stage of what began as the Industrial Revolution increasingly looks to be an end stage, for it enables us—virtually compels us—to generate carbon dioxide pollution at a rate far exceeding our ability to adapt as would be necessary to control it.