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Ten Thousand Experiments Later ...
The human species has been roughly human in shape and physical capability for about 200,000 years. This means that humans shaped as humans have gone through about 10,000 generations of adapting to their environment. (That's 200,000 years divided by 20 years per generation.) This means that Mother Nature has run roughly ten thousand experiments with each human family line alive today, to see what mixes of human characteristics work best.
The test for a good human design is simple: Those humans who have lots of grandchildren are a good design. Conversely, those who don't have any at all are a bad design. The test is very simple to state, but the best ways to pass the test are numerous, and all-in-all have produced some very interesting and diverse results.
What has Mother Nature come up with? What things seem to work especially well for humans, compared with other animals?
The human design is a collection of a lot of very good ideas. And there are many ways to solve the "have lots of grandchildren" problem, so humans are diverse-we are a collection of many designs that look much alike on the outside, but aren't so alike on the inside. I've said before, and I'll say it again because it's so important: [Humans are diverse.
Three Exceptional Human Skills
That said, there are three capabilities of humans that have shaped human adaptation strongly. These capabilities are:
Strong language skill
Strong tool use skill
Strong child nurturing skill
These three skills have shaped the human condition deeply. We are what we are today-primitive and civilized humans spread all over the world-because humans are so good at these three.
I will be talking about how they have worked together to produce the humans we think of as human today.
These three strong skills interact with each other strongly. For example, we have hospitals to take care of childbirth and babies (child nurturing) because we can build them (tool use) and because many humans can cooperate on the construction, maintenance, and use of the hospitals (language).
My discussion will center on language skill only because it's the most spectacular of the three. They are all important, and many other skills are too, but talking about the breakthroughs of language as the main topic is an easy way to show off all the skills.
Strong Language Skill and Technology Surprises
The Benefits of Strong Language Skill
What are the benefits of strong language skill?
Strong language skill can be thought of as a new technology that humans invented and embraced. As humans adapted this new technology, what benefits did they see?
The benefits of any new technology are usually diverse, but they can be considered to fall into two broad categories.
The first category is the straightforward adaptations of the technology to solve existing problems faster and more cheaply. A famous example of this is cars and trucks replacing horse-powered carriages and wagons-horses and wagons are slow and expensive for moving stuff around compared to cars and trucks. This is what I call the "commodity use" of a new technology. It's basic and it's straightforward, but it may not be the most interesting use of a new technology.
The second category of benefits are those that are surprises. The inventors of the technology didn't think of this application, or didn't imagine the magnitude of its popularity in this use. These surprise benefits usually show up after the technology has become popular as a replacement for a commodity application, but they are often the most important uses to humanity.
An example of a surprise benefit happened in audio recording technology. When Thomas Edison invented the first sound recorder, he anticipated that recorders would be used mostly for business applications, such as dictation or recording of people's wills. He knew his recording machine could record music, and some of his early demonstrations were of music recording, but he figured that music listening would be a minor application of the technology.
So the benefits of all technologies are a mix of replacing existing technologies in a commodity application and coming up with brand new surprise applications, and the latter are usually the most interesting. Strong human language skill follows this model.
Let me take a moment to emphasize the strong part. All animals, all organisms for that matter, have ways of communicating to other organisms around them. What makes humans different is the enormous range of things they can talk about. Our communication skill is a mil- lion times better developed than in any other organism, and it's this better development that is the power of human language skill and what produces such interesting surprise benefits.
The Commodity Benefits
First, let's talk about the commodity benefits of strong language skill. Most animals have ways of warning others around them of danger. Most animals have some sort of "follow me" command. These are examples of commodity uses of language. Humans can not only warn each other of danger, they can describe the danger in exquisite detail. Humans can not only tell others to follow, they can tell them why they should follow. These are examples of extending the commodity use of language.
There are some surprise extensions for even these very basic commodity uses of language. One example of a surprise use is that a human can tell other humans where to go, without having to lead them there personally. The teller can also describe when to go and what to take along.
A human can describe a danger to another human in exquisite detail, what to do about it, and even tell about dangers that haven't happened yet.
These are examples of extending a technology in a commodity way.
There are also surprise ways to use language.
The Surprise Benefits-Changing Waste/Benefit Parameters
The biggest surprise benefit of strong language skill is passing skills from one generation to the next. Children can learn from adults, and learn a whole lot! Thanks to strong language skill, no other organism can teach like humans can.
This change is huge! One of the subtler consequences of teaching children is that it changes around a whole bunch of body-design parameters in terms of what is a good investment and what is a wasteful investment.
Here is an example of benefit versus waste.
Suppose you have two proto-human brothers with different mutations. One brother got better legs so he can run faster, the other brother got a bigger brain so he could think better and, if one-in-a-thousand circumstance happens, he would learn arithmetic-think of a circumstance like Newton and his apple.
All Mother Nature asks is, "Which of you two is going to have more grandchildren?"
The boy with the strong legs says "Me" and he's right ... unless ... unless ... the other boy can teach his children arithmetic.
A real world example of this pass-down learning is pearl diving. Simple swimming is possible to learn without language, but a sophisticated add-on such as pearl diving requires language skill to pass from one generation to the next and become a feasible lifestyle. This is an example of a surprise benefit of strong language skill.
And this is an example of changing waste/benefit parameters. A bigger brain becomes a benefit, not a waste of resources that could otherwise be spent on better legs.
(The pass-down skill set that has made the biggest difference to how humans live is agriculture-more on this later.)
So before language skill got strong, strong legs were a better investment than a big brain. Investing in big brains was a wasted investment. After language skill developed, the situation changed ... a lot.
After language skill ... Whoa! There's so much that big brains can do! And if the kids can learn from their parents' and grandparents' mistakes and triumphs ... Whoa! This is huge!
Benefits of Pass-Down Skills
Here are some things that fall out directly from this surprise application of strong language skill.
A bigger brain becomes more valuable. In particular, one that can learn quickly and easily what older community members can teach. Old people who can remember things and teach those things to youngsters become valuable to the community. These days in anthropology this is called The Grandma Effect because scientists are starting to see in human fossil and archeology records when our ancestors started to live longer. Beneficial things that humans have only a one-in-a-thousand chance of learning are now valuable. Thanks to language skill, if they are learned once, the skill will soon be known by the entire community. This is yet another way language skill promotes big brains that think "outside the box" compared to pre-language days. As I talked about earlier, other distinctively human skills benefit, too. For instance, tool use becomes more valuable.
Diminishing Returns Kick In: Big Brains = Big Babies = Dead Mothers
As language skill developed, the "brain boom" went on easily for a while, then hit a wall. Babies were getting so big that more and more mothers were having a hard time birthing them-deaths in childbirth rose.
In most species, the rise in childbirth death rate would caused the end of the fast change in brain size, but for humans, there's more, because we are now dealing with ... thinking humans!
This rising birth mortality was a problem, and humans had their newly-improved language and tool use to apply to it. They thought and tinkered, and thought and tinkered, and came up with ... assisted childbirth and child raising! If family members helped mothers bear children and then helped raise them, the mothers could ... sustain even bigger-headed babies! Yay! ... sort of. (A curious note: This is an evolutionary explanation for one of the two curses God puts on women when he kicks Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, and the other one is coming.)
Amazingly, this has worked out. Mother Nature has nodded her head in approval at this cycle of strong language skill leading to more tool use and more energy put into childbirth and child raising. For ten thousand generations, Mother Nature has been carefully watching the balance between the mother's need to live through childbirth-which calls for smaller babies-and the baby's benefit when the birthing process is successful-which favors bigger babies.
In primitive hunter-gatherer societies, the proper balance seems to be maternal death in one out of every two hundred tries. For those of us living a modern Industrial Age lifestyle, this seems like a harsh level for mothers to sustain, but living on Earth is an intensely competitive undertaking. As I said earlier, humans are a high performance fit to living on Earth.
Language skill, tool use, and assisted childbirth and child raising are the Big Three of the human condition. There are also many, many other fine-tuning adaptations.
Let's Talk Environments
Let's change point of view now, and talk about the challenges and solutions of the various environments. I will talk about what living in an environment is like, and how that pushes the gene pool-specifically, how it pushes human thinking. Even more specifically, how specific environments produce comfortable ways of thinking-instinctive thinking-and how other environment changes have favored adaptive thinking-the kind that is hard and gives people headaches when they do it for too long.
Mankind has been living in the Neolithic Village environment for 10,000 generations. Mankind's thinking is well adapted to this environment, which means a lot of instinctive thinking, fast and comfortable thinking, works well here.
Modern humans came out of Africa about 2,000 generations ago (40,000 years) and reached the Americas about 700 generations ago (14,000 years). There have been, and are today, humans living in hunter-gatherer societies on all continents but Antarctica, so there is a lot of diversity in what I'm calling Neolithic Village.
There are also many common features, and those are what I will concentrate on. It's the common features that have pushed the gene pool the longest, so those have had the most effect on human thinking.
The Common Features
Here are the common features.
The size of the group living in Neolithic Village ranged from an extended family to a few extended families living together. Females mostly gathered food and raised children. Males gathered and hunted to provide for females and children. The social structure was informal so decision making was based on consensus. Some of these groups functioned like matriarchies, some like patriarchies, and most like a mix of the two. Child raising was decentralized. There was a "sea" of children in the village being raised by a "sea" of caregivers. Evolution and Thought: Why We Think the Way We Do Older people, those beyond reproductive age, were still valuable to the group as knowledge repositories. Oral history was the most common tool for keeping long-term community memories. Exile from the village was a common happening. It might be to resolve a dispute or for other reasons. The exile could be temporary or permanent. A common temporary exile was for young adult males to leave the village and "sow their wild oats" in some fashion before being readmitted to the community. Another common exile was for a bride or groom to relocate when marrying into another village. Unexpected disasters of various magnitudes were also a common happening. The kinds and causes were numerous. (One of the biggest changes civilization has brought is the steady reduction in the calamities a human community faces.) The village was semi-nomadic. Moving for a new food source or to avoid an oncoming disaster were common. This meant that traveling light was important. On the other hand, tools were also important, so there was a lot of tension in deciding what to possess and when to move.
Thinking Adaptations to This Environment
The size of the group could be limited by many things. The important one for thinking processes is the energy devoted to dominance checking-the checking of who is who in the group pecking order.
As a group's size grows, the number of checks grows according to the Fibonacci Sequence: 0, 1, 3, 6, 10 ... In other words, it grows quickly as size goes up.
This is a problem because each check takes some time and energy and causes some stress.
Because the health and well-being of group members can change on a day-to-day basis, there is an incentive to have frequent checks. But if the checking happens so often that leaders get exhausted, and their replacements get exhausted, and their replacements get exhausted ... the group is too big.
The fix is easy: Split the group. The number of checks going on in two separate smaller groups is dramatically less than in one large group. Problem solved.
The not-so-surprising fallout of living in small groups is developing an us-versus-them way of thinking. Outsiders can be dealt with, but they can't be trusted like insiders. Note that this "don't trust strangers" thinking is adult thinking, not child thinking. I will talk about why this happens later.
Division of Labor
In Neolithic Village, females gather and raise, males hunt and provide. This is a big change for thinking in males from average primate thinking. Females of most primates raise children and form groups that move around together. Most herbivorous mammal males don't sociallize much. Once they mature beyond needing a mother's care, they go it alone until mating season. Then they come back to the female groups and fight each other over the females.
For males to be around females a lot, but not fighting each other a lot, and giving food to females and young a lot ... this is a big, big series of changes in male thinking. Mother Nature was hard pressed.
Excerpted from Evolution and Thought by Roger Bourke White Jr. Copyright © 2010 by Roger Bourke White Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Evolution and Thought is an interesting book. It takes the concept of evolution and applies it to how we humans think in our day-to-day living. The result is something quite different from the usual book on evolution. It's different because it's quite practical - it shows how evolution can explain a lot of the "mysteries of life" as many writers and thinkers like to call them.
White starts with the premise that all of us alive today are the results of a trillion successful experiments - our ancestors - and part of what has been experimented on is how we think. This means our brains are hardwired for living on earth, and he goes on to explain what that means.
One example: White points out that strong language skill is distinctively human. He then asks, "What difference does that make?" He treats language as a kind of invention. One difference is in how humans mate - we have arranged marriage, where our parents decide who we mate, not us. And what different does that make? "You have to look hot to your mother-in-law, not your bride." says White, and he goes on to explain what difference that has made in how we evolve -- we have quickly become more cooperative because parents look much harder for a child-in-law who's going to get with the program and support them in their old age.
This is the kind of practical insight that fills this book.
If you want to find out more about why we have the mysteries of life that we have, you'll find this book fun.