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The Ecological Doorway to Symbolic Thought
One must die into creaturehood, transcending the assurances of "programmed cultural heroics. "Being a self-conscious animal means "to know that one is food for worms. "This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.
THE HUMAN MIND is the result of a long series of interactions with other animals. The mind is inseparable from the brain, which evolved among our primate ancestors as part of an ecological heritage. That heritage began with life on the ground, continued in the trees, and millions of years later came back to the ground. This upstairs-downstairs legacy, arboreal and terrestrial, is not unique to our descent but is widespread among monkeys and apes, so that to understand our kind of consciousness—higher-level thinking, artistic expression, and abstraction—requires some further explanation and is linked to our perception of animals in a roundabout way.
What follows is a possible scenario, spanning some sixty million years, beginning with the earliest primate, a ground-squirrel-like form living among the roots and leafy debris beneath the great ceiling of tropical forest. As this creature was nocturnal in habit, its sensory life was dominated by smell and sound rather than sight, by sniffing scent marks and the trails of beetles or listening to the scurry of feet, the faint popping of worms, or the calls and rustle that meant danger. Like redolent tracks making a course through the underbrush, the sequence of sounds was a trail of exclamations marking the position of some shifting body, a series informing the listener—the little, furry, pre-primate grubbers in the dark—of the movement of food, danger, others. Repeated sounds, remembered, revealed changes in position and movement, signaling whether something was approaching or receding or passing by. It required a good brain to hold that pattern in mind—marking the creation of an auditory world in which rhythms and musical phrases such as the successive notes of birdsong are heard as a melody. The writer and paleontologist Loren Eiseley referred to this as "time-binding."
Some descendents of those first tree-shrew ancestors went from the ground into the trees, perhaps as the flowering trees replaced coniferous forests over much of the tropics. In time, some of their descendents would be monkeys. In their brains were the neural networks making the recognition of patterns of sound possible. Remembering from one moment to the next—time-binding—by the listening mind was extended to vision, providing the primates with a mental basis for eliding sight into visual fields and visual fields into a visual world. The first step in our thinking was in that arboreal reorganization of an obsolete sound/smell memory by transferring its function to the eyes. Color vision returned—that extraordinary reptilian adjunct to keen sight, surrendered by the early mammals in the dark, lost still to most families of mammals. The early monkeys, in those tropical forest canopies, also altered the central nervous system by linking emotion to awareness of novelty and change, creating monkey excitability and sentient behavior. A great leap in brain size, unmatched among most other mammals, succeeded our ancestral primates' ascent into the trees, associated with pioneering a hazardous life in three dimensions, coping with storms, leopards, snakes, eagles, and gravity.
Speed in the trees nourished intelligence. Other animals live in trees without becoming large-brained, but for the primates life in three dimensions seems to have entailed the fourth, a subjectivity of time itself, implicated in their life strategy. That strategy included an intense and unrelenting social association. If any generalization can be made of simians that illuminates our own nature and our relations to other animals it is an "attention structure" which turns all information into social significance and is keyed to nuance and change in the visual world.
The drama which began when some small, nose-twitching mammals left the night shift in the basement of the tropics and scurried up into the branching trails of the bright upper canopy climaxed when their descendents took their shrill and panicky ways, their color vision, excellent brains, and devotion to the social context of all information, back down from the trees, out of the deep forest, and into the savannas. There the venatic (hunting /eluding) game of the predator and prey was played. Mind would be the child of the hunt. The prehumans joined a long-standing cybernetic system in which two great groups of savanna mammals—large carnivores and the herbivores upon which they preyed—linked destinies in a game of escalating wit.
In order to appreciate that game we must interrupt this account of our prehistory to examine the Game as it had been played for forty million years. Mind was evolving among the large predatory and prey mammals in open country. The fossil skulls of these hoofed and pawed forms reveal their progressively increasing brain size and the physical evidence of continuous improvement in the ability of each group to think through its situation and anticipate the moves of those to whom it was bound by the eternal ties of the hunt. As the complexity of their brains increased and their cognition became more subtle, they began to know the world by constructing mental representations of reality rather than simply responding to signals. How rare this event was can be seen in brain evolution in general. We brainy primates think of cognitive ability as being so valuable that evolution should always favor larger brain size; but beyond the size needed for basic bodily functions, brains are biologically expensive and risky. Flexibility in behavior and a capacity for imagining reality do not usually outweigh the disadvantages of making bad decisions and the time learning takes. Flexible behavior puts a huge array of choices before the individual with the proportional likelihood for terminal error. Brains are especially vulnerable to developmental impairment due to malnutrition, disease, traumatic experience, and injury, and they require large amounts of energy and investment of parental care and protection for a long time. The range of psychopathology increases with brain complexity. Life is improved for most animals by the other route: genetically modulated, refined niche adaptations plus behavioral and breeding strategies more tightly keyed to signals. If culture is a characteristic of complex intelligence, then its rareness among animal species is perhaps a sign of its long-term fallibility.
The Game accompanied the proliferation of flowering plants in open country, in associations dominated by the grasses, with deep soils and a diverse invertebrate fauna, making possible the energy demands of the drama of cerebral counterpoint among the game animals. The savanna and prairie's potential would ultimately be evident in the great herds. In the beginning, hunters and hunted worked through chance encounters: the stupid predator's random search and the stupid prey's contingent vulnerability. One became food for the other as a statistical probability of crossed paths—like the photons of light falling among the chlorophyll bodies in a leaf or the random taking of grass stems by grazing animals. Consistency was the major virtue of this fortuitous style. Then, fueled by the nutritional and energetic resources of the grasslands, there slowly emerged a progressively more focused pursuit and better-timed escape, through tuned sensibilities.
Nothing in nature had previously matched the latent, mental possibilities of energy stored in the seeds of grasses and the nutritional quality of their associated plants. Herds of large grazing animals and packs of social carnivores following them became possible. These social predators enhanced the likelihood of the paths of the two groups intersecting by their ability to remember and anticipate, while their prey improved the means to avoid and escape. Chance encounters would diminish in importance for both groups. The sheer abundance of life—the fertility of the grasslands and the ecological stability it provided—made this pursuit of the risky brain feasible. As time passed, contact gradually included sensing the Other at a distance; proximity was no longer necessary to force or avoid an encounter. In order to recognize the Others by their signs—odors, droppings, footprints, sounds—and read those signs as an ongoing event, remembering and communicating individual experience became increasingly important. This required more brain, more storage and association tracts for integrating information.
Up to a point, increase in overall size enabled animals to carry bigger heads and brains and to muster the strength and speed to elude and escape, chase and subdue. The fossil record confirms this gradual enlargement in certain groups of mammals, such as horses and lions. Larger brains are psychologically more complex, making possible what we experience as expectancy, anticipation, and problem solving. Once the thought of the Other could be kept in mind, trail following by the hunter, as well as vigilance and more guarded movements by the hunted, became possible. The sequence of signs was itself a path, the way evidence gives direction to a mystery.
Each began to know the place and time of expected appearance of the other. Better minds made scanning the field, ambushing, and stalking by the use of defilade possible. Awareness of routes was the key to intercepting the prey; the prey answered by improved capacity to recognize and avoid dangerous terrain features. The predator developed a sense of potential cover; the prey answered by varying its passage among a variety of routes, hiding its young, and decoying the hunter away from the newborn. Such initiatives by predator and prey were a new coevolutionary stream. As more thought entered the process, the predator masqueraded, imitated, or attracted its quarry by odd behavior and the prey learned in turn to recognize deception, to distinguish stalking manner and body postures from leisurely onlooking, and to know its own safe distance from the lurking carnivores.
Both hunter and hunted needed better mental maps of the terrain, whether for driving prey or for choosing escape routes. The gameboard expanded, from acres to square miles, along with body size and mobility. Because of the strength of the great herbivores, the carnivores began to teach their young how to stalk, attack, subdue, and retrieve, and the young learned these skills over a period of years. The comparable skills of the hunted were the adroit use of horns, antlers, and hooves and movement in concert, forcing the predator in turn to estimate the prey's potential resistance in order to select the weakest, disabled, callow, or panicked individuals. Hunters became concerned with recognition of vulnerable individuals: the pregnant, young, old, ill, or isolated. The hunted needed to discern the predator's intention, to read the future in the rhythms of the distant lion's moves. The potential prey's response to being stalked could intimidate inexperienced predators or lead to joint action in fending them off.
So much learned behavior required that the young of both predator and prey develop slowly in a series of age-grade activities, including play that prepared adult agility and sharpened their bluffing, catching, or avoiding skills. It also required longer care by the parents and their intentional demonstrations of attack and protection. Both sides earned the capacity to "keep in mind" cue fragments—to perceive and respond to the cries of other animals such as the alarm calls of birds and rodents. Cooperation between individuals improved, especially if the prey were large or the predators numerous. The social hunters and the hunted eventually developed roles, often by sex or age, for coordinated attack or mutual protection. Predators developed techniques for relayed pursuit; the prey developed techniques for inducing the hunter away from the more vulnerable individuals or, perhaps, even for selecting the individual among their own to be lost or "volunteer" for self-sacrifice.
Such "progressive strategies," linked in tandem, were a minuet whose steps became more baroque with time, beginning with the bumbling mobility of minimal forethought and proceeding to the nimble elegance of master performers. These tactics evolved over thousands of centuries from simple responses to remembering and thinking ahead—the before-and-after-thinker—in veldt or savanna. Such interlocking brain evolution is not generally characteristic of animals; brains, as noted earlier, are no bigger than necessary. Most animals have relatively little cognition other than essential physical, social, and ecological processes keyed to the larger rhythms of the body or the season. Learning is important, but it is limited.
This Cenozoic mutuality of mammalian hunter and hunted is one of the few longstanding and conspicuous episodes of reciprocal mental evolution. It is based on the measurement of fossil crania spanning more than forty million years. It took place in the energy-rich, open spaces with dispersed cover, spaces in which life depended on a radical attention to other animal species. Strangely, the Game was played in no other environments than the savannas and perhaps the sea (or at least it is less discernible by modern scholars in other habitats). The brains of whales and dolphins evolved in an intensely social, three-dimensional world, where long-distance communication is possible, paralleling that of the monkeys. The dolphins became group hunters whose food quests pitted them against fish who, if not as smart as antelopes, had a 200-million-year head start in perfecting the musculature and alert reflexes of escape. This perfection of the fish was like a whetstone to the minds and bodies of the cetaceans. Large size, the protection and education of slow-growing young, movement over large distances—all are part of the evolution of the larger savanna mammals and the marine dolphins. Among these special mammals of the savanna and the sea—and the human newcomers who joined them—there is an almost clubby quality, as though some story were being told among themselves about an elaborate quest.
Now it is possible to return to our own story, in which our predecessors, already unusually cerebral, entered the drama in progress. They were like Americans arriving, decades late, on the world's soccer fields. The newcomers skittered about the fringes of play at first, perhaps more prey than predator. But the outcome in time was a surge in human brains, a saga in which a multitude of large, keen, dangerous animals—lions, antelopes, rhinos, elephants, horses, aurochs—loom in protohuman thought, and early humans went into open country afoot and occupied an ecological niche. At first, at the edge of the forest, on an expanded new diet of roots, stems, and seeds, they had entered a niche somewhat like raccoons: munching turtles and frogs, gleaning the residue of lions' meals, opportunist scavengers and part-time small-game hunters. Their primate sociality and big brains served them well and, almost suddenly, they were transformed into our species, beginning to speak, sing, dance, and above all cooperate as full members of the great savanna show.
The circumstances in which a series of large carnivores and herbivores became more thoughtful, by watching, pursuing, evading, stalking, hiding, mimicking, and otherwise seeking to comprehend and anticipate each other, set the stage and the terms of our presence, as though we had won a role in a play that had been running for years or married into an ancient lineage. When our ancestors moved away from the forest and began to forage, scavenge, and hunt we joined an adventure with ancient rules. To this union of large, fleet herbivores and powerful mammalian carnivores we brought primate social relations. It was already a wily band of frog and cicada munchers, would-be meat-eaters who would challenge their fanged competitors and chase the sly prey in the ongoing venatic Game, and who, with their chimpanzee-sized brains, would parlay cognition into new realms.
The humans brought features not common among the hoofed and clawed members of the community: diminished smell and hearing and a society germinated in the treetops. The cat-, dog-, and hyena-like players already there had great olfactory bulbs in their heads, a sense of smell so keen that a world could be built on it, along with ears and sometimes eyes to match. Our ancestors had abandoned the nose and neglected the ear, having become mainly visual like birds. Their primate legacy included a well-developed vocal system with its potential for speech and, eventually, the assignment of words to categories of the visible world, thereby coding the world as objects which could be evoked in the mind's eye or between individuals by speech.
Excerpted from The Others by Paul Shepard. Copyright © 1996 Paul Shepard. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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