Sorting Out (As Best We Can) Human Evolution: A Speculative Essay
This is not a movie review
Hey gang, you know that movie starring Scarlett Johansson called Lucy? Its about what happens when a person, somehow, gains access to more and more of the human brain's "potential." As you cross each threshold, it seems that you come into possession of more and more fantastic powers, and so forth. I haven't seen the movie and I do not intend to do so, so this is not a movie review.
What makes me sad is that this kind of slipshod science-voodoo continues to contaminate the cinema.
I know what you're thinking: Dude, lighten up! Its just a movie!
Here's the thing. I am no science super genius, by any means. Believe me! But even I know that evolution does not work that way. Even I know that the old myth about people using only 5-10 percent of the human brain's capacity, is just that, an old myth. Even I know that any neuroscientist will tell you that we use one hundred percent of our brains, one hundred percent of the time.
I know what you're thinking now, really I do: What's the big deal? What are you trippin' for?
I'm "trippin'" because, for one thing, the great Morgan Freeman is apparently in this film; and he's wearing a long white jacket, which means he's playing a scientist of some kind. How could Hollywood allow one of the great actors of the last half century to spew this kind of science-voodoo? Don't they realize that there are people out there who are liable to take this stuff seriously?
Question: Aren't you overreacting just a little bit?
Answer: No, I don't think so. I don't think so, because its like I said in my review of the movie After Earth. If you make a science fiction movie, you have to place the plot within the realm of the mysterious unknown, where you're guess is as good as anybody else's, as to how that alternate reality works. But one thing you cannot (or certainly should not) do is leave basic, glaring errors of science fact lying around, where any eighth grader could trip over them. That kind of thing is not conducive to the transportation of the imagination. Do you follow me?
Question: So, you don't watch the X-Men?
Answer: Of course I watch the X-Men. But that's not science fiction. The X-Men are so outrageous---as are all superhero cartoons and comics---that they qualify as fantasy. The rules are just different for fantasy as opposed to science fiction.
Anyway, we use all of our brains, all of the time. And we're done all the evolving we're going to do---at least for now, anyhow.
How do I know that?
1. We cannot stand up any straighter.
2. Our thumbs cannot get any more opposable.
3. Our big-headed, big-brained selves give our mothers all the excruciating pain they can stand, thank you very much, in getting us born.
The "history" of human evolution
I don't absolutely rule out the possibility of additional human evolution (1). But, as I see it, it would take extraordinary circumstances to bring that about. If we use "history" [I like to consider human evolution historically] as our guide, by which I mean all that we know about the road we took to become what we are today, then I think we would have to say this: The only way another round of actual human evolution (2) could be kicked off, would be if something caused us to have a radically different way of perceiving the world around us, a new sense; and in that case, the rest of the organism would have to change so as to fully embrace the new way of perceiving the world. Does that make sense?
Let me explain.
What do we know about the evolutionary road we took to become what we are today?
The story is a familiar and routine one. But what is, perhaps, not so familiar and routine, is the way we look at that "history."
The first thing to say is that human beings and ape-kind came into the world by way of a common ancestor, one who, apparently, had, what would become, both "human" and "ape-like" characteristics.
Forests of Africa
First of all, don't get hung up on the Africa-thing. We are simply talking about the land mass that would become known as the continent of Africa. We do not mean to say "Africa" with the racial, political, historical, economic, and geostrategic charge that the word holds today.
Everybody lighten up, okay?
Life in the Deep, Thick Forests
Imagine the way that the creatures who would become us, are living like, millions of years ago.
First of all, because of the dense foliage everywhere, the sense of smell, and probably hearing would have meant far more to them than sight. They would have gotten more information, and more meaningful information from the sense of smell, and maybe hearing, than sight.
They would have been comfortable with something of a shuffling, stooped-over, "knuckle-dragging" gait. And why not? With trees everywhere, all one would have had to do was: take two steps, swing on a vine; take five steps, climb a tree, like that.
Because the environment is relatively "closed," there is not a lot of need to have elaborate dexterous hands, for example. You just need to swing on a vine, climb a tree, crack open nuts and grab berries off high branches, and things like that.
Life Beyond the Forest
Then something happens. Geological events occur, so as to begin the process of thinning out the African forests; and this changes everything for human ancestors.
Trees get farther and farther apart.
More and more open space appears before their eyes...
Imagine how they might have been processing these events.
Imagine them trying to reach the "end" of the open spaces...
In the process of them trying to reach the "end" of the open spaces, over time, the genes start to get the message that: The customer needs a more upright bearing for more comfort on long-distance flatlands travel.
The carriage, over time, gets more and more upright.
By the way, as all of this is happening, the genes are getting the message that: The customer is going to need sharper visual focus and greater range of the perception of sight!
Being led with the eyes to try to get to the "end" of the open spaces, with the body getting more and more upright in carriage, the genes are getting the message: The customer's going to need more lung capacity, a greater ability to take in oxygen, so as to give him greater endurance for those longer and longer flatland journeys.
The transformation continues
While all of this is going on, the hands are changing because much less pressure is being put on them. They're getting smaller, more "elegant," and fingers are getting longer and slimmer, and all that good stuff.
You see a small animal you'd like to eat. You pick up a rock and smash the creature over the head and eat it.
Maybe you throw the rock away after you're done with it. But maybe not.
Maybe you hold onto that rock. Maybe you find yourself thinking about that rock.
Not so much the rock itself. More like the rock in your hand.
Maybe you start "thinking" about how the rock feels in your hand. Maybe you start "thinking" about how the rock might be "made" to feel better in your hands.
All of that takes you down the road of tool-making, as the genes get the message: The customer's going to need more fine motor control of the hands and fingers.
And the transformations and modification continue cascading...
Including the emergence of "language," because all of that tool-making is creating a material (technological) culture that is too elaborate to navigate by squeals, grunts, and chirps, or whatever...
And on and on and on and on....
But notice something: All of that is kicked off because something happens which causes a radical transformation in the way the species perceived the world around them. And the organism made corresponding transformations, which served to maximize the perception of the world, now based on sight. In other words, the sense of sight simply led the way of human emergence and transformation. Is that clear?
We all understand that we, as human beings, did not become what we are today, in some kind of single shot. The process was very long and gradual, albeit pulled along as it seems to have been by a new emphasis on sight as a way of perceiving the world.
So why is it that when human evolutionary "history" is written, and we read it, terms like---homo erectus, homo habilus, Australopithecus, and the like---all pass before our eyes; and one never gets the feeling that anybody was "related" to anybody else? There is never any perspective of "parents and children," "generations" of "children," "grandparents," "brothers and sisters," "uncles and aunts," and "great, great, great, greats---whatever."
Why is it that human evolutionary "history" is written in such a way as to label different stages of the species development, as separate, distinct species? Why do they do that?
Now then, Dr. Mark Pagel is an evolutionary biologist who informs us that the human brain reached its modern size by the 150,000/100,000 years ago period (3). So, by twenty-eight thousand years ago---or rather, either seventy-two thousand or one-hunded-twenty-eight thousand years later---humanity should be all set, right?
Well, no, there's a problem.
What's the problem?
Here's Dr. Mark Pagel again: "Twenty-Eight Thousand Years ago, in a large cave at the southern end of Gibraltar, what might have been the last of the Neanderthals died. They hadn't been pushed there by the encroaching Ice Age that would reach its peak in Europe about 8,000-10,000 years later. Instead, this was their last redoubt, having been displaced, outcompeted, or simply killed by modern humans who relentlessly marched all over Europe following their arrival some 12,000-15,000 years earlier. It must have been a time of terror, confusion, and despair for Neanderthals, whom we know were over 99.5 percent identical in sequence of their DNA to us, and who had been living in Europe for perhaps 300,000 years. The new modern people would have been cleverer and more inventive, more adaptable, more mobile, and certainly more successful. They would have carried a baffling and frightening array of technologies, and they would have been good at using them. Their standard of living would have fallen short of ours, but to the Neanderthals, life in human society must have seemed luxurious and privileged (4).
"And to make matters worse, these modern humans might even have shown up singing and playing instruments, dancing, wearing sewn clothes, producing at and making carved figures. It would have been like a scene from a science fiction story of a people confronted by a superior alien race, except it was really happening" (5).
Well that's rather dramatic, isn't it?
What is a Neanderthal?
The descriptions you get almost always point to three things: 1) the 99.5 percent genetic compatibility with Cro-Magnon ("modern" humans); 2) the brain which is the same size as that of their Cro-Magnon peers; and 3) their very "robust" stature compared to the Cro-Magnon; 4) and, according to Dr. Mark Pagel, the "Neanderthals" were less advanced than the Cro-Magnons.
By the way, you know who has a "robust" stature?
Future Pro Basketball Hall of Famer, three-time NBA champion, Shaquille O'Neal.
I Googled him and the stats came back: 7'1" and 325 lbs.
That is an extra large man. Statistically quite extraordinary, no?
Let me ask you a question:
How many seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pound classical guitarists do you suppose there are in the world?
Not many, right? You can probably count them on one five-fingered hand, right?
How many seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pound nuclear chemists do you suppose there are in the world?
Again, probably not very many.
How many seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pound tenor-voiced opera singers do you suppose there are in the entire world?
A very scant few, I would imagine.
How many seven-foot-one, three hundred-twenty-five pound oceanographers do you suppose there are on the planet?
And finally, how many seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pound NASA (or any space program) mathematicians do you suppose there are in the whole world?
Now then, I would expect that we could count all of those categories---for a seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pound member---on one hand and still have fingers left over. But here's the thing: We all know that being seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pounds did not and does not, in any way, prevent somebody from, say, synthesizing antimatter in a laboratory.
Nothing except, say, societal pressure which demands that someone seven-foot-one, three-hundred-twenty-five pounds entertain us masses by dunking a basketball.
Step away from the particle accelerator, Shaquille. Step away, son!
Can you dig it?
However, two-hundred-thousand years from now, alien or future human archeologists and anthropologists may very well make the same mistake about us, today, as I believe we, today, are making about "them," all those thousands of years ago.
References and Notes
1. There is a book that has been hugely influential for what one might call my own "intellectual" development. I owe so much of my worldview to the formative power of that book to this day. I acknowledge that, even as I must respectfully reject its central thesis, which is that: Human evolution is a currently ongoing process, which the arduous practice of Yoga is designed to speed up.
I'm talking about this book: Krishna, Gopi. The Secret of Yoga. Harper and Row, 1972.
Or, it might be more accurate to say that I might accept it with "tweaking."
2. McAuliffe, K. (2009, February 9). They Don't Make Homo Sapiens Like They Used To. Retrieved February 12, 2015. This article, in my opinion, conflated the idea of "adaptation" with true (human) "evolution."
Evolution, as I have been discussing it "historically," should probably be defined as something like this: Human evolution is the "historical" transformation of the species, led by the radical alteration in the way we perceived the world (with sight predominating), to our current state. Something like that.
3. Pagel, Mark. Wired for Culture: Origins Of The Human Social Mind. W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 234
4. ibid, 29-30
5. ibid, 30