Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Thought about Human Evolution

Frans de Waal:
The problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human. This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red. The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different. But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese.

Apart from our language capacity, no uniqueness claim has survived unmodified for more than a decade since it was made. You name it — tool use, tool making, culture, food sharing, theory of mind, planning, empathy, inferential reasoning — it has all been observed in wild primates or, better yet, many of these capacities have been demonstrated in carefully controlled experiments.

We know, for example, that apes plan ahead. They carry tools over long distances to places where they use them, sometimes up to five different sticks and twigs to raid a bee nest or probe for underground ants. In the lab, they fabricate tools in anticipation of future use. Animals think without words, as do we most of the time.
Although knowledge of human evolution is widespread, and more than half of Americans accept that we did evolve, the real lessons of evolution are little appreciated even among biology teachers. In the long run, there is no such thing as a species, or a genus. There is only constant change, one tiny variation at a time. What we call a species is just a still from a moving picture of evolution in motion. We are not the same as our ancestors of 50,000 years ago, and they were not the same as their ancestors of 50,000 years before that, and so on back across a billion and more years to the first eukaryotic cell. We are part of life, one recent outcome of earth's grand experiment. There is a part of our minds that hates this chaos and longs for things to stand still and be named; in heaven, we imagine, there will be no more change. But if god is anything, god is change; the universe is in ceaseless violent turmoil, and we are part of that turmoil, denizens of cosmic chaos. There may be in some sense a deeper layer of stasis, fundamental equations that lay the rules of the dance; maybe time is just one way of perceiving a universe that could also be seen as a four-dimensional image built of interacting waves, as a pattern in the mind of god. But we are creatures of time and change; that is our fundamental reality. That, to me, is what evolution really means: that we stand on sand that moves like a beach in storm, and must learn to dance with the changing world, not waste our energy forcing it to stand still.

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