So by our own measure, we’ve developed into the most sophisticated and technologically advanced species on the planet. This much is evident. But with this ability to increase our pool of knowledge daily, comes the arduous task of attempting to keep track of it all. A hundred and fifty years ago, it was possible to be informed about virtually every aspect of physics. By contrast, today’s world of physics seems as broad in scope as the universe itself. But even without the holistic understanding of everything to do with physics, we are still making astonishing advances.
To begin to understand where all this may lead we first need to understand how we got here? What happened to spark our evolution into what we are now? So without further ado, let’s begin our journey into the history of the evolution of human intelligence.
Around ten million years ago the entire continent of Africa was covered in massive lush forests. At the time, and without the prophetic cacophony of climate scientists, few noticed that things were getting a little bit cooler and drier. At around two point six million years ago things really began to change: Earth was entering a period known as the Quaternary Glaciation. Ever so slowly North Africa’s forests diminished into grasslands. These grasslands left our ancestors vulnerable to predators like hyenas and saber toothed cats. Where the forests offered security and shelter, the open grasslands left us open and exposed.
So what to do? The disparity between the physical capabilities of humans and animals of the period required a strategy for survival. For many species, evolution offered increased physical prowess or some physical trait to dissuade the predators from engaging. But our ancestors went in a completely different direction: Our brains grew.
Let me introduce you to George. George was a Sahelanthropus Tchadensis. George shared a lot of physical characteristics with his direct chimpanzee ancestors including brain size. So what makes George important? Well in fact, George and his non-bipedal friends kept getting torn apart by saber toothed cats. Why? Because they were quite literally short sighted. And being on all fours close to the ground made it challenging to see the stealthy predators approaching. So George used a little ingenuity and discovered that by standing on his hind legs he had a much clearer picture of his environment. He also discovered that walking on his hind legs left him free to use his hands. Soon George discovered that he could use his hands to hold tools like bones and stones and when necessary use them as weapons. While hunting he could efficiently use a stone to dispatch his prey and then use a bone or stick to expedite the process of cutting open the carcass. These new found tools even aided in cracking open nuts. Most importantly, George could share his knowledge and others could improve on it and share the results. There was really only one problem: His brain was quite simply too small. So, about five million years ago, and many generations later, an adaptation occurred and George’s brain began to grow.
In fact, hominids like George had a brain around 400 to 450 grams. This is consistent with primates from which George was descended. However, after a period of cranial expansion, notably the neocortex, humans today have brains that weigh in around 1350 to 1450 grams. The neocortex, as it turns out, is what gives us our acumen for thinking, decision making, and problem solving.
While George’s progeny were enjoying the luxury of deeper thinking, his partner Martha was also undergoing changes. You see, it turns out that expanding head sizes became problematic for the female birth canal. To accommodate the larger head, the birth canal became so wide that females couldn’t run effectively. This problem was obviously unsustainable two million years ago and another adaptation was required. So mothers started to give birth at an earlier stage of fetal development (before the skull grew too big to fit through the birth canal.) While this allowed for the human brain to keep on growing, it came with another catch: Humans now needed to take care of infants. This limited the nomadic tendencies and forced the groups to stay in one place longer.
Around seventy thousand years ago all of the areas of the earth that were in non-tropical regions experienced a massive freeze caused by a massive volcanic explosion from the Toba volcano which filled the atmosphere with volcanic ash for several years. This reduced the human population to somewhere around 10,000 breeding pairs on the equator of Africa. It is currently thought that all modern humans descended from these pairs.
In this harsh environment only the brightest minds could survive. Only the minds capable of adapting and creating new tools, keeping warm, and finding new sources of food. So when did we reach a state of behavioral modernity? When did we develop language, art, music, mythology, cooking, games, humor, and begin to probe the meaning of our existence? How and why did we take this great leap forward?
The “Great Leap Forward” is apparent from about 80,000 years ago after the divergence of Homo sapiens in Africa. Genetically, three distinct lines formed which include the mitochondrial haplogroup L1 (mtDNA)/A(Y-DNA) who colonized Southern Africa, the haplogroup L2 (mtDNA)/B(Y-DNA) who settled in Central and West Africa, and the haplogroup L3 (mtDNA) who settled in East Africa and then migrated across the Red Sea to Arabia and eventually to every major landmass on earth except Antarctica.
The “Great Leap Forward” is credited with the establishment of behavioural modernity and includes advances in both behaviour and sophisticated development of tool design. Additionally, it is credited with advances in trade, figurative art, burial rites, self-ornamentation, music, etc.,
So between 30,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago, the progress that George’s progeny made underpins much of what we accept as ancient civilization. However, with the (relatively speaking) new improvements in brain capacity, new challenges presented themselves. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist proposes that social groups served as a greater stimulus for human intelligence than ecological challenges. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist argues that sexual selection was the primary driver. Whereas for myself, I see the primary driver being conflict. I would argue that conflict is primary driver that underlies everything. Whether it is a collision of matter, a collision of ideas, or a collision of nature.
“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, or over it.” Goethe
But before we get to conflict there is one more area to explore: