Evolution helps us marvel in the extraordinary
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight looks at some of the abilities shared between humans and animals and explains how this puts the things that fill us with awe into perspective.
I wonder if there needs to be a new way of looking at the human perspective of reality. We used to think various abilities like self-awareness, concept-based reasoning, forward planning and problem solving belonged in the realm of being exclusively human. We now know that isn’t the case – we know that other animals share those abilities. Although that doesn’t mean humans aren’t unique – I think they are – just not unique in the way we used to think.
I saw a recent television programme called ‘Super Smart Animals’ which gave exhibition to the many abilities of animals that we once thought were exclusively human. There was a Eurasian jay called Romero who knew how to get a worm floating in a tube by dropping in stones to raise the water level and bring the food to the surface. He had stones and corks from which to choose, and in learning to ignore the corks and pick the stones he was matching the ability of a child of about six or seven. In a similar situation there was an orangutan who could get peanuts out of narrow tubes by pouring in water and seeing them rise to the surface. There was a dog called Chaser who had learnt the names for over 1000 different items - and could pick the right one when asked to do so from a huge scattering of items on the floor.
There was Panbanisha the bonobo who could communicate with humans using a ‘lexigram’ board which depicts over 200 symbols depicting words in the English language. There was Ronnie the dolphin who had been taught numerous signals for fancy acrobatic leaps, as well as a code for 'create' which he identifies as meaning 'make up something spontaneous'. There was Hank the Hawaiian heron showing he had the ability to forward plan by using a piece of bread as bait in order to catch fish. But most impressive of all, there was Ayumu the chimpanzee who on this particular task had memory recall more impressive than most humans. In just 60 milliseconds (which isn’t even as long as the blink of an eye), he can remember the position of nine numbers randomly displayed on a computer screen, commit this to memory when the computer conceals them, and recall them in the right order while they are still undisclosed.
Obviously from an overall perspective these animals aren’t doing anything that resembles the mental acuity of humans. But the point is, natural selection can, I assume, give rise to all thinking minds in the animal kingdom, including humans. Before we get into misunderstandings, I will say, there is a clear qualitative distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom - not least with our ability for recursivity (the ability to link concepts self-similarly) and the formulation of complex non-deductive ideas.
Scientifically the issue isn’t controversial; neuroscience shows that brain cells remain more or less the same across the higher animals. Where humans have engendered more advanced cognitive capacity is by harnessing their higher neuron count and more complex neural networks that can give rise to complex cognition. In other words, evolution supports a qualitative difference, but not a black and white distinction, only shades of grey. Humans just happen to have the most sophisticated neural computer with the most enriched combinatorial algorithmic potential. It does not have a magic soul inside (so far as we know) - it is built by natural selection for survival, reproduction, safety, status and learning.
Without the numerous products of collective cognition that we acquire from sensory experience, and from the skills of our ancestors passed from generation to generation, our brains would be significantly unimpressive. I think Aristotle was right - all of our powerful thinking comes from acquisition of experience. In actual fact, the reason I argue there is a qualitative difference between humans and the other animals is not just because of distinctions, but similarities too – hence the shades of grey as opposed to black or white. If all intelligence comes from God then it would sense to see commonalities in how all minds work.
Having said all that, you may have noticed two extraordinary things about humans. In the first place, the whole external world is a brilliant illusion created by our minds, and consensualised by our ability to share ideas and communicate thoughts. I'm on the side of Kant when it comes to reason; for I take 'reason' to be a phenomenal tool that operates from within the interstices of the aforementioned brilliant illusion. All this comes from experience of the world. In the second place, although natural selection may have endowed us with the mental resources necessary for survival, reproduction, safety, status and learning – what strikes me as incredible about the human mind that these aren’t the things it finds most fascinating. It finds more fascinating the things that one might consider to be subsidiary facets to human life.
In other words, it isn’t the necessary things like food, water, sunlight, or copulation that fill us with awe – it is the unnecessary things in our evolution like love, beauty, sublimity, music, poetry, literature, art, faith, the picturesque natural world and the astounding mathematical patterns in nature that really fill us with awe. Although we shouldn’t diminish our appreciation for the natural world, it really does feel like we were created for another world altogether, and that this life is a disquisition attached to some greater narrative. Perhaps that is what the writer of Ecclesiastes means when he says that God has set eternity in our hearts. Not that we should fail to marvel at nature and enjoy this life, but that we should marvel and enjoy her in preparation for something even better.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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