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Why Being Human Makes Evolution Hard to Understand

Article

Cameron M. Smith

Volume 37.6, November/December 2013

Our difficulty accepting evolution isn’t just because some religions oppose it or that it is complicated—it isn’t. The problem may be a result of how our minds work.

caveman reaching for a rabbit

Despite wide news coverage of evolution in recent years, and the fact that in January 2008 a leading science journal, Nature, declared evolution a fact, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” remains fundamentally misunderstood in the popular media. Even on otherwise great TV shows, like BBC’s Life, I’ve heard evolution misrepresented with scripting that propagates certain myths about the evolutionary process: in TV land, species struggle to climb the ladder of evolution to the pinnacle (occupied by humanity, of course); species live in ecosystems of perfect balance; living things are locked in combat for brute survival; and species are each nature’s “solution,” designed for a certain role in the great machinery of Nature.

A little bit of biology reveals that none of these misconceptions hold water, so how can as simple a process as evolution be so misrepresented? I don’t think it’s just a misunderstanding of how evolution works; tax form 1099 is more complicated than evolutionary principles. I don’t think it’s just because there are some common myths about how evolution works (though there are enough of these that I co-wrote a book—The Top Ten Myths About Evolution —to unveil them). And I don’t think it’s just a result of religiously based misinformation about evolution, though there’s plenty of that (and always will be).

statue of Darwin

No, I think the widespread misunderstanding of evolution runs very deep. I think it has a lot to do with the way our minds work—with, basically, being human itself. That’s because the essence of humanness is in the proactive making of things. I believe this proaction—quite unique in the animal kingdom—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making.

To understand how we came to think this way, we can look to the stimulating new field of “cognitive archaeology.”

Anthropology has shown that there are at least two meanings of humanness. “Anatomical modernity” is possessing a skeleton indistinguishable from that of modern humans, and we first see this in Africa by 100,000 years ago. The other meaning of humanness is “behavioral modernity,” exhibiting behaviors essentially indistinguishable from those of modern humans, meaning complex symbolism and somewhat modern language. Though it’s tough to spot archaeologically, there’s decent consensus that this is also first seen in Africa, in symbolic artifacts dated to almost 80,000 years ago, and without question by 50,000 years ago. It’s behavioral modernity that I’m concerned with here, and what it means for the mind—how we think—and why the way our minds work can make evolution hard to understand.

Proaction, Reaction, and the Invention of Invention

I argue that behavioral modernity is rooted in proaction and creation. Non­human life-forms change by an evolutionary process that is entirely reactive, and while some other animals do make and use tools, humans are entirely dependent on creating things—such as a stone tool, an igloo, or a Polynesian sailing vessel—to survive.

This is clear when we consider that evolution doesn’t look forward. Nonhuman offspring of any parent generation are born into environments with bodies more or less identical to those of their parents, and therefore more or less suited to the environment in which their parents flourished. If the current environment is different from the parents’ environment, the offspring can’t do much about it. Certainly they don’t change their bodies to adapt to the new environmental conditions, because they don’t know that evolution is happening in the first place and because there’s just no way to rapidly tailor the physical body to fit new environments. Although there is acclimatization (within boundaries referred to as the “reaction norm”), such change is largely not genetically encoded to be transmitted to the next generation; all that happens is that some offspring do better than others and some do worse, meaning that some live in better health and mate more commonly than others, sending the DNA that works for the present environment on to the next generation. And that’s it; if the gene pool has been altered, evolution is occurring. Nonhuman evolution, it’s easy to see, is reactive—just nonrandom differential survival of offspring born with bodies that worked in yesterday’s environment; as evolutionist R.C. Lewontin put it in 1989, “The organism proposes; the environment disposes.”1

series of skulls

But human evolution is very different. Humanity’s trick—and it’s a good one—is the ability to quickly adjust to any environmental pressure by inventing adaptations. Inventions can be artifacts, like a pair of warm boots, or complex behaviors, such as a dance that symbolically communicates how to hunt a particular animal. Whatever the invention, the point is that people thought it up; they perceived a problem and then designed a solution specific to that problem. And we don’t just do it for fun—we live or die by our ability to buffer our frail bodies against an ever-changing array of selective pressures. This has allowed human behavior to become largely decoupled from our biology, or at least not dictated by it, allowing us to survive and thrive globally not because of our bodies but despite them. And this capacity for inventing adaptations itself evolved; current cutting-edge theory suggests that at the heart of the broadly named “intelligence” we use to survive is the capacity for proactively adapting to new circumstances—creativity.2 The appearance of this capacity is the appearance of a new variety of evolution; it is the evolution of evolution itself, and it is distinctive enough in the three-billion-plus years of Earth life that it has been considered one of the eight main transitions in the history of the evolutionary process.3

From all of this we can see that humanity’s most useful adaptation has been the invention of invention. And from the day we learn that a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich doesn’t just spontaneously assemble itself—that it must be assembled with intent (preferably by someone else)—it seems obvious that all of the other things we see in the world (or at least those at least as complex as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich) were similarly assembled with intent. An acorn, for example, or a sturgeon: each is such a wonder of design (you try to make one!) that we feel they must have been made, with intent, as humans make things with intent. Superficially this seems reasonable enough and it has been the basis of the “Argument from Design” since the early nineteenth century, when William Paley wrote about the obviousness of design in nature in Natural Theology: “Upon the whole; after all the schemes and struggles of a reluctant philosophy [to explain complex things], the necessary resort is to a Deity. The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.”4

This argument is likely familiar to readers of Skeptical Inquirer, but here I’m not interested in examining its logical foundations (that has been thoroughly done) so much as its psychological foundations; that is, why Paley was compelled to argue this way. Obviously it is partly a result of two thousand years of the Christian church channeling the Western mind into theological interpretations, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think it also has to do with the long history of proactive making that has supported our genus since the origins of behavioral modernity. Humanity has been intentionally making things to survive for at least two million years, and that familiarity with proaction has stamped us to intuitively interpret “complex design” as necessarily the result of similar proaction. Here we draw the issue to its sharpest point: What do I mean when I say that this proaction has “stamped” us to think in a particular way? The mechanism is unclear, but the effects are real. In a review of studies of child psychology, Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen found that children “teleologically treat objects [and natural phenomena] as ‘for’ a single privileged function” and, furthermore, that by six- to ten-years-old they “reason about non-natural agents’ mental states…and view objects in terms of design.”5 How much of this “intuitive theism” is instinctual and how much is culturally conditioned is unknown, but the pattern is clear.

In this way, Paley and adherents of his view think, technically, like children who inhabit a small bubble of space and time perception. Assuming that things are designed, they must have a designer. This is compelling in the face of almost incomprehensible complexity in nature, but only if we do not take the time to look closely at that complexity. For example, what we see—say, a mature oak tree—appears to be a “finished product” until we open our eyes to a time dimension (one barely accessible to Paley and his supporters), which reveals that complexity today might well have been passively assembled over a long period rather than purposively composed in a flash of inspiration. We can open and examine a spatial dimension as well to look carefully even at the molecules of DNA that direct the construction of amino acids into proteins and proteins into tissues that compose the whole, from bark to leaf. Such wedges between “common sense” and an evolutionary perspective—wedges between technically childish and scientifically educated thinking—have only come up recently in civilization, particularly in the last century and a half of modern evolutionary science.

Where did this capacity to appreciate the space and time dimensions and phenomena that actually account for the complexity of living things come from? As I mentioned before, it evolved, and in ways that we are starting to understand today.

Teflon, Velcro, and the Modern Human Mind

The origins of the creatively adaptive mind of our genus lie in the evolution of new memory systems in the brain and information-processing capacities of the mind,6 and much of this played out in the evolution of language. While other animals certainly communicate, humans use many complex rules to exchange large amounts of information with great subtlety, at high speed, and with relatively few errors. What is most distinctive about human language, however, is the nature of its symbols, which actively promote invention.

Nonhuman primate communication uses the simplest kind of symbolism, as when a monkey gives an “aerial predator” screech or “ground predator” hoot, eliciting the proper defensive behaviors from their companions. These vocalizations are symbols because the sounds are arbitrary and they “mean” something else; a high screech signifies an aerial predator, while a low hoot signifies a ground predator. What is most interesting about these communications is that they’re very simple; I call these “Teflon” because nothing sticks to them. The aerial predator screech can only ever mean aerial predator. The symbol to symbolized ratio is 1:1.

In the most profound contrast, humans “stick” concepts together, making more complex messages; this is what I call “Velcro” symbolism, because one symbol sticks to the next. For example, we might say, “Watch out for that guy; he’s a real snake!” With human language, the symbol to symbolized ratio is 1:n because any word can be used to mean anything else we choose. The sound used to indicate “snake” can now describe the characteristics of a person. Somewhere in the evolution of our minds, our lineage broke some kind of barrier such that symbols were no longer concretely attached to one another; anything could mean anything. That “somewhere” is currently being intensively investigated.

What’s the advantage of such complex language, of “Velcro” symbolism? At the very least, it allows a better “fit” between the individual (or group) and his or her world. Simple, slavish reactions to alarms that mean “Climb, fast!” (ground predator) or “Drop fast!” (aerial predator) may be wasteful and unnecessary. But subtler messages made a better fit of action to environment. And the increased complexity of the human language system allowed more (and more detailed) information to be communicated rapidly; knowledge is power, and this is how human behavior became decoupled from its anatomy and how humanity survives despite rather than because of our physical frames. “Velcro” symbolism is also what really distinguishes humans from other animals, and from its origin—at least 50,000 years ago—humanity has been making things (including sentences) with conscious intent. Even receiving a message requires deciphering exactly what the other person really meant as opposed to (perhaps) what they actually said, so even the act of interpretation , shaped by the knowledge of intended creation by the other party, is itself purposive creation close to the very heart of humanness.

So, from the beginning of what we can call behavioral modernity over 50,000 years ago, we humans have been thinking about and interpreting the world as though it were made by intent, at least partly because we as a species evolve by “rolling creation,” a microsecond-by-microsecond flow of creation of meaning and even novel assembly of matter.

Creativity and the Understanding of Evolution

Creating, making, inventing, building, imagining—everything from stone tools to poems—are proactive human acts. Our mythologies are full of creation and we venerate exceptional creators. There is no end to human creation so long as there are minds capable of sticking ideas and words together in new ways. Without this ability we would be as interchangeable as insects, reacting (and that unknowingly) to natural selection rather than inventing ways to avoid it.

Creativity and proactively creating are at the heart of humanness, and when we think childishly we find it hard to understand that evolution is not, also, a result of proaction. But with maturity we understand that nonhuman evolution isn’t actually a thing but the completely unintended consequence of three independent, factual, and observable processes (replication of life-forms; variation in offspring; selection among offspring).7 This gives us a far richer understanding of how the natural world works, and how all these wonderful slime molds, birches, Venus flytraps, jellyfish, and every other living thing, actually came to be.


Notes

1. See p. 276 of Lewontin, R.C. 1983. Gene, organism and environment. In Bendall, D.S. (ed). 1983. Evolution from Molecules to Men. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 273–285.

2. For example, see Gabora, L. 2010. Revenge of the ‘neurds’: Characterizing creative thought in terms of the structure and dynamics of human memory. Creativity Research Journal 22 (1):1–13.

3. Szathmary, E. and J.M. Smith. 1994. The major evolutionary transitions. Nature 374: 227–232.

4. Paley, G. 1881. Natural Philosophy. New York: American Tract Society.

5. Kelemen, D. 2004. Are children ‘intuitive theists’? Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science 15: 295–301.

6. For more on this topic, see Smith, C.M. 2006. Rise of the modern mind. Scientific American MIND August/September 2006: 32–39.

7. For an update to modern evolutionary theory see Smith, C.M., and J. Ruppell. 2012. What anthropologists should know about the new evolutionary synthesis. Structure and Dynamics 5(2). Available online at http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/18b9f0jb.

Cameron M. Smith

Cameron M. Smith's photo

Cameron M. Smith, PhD, teaches human evolution and prehistory at Portland State University. He has written about evolution in Structure and Dynamics, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Evolution Education and Outreach, Physics of Life Reviews, and many popular science journals, as well as in the books The Top Ten Myths About Evolution (Prometheus Books, 2006) and The Fact of Evolution (Prometheus Books, 2011). He may be reached at b5cs@pdx.edu.