Martin LeFevre: Exapted for Awakening? (Pt. 1)

Published: Fri 31 Oct 2003 11:58 AM
Meditations (Politics) - From Martin LeFevre in California
Exapted for Awakening? (Pt. 1)
Humankind stands at an evolutionary crossroads. Our species cannot continue dividing and fragmenting the natural world without inducing a collapse of natural systems. But we can still change course, though it will require a revolution in consciousness. Is that the next step in human evolution?
To begin to address that question, we need to understand what makes us human in the first place, and how our species came to dominate the planet. Then we can perhaps see how the basic evolutionary pattern may apply in a new way--with our conscious participation. (There is however a vast difference between conscious participation in this evolutionary leap, and control, which is the bane of humankind.)
In my view, the clearest thinking on what makes humans different from other animals, and how that difference evolved, comes from Ian Tattersall, a paleo-anthropologist, author, and curator of the American Museum of Natural History. However Tattersall is not a philosopher, and as one, I hope to take up where he leaves off.
In his latest book, "Monkey in the Mirror," Tattersall explains that "symbolic cognitive processes" are the defining element of our humanness. He defines symbolic processes as "our ability to abstract elements of our experience and represent them with discrete mental symbols." That means consciously separating out Œthings,' generating names and images for them, and then manipulating them, both mentally and physically. Everything we do as humans is based on this basic ability.
Tattersall's compelling thesis is that the modern human brain existed in its present form for many thousands of years before some social stimulus ignited an explosive awakening of latent abilities. At that point we made the transition from essentially intuitive functioning to symbolic functioning.
In this view, the Neanderthals were a tremendously successful but distinct human species, which had achieved the zenith of a lifestyle based on intuitive processes alone. But then along came the Cro Magnons, having developed in and migrated from Africa (as had all previous hominid species). They were Homo sapiens, our species, and they displaced and drove into extinction Homo neanderthalensis.
Before 100 thousand years ago, there is very little evidence of what Tattersall calls "symbolic cognitive functions." However after 40 thousand years ago in Europe (and well before in Africa, though there is less evidence there so far), there is abundant evidence that "an entirely new order of being had materialized on the scene." In cave art, in tool making, in sculpture, engraving, music, elaborate burial of the dead, and much else, human culture, as we know it, had suddenly emerged.
Tattersall authoritatively deals with two shibboleths that have become common intellectual currency: the idea that evolution works through gradual progression toward a perfected form; and the idea that ready-made adaptations emerge through natural selection, making creatures more fit to compete.
In actuality, most if not all innovations in nature arise through a process called "exaptation," through which "a characteristic arises in one context before being exploited in another." The classic example is birds' feathers, which, millions of years before they were used for flight, were used for insulation.
In the same way, Tattersall effectively argues, the modern human brain arose for some other reason, but was later "exapted" for the uniquely powerful symbolic and cultural purposes toward which our species of hominid began putting it.
Disturbingly however, the evolution of cognitive symbolic processes (that is, conscious thought) carried with it the inexorable tendency to fragment things all to hell.
This raises huge questions, foremost being: how could evolution produce an exaptation/adaptation so at odds with the rest of nature? I'll take up that question, and a potential resolution of the dilemma, in the next column.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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