Friday, March 13, 2015

No One Knows Why We're So Smart

That's the conclusion I have drawn after today's Humanities Seminar.  The topic is The Evolution of Cognition, and my approach to the subject has evolved as the class has gone on.

I enjoyed the first few lectures, although they seemed rather basic in many respects.  What is science?  What about the scientific method?  Do we start with a hypothesis or is general curiosity preferred?  I had been taught the answers, and thought that everyone in the room had been taught them, too.  We were all fairly well educated older adults, after all.

But today, as we moved from the provable to the hypothetical, a certain sentence caught my attention.
"And, you remember, science teaches us that  ...."
All the what if's and possibly's were caught up right there - there were certain pieces of the puzzle which are provable.  There's a touchstone of what is that science can explain.  The leaps between those facts are what makes it the humanities, I guess.

In the blink of an eyelash, or 1.1 seconds on this clock, Homo sapiens went from nothing to something.

What that something is depends on how you approach the question.

We know that animals can make plans, can act from memory, can communicate in a variety of ways. That's all thinking... or is it.  What makes human intelligence different?  Other species show affection and commitment.  Other species solve problems, both practical and social.  Is it the arts which set us apart? Or, do the arts represent something larger, the notion of playing to an audience, a conception of the passage of time, an ability to find delight in the abstract?

These are the kinds of things I think about as I sit in traffic, going west across Speedway and onto the highway where, at 75 miles an hour in the middle lane, I can ponder.

And then, there's the question of why. Suddenly (in a deep time kind of way), Homo sapiens developed a bigger brain.  Was it to create tools, now that we were walking upright and could use our hands?  Was it because we were living in larger groups, and we needed bigger brains to manage the politics?  Or were we emulating the peacock, using our bigger (more beautiful?) brains to attract the more desirable mates?

They are all enticing suggestions, and there's no science which teaches us that any one of them is the answer. 

I hate it when that happens.

Was it inevitable that we developed this way, or was it random?  If inevitable, then probability would make it seem likely that similar intelligence exists in the multiplicity of planets in the universe.  If random, then it's likely that we are alone, a one off in a sea of possibilities.

Next week we're going to learn about nervous systems.  I can hardly wait.


  1. Too bad our politicians can't use their big fat brains to do something useful.

    1. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Thoughtful leadership....what a novel concept!


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