18 August 2007

Evolution of the mind

“If you took a bunch of human babies from anywhere around the world – from Australia, New Guinea, Africa, Europe – and scrambled the babies at birth and brought them up in any society, they’d all be able to learn the same languages, learn how to count, learn how to use computers, learn how to make and use tools. It suggests that the distinctively human parts of our intelligence were in place before our ancestors split off into the different continents.”
– Steven Pinker in an interview on PBS ‘Evolution’.

Along with geneticist Steve Jones of University College London (about whom I’ve blogged earlier this month), Steven Pinker of Harvard University’s Dept of Psychology feels human biological evolution is over. That it was over some 50,000 years ago (give or take 10,000 years) before humans migrated from Africa to Europe and Australia. That, today, Africans, Europeans, Americans, Australians and Asians are all the same species of humans, with indistinguishable cognitive abilities.

These cognitive abilities and their application which resulted in greater intelligence in humans didn’t appear at a moment’s notice, brought about by divine intervention, but evolved over tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of years. The learning from previous application of a certain ability – or a combination of abilities – led to greater intelligence which, in turn, was used in another application. Thus, expanding our minds (i.e. our brains) with more and more intelligence and knowledge.

The trick with human evolution vis-à-vis evolution of animal or plant life forms, says Steven Pinker, lies in the application of the brain. The human brain is capable of understanding the world around us and finding solutions to problems encountered in much faster speeds in order to adapt and evolve in our ecosystem. In doing so, the human brain figures out not only how to use more of the ecosystem to our advantage, but also to invent methods, tools and technologies (which are external to the human body) to get things done.

In theory, several things are likely to have happened to develop our cognitive abilities so quickly and bring us where we are today in our evolutionary timeline. In the same PBS ‘Evolution’ broadcast (transcript) I’ve quoted from in the beginning of this post, Steven Pinker suggests what these ‘several things’ may be: “So, each one of these abilities – intelligence about the world, social intelligence, and language – I think reinforces the other two, and it’s very likely that the three of them coevolved like a ratchet, each one setting the stage for the other two to be incremented a bit.”

Armed with such cognitive abilities, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a way to a better life where threats of diseases like AIDS and cancer are a thing of the past.

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