Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Evolution of the Mind

An interesting article recently surfaced in USA Today about Darwin and cultural evolution:


The author argues that one cannot look to Darwin to explain the evolutionary developments of the human mind. From an individual and genetic perspective, homo sapiens have not evolved that much since 50,000 years ago. (In fact, some scientists assert that there isn’t sufficient genetic variation among humans to even justify the existence of separate “races,” as 99% of our genome is the same.) So how does one explain the intellectual leaps and bounds that humans have made?

Lord Colin Renfrew of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research states, “If we want to know why our world is different than 90,000 years ago, we have to consider the intellectual developments that took place by following the engagement between humans and the material world.” This inquiry reminded me of Richard Klein, an anthropologist at Stanford, who argues that some neurological mutation – possibly relating to speech and the FOXP2 gene – occurred around 50,000 years ago, enabling religion, art, and culture. In other words, it wasn’t evolution per se that led to the explosion of human intellectual potential. Whatever the cause of change, it was obviously evolutionarily adaptive as it allowed Homo sapiens to dominate other Homo species and migrate to the far-flung places of the world.

If you’re at all interested in this topic, Steven Pinker writes about the Evolution of the Mind. He does not believe that changes in the brain happened “overnight” or that there was a “magical mutation.” As Pinker notes:

“I don’t think there was a thunderclap or a divine spark that suddenly made one species smart. You can see, in our ancestors, there was a gradual expansion of the brain, there was an expansion of the complexity of tools. Even when our species evolved, it surely was spread out over tens of thousands of years.”

-Alyssa Martin

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