Reading Stephen Cave’s “What Sets Humanity Apart.”

Today’s FT weekend magazine was a mine of ideas, so many of “my articles,” or articles whose subjects were my subjects. As I write this I’m still thinking about all that I read there today. I’ve already ordered a couple of the books I read about, downloading samples for my Kindle reading App.  (I’ve already sent several of these articles to family and friends, and now I’m writing about them to you.) I don’t know if you’re reading this, and if you are, when… but these articles may still be alive on Google’s cloud and perhaps you could find them. Will Google be as much a part of your lives as it is, and has been for some 10 or more years now, a part of mine?

There were other articles getting my attention that I won’t mention here. But the article getting most of my attention was Stephen Cave’s review  — What sets humanity apartof four new books:  The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution, by Henry Gee, University of Chicago; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, by Marc Bekoff, New World Library; The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, by Thomas Suddendorf, Basic Books; and  A Natural History of Human Thinking, by Michael Tomasello, Harvard. Three of these I’ve already downloaded, as free samples for my iPhone.

Anyway again, here are some of my thoughts in response to the articles that struck gold in me, or rather struck a responsive chord, or nerve, There was this one: Oldest hominid footprints outside Africa found on Norfolk coast. Now Just this morning, lying in bed, about 5 am, and not asleep, I said to myself I should go back into our human past (by the Google time machine) to determine just when we became “conscious,” or “human.” For we weren’t always human, were we?

If you assume as I do that we began when life began, and, for not millions, but billions of years life was only microscopic. We weren’t much during all that time. Nothing like the time of the dinosaurs! We humans only entered the long history of life on our planet some 100s of thousands of years ago, just the blink of an eye in respect to the several billion year-long history of life on earth.

Those points or moments in time where we could say that, yes, for the first time, this is us, are few and still being identified and being made more precise. Perhaps the first human moments were those of the early men of the cave drawings in southern France and Spain. Probably not the hominid footprints in Africa of millions of years ago (those of Lucy et al.), or those reported in the article I refer to found outside of Africa on the Norfolk coast of England. The latter, leaving their footprints 1 million years ago, while clearly hominids were probably not yet us.

Cave’s book review was exciting. It went right to the subject I was dwelling on early this morning, that which makes us different from other life forms, from the other twigs on the branch or bush of life forms. The books reviewed were all playing down our differences with other life forms, seeing them as differences of degree only.

I’ve too have always tended to be of this persuasion, differences of degree, not of kind between us an others. How about you? Certainly our closeness of our pets and our encounters with other animals, and not only at the zoos we all visited together when you were little, but in the “wild”, has convinced me of this. And today, our Siamese cat, Abby, that your uncle and aunts gave to their mother, definitely seems to have a consciousness, OK not ours, but still a consciousness.

By the way, in doing a little search on Google, I learned that dogs had nearly twice as many neurons in their cerebral cortex as cats. I had always wondered if dogs were more “conscious”  (man’s best friend) than cats, and I still wonder. Do the extra neurons suggest that this might be so? What do you think?

Going back to Stephen Cave’s article, I’ve highlighted a number of his observations here:

Some scientists have concluded that there simply is no profound difference between us and other species.

We only believe we are so exceptional,,, because we believe that we are the pinnacle of evolution. But this is a misunderstanding: we are just one twig in the thicket, and we could easily have never sprouted at all.

If our twig stands out, it might be only because we have ruthlessly pruned the rest of the branch.

We are not the only species with, for example, language – we just have more of it. The same goes for the other features that the author (Suddendorf) considers key to our success: mental time travel (thinking about the past and future), theory of mind (thinking about what others might be thinking), intelligence, culture and morality.

At some point in our evolutionary history, the author (Tomasello) conjectures, early humans were forced to overcome this competitiveness and work together for common goals such as hunting large prey. 

What I take most from Cave’s review is this, that if there really is something that sets us apart from other animal species it is that we have [not yet entirely anyway] overcome our competitiveness, not yet learned to work together for common goals, to put our heads together,… (all things that early man as well as other animal species can do).

But what I wanted to write about was my attempt to go back and determine the moment when we could say that yes, these hominids were humans like us. For we are all still looking to find that moment when we became human.  But as I say that I guess there really was no such moment or point in time. No moment of man’s creation. Our humanness evolved like all the rest, slowly, over long, long periods of time. And whatever it is that makes us truly human, will that be the same for your grandchildren as it is for you? That’s probably the most interesting question, is our humanness evolving and thereby changing? Are we losing something precious? Assuming we can ever say what that humanness is.

Another thing I wanted to write about today was…well, what was it? I guess I’ve forgotten. You know, I don’t really know what’s going to happen to my mind during the years I have left. How much will I remember, how much forget? When you read this my “mind” (along with the brain which holds it will  be over and done with, not I hope, cooked). For the moment I’m still here. I don’t yet forget to pay the bills, nor do I forget you, the grandchildren. I don’t forget my wife of 54 years, who is still with me, almost a part, the best part, of me, sharing our home in South Tampa. And I remember that it’s now time to stop writing and go help her make lunch (you’ll be here too, well not Maverick). Do you still remember the San Luis lunches, this week when your Aunt K was here?

What kind of things do I forget. Well I just had it in mind to write, but mostly names. For the life of me I couldn’t give you a complete roster of the world champion Celtics. And like most people I nearly always forget my dreams (and related to this I remember very little of my childhood, unlike both my wife and Marcel Proust in this respect). And if you asked me to tell you without looking the names of the four books reviewed in Stephen Cave’s article, “What sets humanity apart,” and that I just read, I couldn’t tell you even one of them.

Is it just for the moment we live? What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give, Or are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind, Alfie, Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel. And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie, What will you lend on an old golden rule? As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie, I know there’s something much more, Something even non-believers can believe in. I believe in love, Alfie. Without true love we just exist, Alfie. Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie. When you walk let your heart lead the way, And you’ll find love any day, …

Like Art Buchwald I too know there’s something much more, Something even non-believers can believe in.  I too believe in love, and as my father and your great, great grandfather used to say, without true love (for him this was helping others) we just exist.


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