Humans: Merely Evolved Chimps?

So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.  (Genesis 2:19)

This is the 4th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self expressed in two books: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  The previous blog is The Matter of Evolution.

While both Tallis and Gazzaniga accept the basic claims of Darwinian evolution for humans, they both note that human evolution has taken some particular turns that have made humans distinct from all other animals.  Gazzaniga describes the evolution of humans, noting some disadvantages which evolution caused for evolving humanity; and yet these very demands which natural selection put on humans resulted in changes which led to the development of the unique human animal.

“Becoming bipedal produced another disadvantage: The birth canal became smaller. A wider pelvis would have made bipedalism mechanically impossible. Embryonically, the skulls of primates form in plates that slide over the brain and do not coalesce until after birth. This allows the skull to remain pliable enough to fit through the birth canal, but also allows the brain to grow after birth. At birth, a human baby has a brain that is about three times larger than that of a baby chimp, but it is developmentally less advanced.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 422-25)

So evolution allows for the fact that the human animal was evolving into a unique species, but some of the new and unique features of this species were not purely advantageous in terms of evolution.

“…once you have a species that depends on consciousness then it is essential for its members to remain conscious. . . .  an organism that has to plan, to deliberate, to remember, to rehearse possible courses of action and to see wholes so as to deal with singulars, in order to survive, is in a mess: at any rate, disadvantaged compared with the unerring unconscious biological machines generated by the laws of material nature.”  (Tallis, p 177)

The emergence of a species with a bigger brain and which relied on consciousness for survival offers a challenge to surviving in a world in which other creatures act instantly on instinct.   The appearance of the large brained human poses some questions for Darwinian theory as the evolutionary advantage is not so automatic as we might think.  Tallis critically queries:

“Darwinism cannot give satisfactory answer to either of these two questions: how did consciousness emerge; and what is consciousness for, anyway?” (Tallis, p 170)

Tallis certainly believes that the emergence of consciousness has moved the human animal into a unique category, a category that cannot be completely explained by evolutionary theory and one that is not fettered completely to materialistic activities.  The emergence of consciousness has added a new dimension to the animal kingdom.  This new dimension, the emergence consciousness, can not be completely accounted for by materialistic science in Tallis’ estimation since the larger brain was not a purely advantageous evolutionary change.

“The biological story of the passage from single cells to full-blown eyes, therefore, tells us nothing about the quite different journey from light incident on photosensitive cells producing a programmed response, to the gaze that looks out and sees, and peers at, and enquires into, a visible world.   And this is accepted by some physicists; for example Brian Pippard, who expresses this as follows: ‘What is surely impossible is that a theoretical physicist, given unlimited computing power, should deduce from the laws of physics that a certain complex structure is aware of its own existence.’” (Tallis, p 173)

In other words, material science which for the atheist must be able to account for all things, could not deduce that some physical structures (in this case, humans) have self awareness.   There are aspects of human existence that are not predicted by nor totally accounted for by materialistic science.

That humans are unique in all the creatures on earth is easily demonstrated by how different humans are than our nearest genetic relatives, the chimps.

“We are the only animals who deliberately instruct each other.  Chimps don’t even teach their young such elementary skills as breaking a nut with a stone.” (Tallis, p 157)

“The absolute pinnacle of chimp tool use is the employment of a stone to break a nut and this takes the beast about five years to learn!” (Tallis, p 222)

“Unlike chimpanzees, however, other research from Tomasello’s lab found that twelve-month-old children will also freely give information. If they know where an object is that someone is looking for, they will point to it. Interestingly, altruistic behavior, which is appearing to be innate in humans, is influenced by social experience and cultural transmission.”  (Gazzaniga, Kindle Loc. 2313-16)

“alone of all the creatures, we teach our young facts, norms, skills, practices, customs.”  (Tallis, p 236)

Thus Tallis and Gazzaniga agree that humans are not merely more highly involved chimps.  Whatever our evolutionary relationship to chimps is, humans evolved in a radically different way that puts us at a greater developmental distance from chimps than chimps are from other animals.

“Darwinism does not oblige us to embrace biologism or, more specifically Darwinitis…”  (Tallis, p 213).

Biologism means biological determinism and Darwinitis is Tallis’ own term for over applying Darwinian thinking to all things human.  For both Gazzaniga and Tallis there is something unique about being human, and both oppose science losing sight of this uniqueness.   The problem which occurs is that some choose to deny or ignore just how different humans are from the rest of the animal world.  That difference is based in human consciousness and the social space that humans share intellectually.  The human brain has evolved not slightly but to such an extent that humans represent a new force in nature – intentionality by humans shapes society, the future and evolution itself.  It is reductionism which both Tallis and Gazzaniga oppose in the scientific understanding of what it is to be human.  Reducing humans to the status of being exactly like any other animals but nothing more denies the evidence – society and science itself (!) – that is all around us. Denying the uniqueness which human minds and human society represent in the animal kingdom really is like the old joke in which the man murders his parents and then asks for mercy from the court because he is an orphan.

Next:  The Evolved Brain and The Emerged Mind