Paleo-anthropologists are generally of the view, in the words of Ian Tattersall, that ³there has never been a more fateful arrival on the biological scene than that of our extraordinary species.² Old anthropocentrism dies hard.
Though the first fully modern humans probably emerged in eastern or southern Africa over a hundred thousand years ago, the first ample archeological evidence of people with the human capacity is from the Augnacians in Europe, somewhere around 40,000 years ago. But just what is the human capacity?
Anthropologists mean by that phrase the entire package of human capabilities, evidenced by sculpture, engraving, painting, music, notation, elaborate burial, specialized social roles, recordkeeping, and ever-evolving technology. The capability of producing these things emerged suddenly, 100-200 thousand years ago, as a result of a cognitive leap in one population. It spread relatively very quickly through cultural transmission to other populations of morphologically modern humans in Europe and Asia who also had the same latent biological potential.
As Tattersall points out, any new structure must arise before it can assume a function. Or, to put it another way in terms of the explosion of human capabilities, the biological hardware had to precede the emergence of the mental software that makes us putatively human. The software was probably the invention of complex language.
Evolution is funny thing. Birds acquired feathers to regulate body temperature long before they were recruited in the service of flight. In other words, where natural selection is concerned, form doesn¹t follow function, function follows form. Biologists call it Œxaptation, whereby novel characteristics arise in one functional context well before being recruited in another.
There’s strong evidence that different species of humans coexisted for tens of thousands of years in relative harmony before the cognitive revolution ushering in modern man occurred. That means if you took a Neanderthal child and placed her next to a Homo sapiens child, you would instantly see that they belonged to different species, though they behaved in more or less indistinguishable ways.
Something suddenly changed. In short, we¹re human not because of the way we look, but because of the way we think, indeed, because of thinking itself. As Tattersall says, language and thought both involve forming and recombining mental symbols; and it is virtually impossible for us to conceive of one in the absence of the other.
Whenever and wherever the intellectual breakthrough occurred in Homo sapiens, it spread quickly amongst our kind, but not to other species of humans, such as the Neanderthals in Europe, or the Ngandong people in Asia. They simply didn¹t have the requisite hardware. Then we wiped them out.
The implications of these discoveries are profound. We assume that consciousness is what we have, but what if consciousness is merely one exaptation awaiting another exaptation, which has yet to occur except in a few individuals? In other words, symbolic thought is an exaptation for awakening and illumination, as painful as the transitional process is.
It all comes down to what¹s called symbolically mediated experience. Words, images, and psychological memories are the raw material of symbolically meditated experience, and their dominance in the brain is why only see through the glass darkly.
During meditative states, experience ceases to be screened and filtered through symbols and memories, and the brain, for a few timeless minutes at least, sees nature and the world afresh, like a child does. That renews and refreshes the brain, ending the decay resulting from the continuous habit of experiencing the present through the symbols and memories of the past.
Our gift as humans has become our curse as man. Therefore it rings increasingly hollow and sorrowful to say, as Tattersall does with anthropocentric pride, once we had symbolic thought we could live, not simply in the world as presented to us by Nature, but rather in the world as we reconstruct it in our minds.
Why? Because man is fragmenting the earth and ourselves all to hell.
Insight is a symbolically unmediated moment. The state of insight is the negation and stillness of the movement of symbolic thought for some timeless but temporary period. Enlightenment, presumably, is when stillness (the quiescence of symbolic activity) becomes the brain’s baseline state.
The only way I can see that the exaptation for insight in the human brain can be fully awakened in the human being is through questioning and awakening insight together. A few individuals may radically change, and speaking and writing may help other individuals that are truly questioning, but they can only go so far.
As a great religious teacher once said, ³No person, however illumined, has changed the basic course of man. That includes Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed.
Can man stumble along for another millennia, with our internecine wars and extra-species extinctions, with our vain hopes that science and technology will save us, until enough people awaken to change our basic course? Or is this it?