February 13, 2015 in Humans
I’m not interested in spending too much time on this so I’m going to keep it short and sweet.
– Brain-to-body ratios (one of the most reliable markers for what we currently consider to be intelligent behavior) peaked in humans roughly 30,000 years ago — its been generally declining ever since.
– Neanderthals had a greater brain-to-body ratio than modern people (and also just larger brains in general). There’s nothing at all to suggest that they were any less intelligent than us, it’s simply speculation that they were.
– The idea that those in the past (or those considered to be other “species”) must invariably be “stupider” or less “developed” than us in some way (or they’d still be around, or we’d still be that way, etc) is, to put it bluntly, stupid. It ignores the vast influence that personal and cultural value systems and beliefs have on what is considered to be worth doing, creating, or spending time/effort on. While it is generally considered to be of value in the modern world to make things easier, more comfortable, more predictable, etc; these certainly are not universal values. Even in the rather homogenous modern world you can certainly still find people whose values and prerogatives differ. When you look at much older, and/or more “distant” cultures, these differences (in what is considered to be worth doing, making, etc) become even more pronounced.
Whatever it is that people were doing in the very distant past will very likely always remain a mystery to us — but considering that there is no evidence to suggest that they were any less intelligent than us (and could very have been smarter) there’s absolutely no reason to assume their reasons for living differently than us were for any reasons other than the possession of different values and beliefs, and circumstance.
– On that note it should be stated here that research has shown definitively that the human activities that actually use the greatest “amount” of brain power are athletics — and, very specifically, those that are very strenuous, such as the various folk styles of wrestling and modern freestyle wrestling. These competitive, violent activities — based on physical/neural awareness and patterns, strategy, self projection, ingrained reflexes, and tactics — use considerably more brainpower (as shown by brain imaging/monitoring) than activities such as math, scientific research, reading, writing, etc.
While in the modern world we generally assume that the cultural behaviours associated with intellectuals (environmental modification, analysis, abstract and symbolic thought, etc) are the ones that make the most use of our brains, and, also, that it’s these behaviors that were selected for during the evolution of our large brains — research such as that mentioned above call that assumption into question.
(As a side note to that thought, if large brains were necessary for domestication, farming, tool use, etc — then why is that many animals such as ants, termites, even some fish, etc, exhibit these behaviors regularly as well?)
– Nearly every assumption made concerning what behaviors or technologies were possible at various times in the distant past has continually been shown by new archaeological discoveries to be false — from the discovery of 400,000-year-old spears used by a “separate species” (which performed as well during tests as modern Olympic javelins); to the discovery of 20,000 year old pottery; to the discovery of 43,000 year old bone flutes; to the discovery that taro root has been intentionally cultivated by humans for at least 28,000 year; etc; on and on.
– The very limited archaeological record that’s available doesn’t really tell us much — most materials simply don’t last anywhere near long enough to last from all the way back then to our time. And for things to survive to the present that obviously also means that they must not be/have been recycled for another purpose, or broken or destroyed intentionally — which is asking a lot for periods of tens to hundreds of thousands of years.
– It seems like every behavior that was assumed to be unique to modern humans, and/or a recent invention, has been shown by recent evidence to have been a part of people’s lives for quite some time.
– It’s been estimated that, as is the case with many modern “hunter gatherer” groups, the people living in these distant pasts possessed far greater “free time” than those of us in the modern world — with a substantially larger portion of the day spent on things other than “work”.
– The real hallmark, to my eyes, of modern man/culture isn’t greater intelligence or anything along those lines, but simply greater specialization — generalism (everyone takes care of creating/providing their own tools, etc) doesn’t allow for the level of social complexity and stratification that the modern world (and that of the last 10,000 or so years) has depended on for its structure. You can’t create a professional army, a cathedral, a pyramid, an industrial-scale farm, a skyscraper, or a computer for that matter (or a barren deforested desert…), without a great degree of specialization. Which, it should be stated, means that these activities, behaviors, projects, etc — of the last 10,000 or so years — certainly aren’t the only thing that “intelligence” can be used for. It’s simply what many of the cultures and civilizations of this period of time have used it for. That’s it. There’s no greater connection between the products of specialization and intelligence than that.
A couple of further thoughts:
Brain volume is prominent in the scientific literature for discussing taxonomic identification, behavioral complexity, intelligence, and dissimilar rates of evolution. In modern humans, cranial capacity can vary by as much as 1000 cc, without any correlation to behavior. This degree of variation is almost equivalent to the total increase in volume from australopithecine fossils to modern humans, and brings into question the validity of relying on cranial capacity as a measurement of sophistication.
It certainly does — if modern brain size range overlaps with that of the people living more than a million years ago (with there being no correlation in modern humans between brain size and ability to participate in modern behaviors/life), then why is the assumption always made that they were less intelligent than us? Simply because their behavior, ways of living (and very likely values and beliefs), were different?
A final note…
As many of the religious traditions and “mythology” of the last 10,000 or so years have noted… everything has a day in the world, there is not one that has been in it that has not passed yonder. The span of earthly things is as a dream.
Image Credit: Public Domain