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Evolutionary Theorists Stymied by the Human Mind

No one actually knows how our ancestors began to think like humans

This article by Denyse O’Leary is reprinted from Salvo 67 Winter 2023.

Over 150 years ago, the battle over the human mind sidelined Alfred Russel Wallace from the elite science group that gathered around his co-theorist Charles Darwin. Wallace was unwilling to concede that the human mind is merely an organ that has evolved like any other.

As University of Durham historian Neil Thomas explains, for Wallace, “on more mature reflection, no simple ape-to-human progression was any longer tenable and he could no longer assent to the ontological equivalence of humans and nonhuman animals proposed by Darwin.” Thus Wallace was largely forgotten and Darwin became the cultural icon of evolution.

Yet Wallace’s skepticism was well justified. We have no evidence to support the assertion that the human mind evolved over time by natural processes. No one knows how our ancestors began to think like humans.

But never mind the lack of evidence.

Popular science media love natural histories of the mind. They publicize throngs of them. Advocates have proposed mental illness, chimpanzees throwing excrement, cooking, sexual selection, baby slings, and a host of other phenomena as the accidental spark that made the momentous difference in bridging the gap.[1] None emerges as plausible because in every speculated evolutionary history of the mind we are asked to accept that a material thing can create an immaterial thing accidentally all by itself.

It’s been worse, of course. Another approach was more serious and less savory: Vindicating Darwin by designating certain humans as not quite human enough. Ota Benga, the African pigmy placed in an early twentieth-century zoo comes to mind.

Later paleontologists chose a less harmful approach: Trying to locate the not-quite-humans among long-deceased groups like the Neanderthals and Flores man. But neither group has proven as dim as the search for the missing link requires. The Neanderthal art “bombshell” has seen to that.[2]

The trouble is, nobody seems to qualify as the “less-evolved” not-quite-human…

The little-noticed trend is that the historical evidence of humans thinking like humans keeps getting pushed back by many thousands of years as more artifacts from the very ancient past turn up. “Earlier than thought” has become a science media cliche in this area. In May of this year, we learned that the controlled use of fire was pushed back to 250,000 years ago. In June we heard about stone tools from 700,000 years ago, “likely used for butchering animals and processing wood or other plant matter.” Then there is the evidence for travel by watercraft. The watercraft themselves did not survive but tools from about 130,000 years ago, found on remote islands like Crete, did. “I was flabbergasted,” Boston University archaeologist and stone-tool expert Curtis Runnels told media. “The idea of finding tools from this very early time period on Crete was about as believable as finding an iPod in King Tut’s tomb.” As we find more and more artifacts giving evidence of complex thought, the origin of the mind recedes into a more distant, perhaps irrecoverable past.

Did our remote ancestors have language, philosophy, or religion?

When searching for historical evidence of the human mind, it’s natural to ask whether our remote ancestors had language. But, apart from writing, languages wash away in the river of time and the earliest writing dates from about 5500 years ago. We can infer that if our ancestors understood visual art, they could also talk about it. But we don’t really know.

Did they have philosophy or religion? Again, we have only artifacts to go by. One interesting line of evidence is the way prehistoric peoples treated their dead. Did they, for example, remember the history of the dead or imagine a future for them? At one cave site, archaeologists have found human bones and teeth among tools, ivory ornaments, and animal remains: The 32,000-year-old fossils bear cut marks suggesting that the deceased were ritually defleshed post-mortem. That sounds gruesome but perhaps it enabled the group to travel with the bones of the ancestors. Some Neanderthal peoples also coated the bones with red pigment. A nascent religion might well look like this but that’s all we know.

Here’s the challenge for those postulating an evolutionary history for the mind: If man is biologically an animal but cognitively so demonstrably unlike an animal, the obvious implication is that some aspect of the human mind is not biological. That thought, along with Wallace, is still banished from the academy. But a change may be building slowly. It is getting harder all the time to construct a history of the human race that goes “back to hours when mind was mud,” as Victorian poet George Meredith put it.

So let’s turn the question around: Why should we expect the human mind to have a history? Must immaterial things have evolutionary histories? Maybe some of them do but it is surely not a requirement.

Why didn’t our ancestors invent more things?

But then, it’s also fair to ask, if our ancestors had authentically human minds, why didn’t technology progress faster? Why did it take hundreds of thousands of years to go from the mastery of fire to blacksmithing, and then thousands of years to go from that to the internal combustion engine? Good question! Why did it take hundreds of years to go from Blaise Pascal’s computer to your laptop?

Those delays are not a fact about the human mind so much as a fact about technology. Technologies build on each other. A number of them must be in the right place at the right time before any great leaps can happen. Otherwise, creativity flourishes as an exercise of the imagination only.

Neanderthals, for example, manufactured some things, like stone tools and birch tar, long ago. But most progress in manufacturing awaited the development — much, much later — of mining and metallurgy. And this is not only a prehistoric problem. Early nineteenth century physicians were often brilliant and principled but there were many things they could not do in the absence of anesthesia, sterilization, antibiotics, and modern imaging equipment, many decades off.

The other thing about early humans is that they were comparatively few and widely scattered. Population control zealots will not want to hear this but the steady growth and increasing density of the human population has meant more people working together on problems and more rapidly developing and communicating solutions. It has been messy but overall, it has spurred an increasing speed of innovation without the need for any corresponding increase in human intelligence.

With respect to the origin of the human mind, traditional religious explanations shed more light than a science-based approach driven by materialist assumptions. That is, the traditional explanations begin by recognizing that humans are not just animals and offering an account for that fact. It is increasingly apparent that that older approach fits the pattern of the evidence.

[1] Denyse O’Leary, “Is Evolutionary Psychology a Legitimate Way to Understand Our Humanity?,” in The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith, William A. Dembski, Casey Luskin, Joseph M. Holden, eds., pp. 372–79.

[2] Leder, D., Hermann, R., Hüls, M. et al. A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals’ capacity for symbolic behaviour. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 1273–1282 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01487-z ; Justin Jackson, “Study finds Neanderthals manufactured synthetic material with underground distillation,” Phys.org, May 30, 2023, https://tinyurl.com/4bsx657r ; “Hobbits on Flores, Indonesia,” Smithsonian Institution: http://tinyurl.com/7w34zez

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Evolutionary Theorists Stymied by the Human Mind