Only the human mind could achieve something so majestic.
What makes us human? 98.8% percent of our DNA is identical to that of the chimpanzee. Heck, we share 75% of it with mice, and 50% with the banana. And yet, humans are the only species to able speak complex sentences, make tools with other tools, and leave the planet to explore other worlds. We homo sapiens beat out about 20 other species of apes and/or hominids, even, and we probably drove another – Neandertals – to extinction with superior communication, tool-making and social abilities.
In my last quarter of grad school, I took a seminar called “The Biological Origins of Political Cognition.” It was one of the most fascinating courses I ever took. The professor, Eric Oliver, was seeking a testable theory for the evolutionary origins of human political instincts – everything from cognitive science to evolutionary theory to social and clinical psychology were fair game. Along with a group of about a dozen grad students, he was hoping to gain some traction in developing a working model. I don’t know that he found what he was looking for – I think the concept was just too big and foreign for us – but nevertheless the class generated a ton of discussion at the event horizons of our brains. I always felt simultaneously smarter and dumber at the end of the week, and I always thought that if I ever had to do grad school over, I would have spent much more time on Eric’s questions.
Anyway, I’m sidetracked. One of the un-required readings for the course was Michael Corballis’ The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization. I had kept it on my list for three years before finally getting around to it this fall. I’m glad I did – it took me back to that class, and that’s a good thing, because evolution of the human mind is fascinating and so poorly understood.
Currently, researchers seem to agree that complex language abilities separate us from the rest of the animal world. The author of this thesis, Corballis, doesn’t disagree. However, many other animals – from birds to apes to whales to bees – have complex systems of communication. Corballis believes it is more than merely the complexity of our language that makes us human – it is the neural capacity for this complexity.
Of all living species, Corballis says in The Recursive Mind, humans are the only animals capable of recursive thought – that is, the ability to nest ideas within ideas. For example, you can think about what you had planned to do today yesterday, or I can say that my brother thinks what my uncle said last year about his plans for next May are probably not going to happen. If you understood that sentence, congratulations! You are a human.