Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Obsolete Ruminations on Obsolete Hominids

     I've always been intrigued by the fact that Neanderthals actually had brains that were, on average, bigger than ours, despite our habit of dismissing them as crude brutes who never had a chance against us refined and sophisticated Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens types. While it's a mistake to assume that intelligence is always directly correlated with brain size, it isn't completely ridiculous to wonder if maybe H. neanderthalensis was actually smarter in some ways than we are.
     I once read somewhere that there was some question as to whether or not our Neanderthal cousins had the capacity for language, based on an examination of their bones that seemed to suggest they didn't have the same vocalization abilities that we do. This got me to thinking about the role of language in our own species' success, how it could have helped us out-compete the Neanderthals, and its implications for our culture generally. Individually, they might well have been smarter. But without language, each individual Neanderthal would have had to figure out new innovations largely on her own, perhaps with some hands-on demonstration by others, but essentially by discovery anew each time. In contrast, the somewhat dimmer  H. sapiens might take longer to come up with a concept, but as soon as any member of a sapiens clan worked something out, everyone else would know it pretty quickly.
    As an example of this process, I think of my own experience in studying math in school. Although the rote memorization of the times table in elementary school bored me to tears, I eventually discovered the beauty of mathematics, and took great pleasure in exploring mathematical ideas. For most of junior high school and the first two years of high school, I did very well, ignoring the teachers for the most part and coming up with my own way of solving problems on the spot. Many of my classmates, however, struggled with trying to memorize and follow the teachers' instructions (and not "getting it" as intuitively and naturally as I did).
     This worked just fine for me, up until Grade 12, when the math suddenly seemed to get more complicated. It wasn't that I couldn't do it; I could still look at a problem, take it apart and derive a solution. But the complexity of the problems in calculus and polynomials was such that it would take me more than the available time to finish the exam. My grades plummeted, and while I did pass (barely), my classmates (who actually listened to the instructions) did much better, even if they didn't always have as deep a feel for the math as I did.
     So I wondered, then, if the Neanderthal predicament was like mine had been in math. On her own, she would have been more than a match for any individual modern human: stronger and smarter. But modern humans aren't on our own; we inherit, through language, a vast amount of knowledge that we don't have to rediscover for ourselves. We don't need to be so smart as individuals, because we share our smarts better.

     These speculations are, at least in the case of Neanderthals, obsolete. It turns out that they probably did have language, based in part on genetic evidence that they had a gene known as FOXP2, which is associated with language. Yet even if my speculations don't actually solve the mystery of how our ancestors survived and the Neanderthals didn't, they have at least given me an interesting insight into the role of authority in human culture. It's always puzzled and even alarmed me the extent to which people are willing to defer to an authority, whether it be an charismatic leader, a peer group or a text. If it's written down, or if it's the wisdom of our ancestors handed down from times past, we're inclined to accept it without question, and I suspect this isn't just something we're taught to do; it seems to come naturally. (It's also taught, of course; I certainly remember the emphasis on citing authority in law school).
     It's tempting to lament this as a curse, the stifling of individuality and slavish unthinking obedience to tradition, but it's not altogether a bad thing, and neither is it all there is to human nature. After all, we also need to have a certain amount of individual creativity to provide the ideas that are then transmitted and received this way. And I have to admit, I found that, when I took linear algebra in university, studying hard and following instructions really did help me to do better within the time constraints, even if it wasn't in my nature.
     But I do think it's important for us to be at least aware of our innate tendency to defer to authority, and maintain a sensible balance. Tradition is useful, and ideas that have been around for a long time can generally be assumed to have passed some kind of test, so we should be inclined to take them seriously, but we should never be afraid to examine them critically as well. A bit of the Neanderthal nature is healthy.

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