Thursday, 5 September 2013

- Waking up Late -

Confused and disorientated, we went for god. 

    
The conscious mind was not present to note and remark upon what was happening during the simple origins and initial footsteps of life. Nor was it there to observe the development of what we may call complicated. Nor was it there to observe the first organisms to adopt locomotion or predatory behaviour. No sentience, or observer, witnessed  biology's great acquisition of complexity. The conscious mind was absent of this, and it missed out. Asleep to the fact that life was developing and only able to become awake to its own phenomenon when the complexity of its central nervous system was great enough to comprehend its own existence. We, as homo sapiens, woke up late.


The question that interests me right now is: When did we (or the proto-homo sapien) become sentient? When did we, wake up?  When did one of our ancestors look down at their open palms and compose a thought along the lines of: "What are these odd projections coming out of me? These elongated sensitive pieces of me that I use to reach out onto the world with? Where did they come from? What are they? Hang on. What am I?" I would love some way of finding out when these perennial conundrums were first posed.



                  
Unfortunately we can only look at the fossilised remains of our ancestors to indirectly calculate the intra-cranial volumes to infer the size of their brain tissues and, in combination with tools and jewellery found, attempt to answer which time periods these questions could have arisen.
                  

Studying the evolution of life reveals an utterly staggering enterprise. Spanning vast geological and biological time, it is near impossible to gain a comprehensive perception of the ordeal that biology has endured. Sharing a common ancestor with our fellow apes, we hominids are estimated to be well over 200,000 years old. These times scales are challenging to comprehend, and even more so when scaled against the estimated 4.65 billion year age of the earth.


These time scales are so tricky to deal with due to the selection pressures that our brains and behaviours went under. Our evolutionary past has restricted us to understand very small or very large spaces or timescales. We evolved an ability to negotiate 'middle earth', where we dealt with objects and timescales that are somewhere between the micro and macro scales. Being able to imagine centuries and to plan for the next millennia would be a rather fruitless affair because we would be long gone before those plans came into fruition. Moreover, by increasing the temporal capacity of our foresight would  not likely improve our ability to produce viable offspring.


In the lack of the knowledge and the ability to comprehend the vast time scales that led up to the beginning of human life, it then makes sense that gods and creation myths would have been quite literally created. Those answers to the question would have been better than nothing, and also provided a cognitive equilibrium that satisfied the desperate demands of our enlarged prefrontal cortices at the time.


This I feel is an interesting angle on the origins of supernatural beliefs that is inspired by Evolutionary Psychology, in particular by the work of Jesse Berring and Michael Shermer.
      







Figure from my MSc thesis:
Anatomy of the FAT & its relationship to Semantic fluency in Motor Neurone Disease.