The marvel of human intelligence and the creation of culture

“We are all children of Africa. As members of the hominin species Homo Sapiens, you and I are the product of millions of years of shared evolutionary history of life on earth”. So begins an article by Patrick Randolph-Quinney in the I paper (UK 8/2/18).

Although there has always been an interest in Anthropology, in the long history of humanity, in cultures, we have recently seen a surge of interest after ‘Cheddar man’, the 10,000 year old skeleton found in Somerset, England, was found to have Middle Eastern ancestry and have darker skin than was originally thought. This would mean that the ‘white skin’ of the western world was much more recent than previously believed.

This is a fascinating discovery, without a doubt. It is hard to say what meaning it should have for people looking for implications regarding their identity. If we are all humans, which we are, what coloured skin we have is a non-sequitur in terms of defining what a person is like. We are all children of Africa.

This may be of interest to anatomists or evolutionary biologists, who wish to understand how bodies develop over longer time frames. It can help us to trace the family tree of the genus Homo Sapiens more accurately.

There have been some other findings recently, which are of great interest. The tools which archaeologists found in Tamilnadu, India, were in fact 385,000 years old, not the 200,000 – 40,000 years old which was previously believed.

Tamilnandu, India

The corollary of this is that the early evolution of humanity happened over a larger area of land than we thought. Firstly, our spread over Africa was far greater than previously thought, for it would have to have been to have allowed travel to India so early.

Secondly, and more importantly, many of the tools the early humans of India had would have to have been developed independently of our African ancestors. This is an idea shared in the article, and it has a fascinating consequence- if two separate early cultures can create the same tools independently, the ingenuity of creating through necessity is more basely human than we had thought.

More findings- Homo Naledi, another early form of humanity, have been discovered to have performed ritual burials. Previously, such behaviour was thought to have only come from more complex forms of culture. One thing we could take from this is that some things we believed to be products of complex intelligence were in fact products of something more base in the human makeup, maybe ritual is even a product of biological or instinctive behaviour?

The creation of specific tools, and the eliciting of ritual behaviour should be thought of as more instinctive than they previously were. This theory seems preferable to the idea that humans had more complex intelligences at an earlier age. One reason for this is what we’ve learned from the Flynn effect. On one hand, it teaches us that necessity produces intelligence. However, it also teaches us that the more complex an environment, the more complex an intelligence. Necessity of creating tools would have made us think in more complex ways, but it is demonstrably measured that intellectual problem solving, of the nature we have now, is very much adapted to our modern culture. IQ scores have been adjusted every few years as humans have developed better minds to solve these problems.

James Flynn, Philosopher

In our modern world, our lives are vastly abstract. We live in abstract currencies, generated by businesses which don’t really exist, believing in complex shared stories. We have physics and chemistry, pure mathematics,post modernism… The point I make is that our modern life and culture are so abstract that we need a more complex form of rationality to process it.

However, earlier humans still would have had a greater level of intelligence than we give them credit for. To feel the need to have a ritual burial, we would need stories to believe in. The contents of these stories would lead us to the reasons for the specific form of ritual burial.

One reason to believe that ritual burial was caused by the belief of stories is that chimpanzees have been seen to elicit behaviour which suggests belief in God(s), creating shrines, and performing rituals (READ MORE HERE). What is certain is that the intelligence of our ancestors would have been far greater than that of chimpanzees.

It could be argued that having a feeling that a God exists is instinctive, and doesn’t require complex thought. However, building shrines and performing rituals require us to make decisions about what that God is, what it (God) wants, how we may appease it, and so forth. The rational stance is- a ritual would need a certain level of intellectual device to contrive.

An early human rain dance may have been created because somebody danced when rain was needed, it rained, and a correlation of causation was drawn between that dance and the coming of rain. Therefore, they started performing a rain dance in hope of causing the rains to come again.

However, drawing a correlation between rain and dancing, on one hand, and ‘God(s)’ and rain and appeasement by dancing, on the other hand, is far different. This is because the idea of ‘God’ is far more abstract and general than the perception of rain. ‘God’ (the idea of) would be the cause of many things, and work in many ways. Therefore, to draw a correlation between God and the world would require us to

(A) draw out more than one action by the same thing (God), which would require us to

(B) have an idea about what (God) was, so as to attribute more than one cause to it. This would require us to

(C) have an idea of identity regarding an abstract form or notion.

But how do we reconcile what is instinctively natural behaviour with what is natural behaviour from complex intelligence?

One way of doing so is by dividing instinctive behaviour and behaviour from complex intelligence as follows-

(Instinctive behaviour) is the faculty by which we act independent of thought.

(Complex intelligence behaviour) is the faculty of creating ideas which inform and modify our behaviour.

In this case, our intelligence, as a faculty, works to identify what we need to do to adapt to our situation. Intelligence allows our thinking to become complex to a level relative to that which we need it to be, dependent on our situation. so our minds would become intelligent enough to conceive of tools (for example), and therefore create tools because our situation pushes our intelligence to necessitate the thought required.

What about ritual burial, or even our primate ancestors building shrines?

tower of silence
Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, Iran

Our instincts can identify very basic things happening. Our instincts tell us to run when we identify danger, or let our guard down when they tell us we’re safe.

But when our instincts can’t identify the cause of an experience, what do we do? Try to work out what caused it.

When this happens, our intelligence will be pushed to a level in which it attempts to ascribe cause to experience. Once this thing is discovered, it makes sense to ascribe further unknown causes to this same thing. At this point of intelligence, all we have developed are the faculties of identifying an unidentifiable cause, to which it would need assignment of two basic facts-

(1) the cause is unidentified, but X has seemingly happened by cause

(2) this unidentified cause needs an identity to explain its action and nature

and therefore, the idea ‘God’ comes about. It explains the cause, but can also be used again and again. More complex intelligence will identify ‘God’ on more specific terms when ‘God’ as an agency for action X and action Y becomes rationally conflicting. In this way, we create more complex stories about the world, and therefore live through more complex ideas. These complex ideas make most sense to us when we make them into stories. These stories work best when they “mediate our relationship with the world”, so says Sharon Blackie. They help us to “to come to terms with the wild which is beyond us”, helping our complex ideas of the world become identifiable.

So we can see that Instinctive behaviour is our behaviour which happens without eliciting thought, contingent on our current level of intelligence and culture. As our mind becomes more complex, we conceive more developed ideas about the world. Those ideas inform our instinctive behaviour. They would also allow us to identify and modify our instinctive behaviour consciously, allowing for conscientious and informed behaviour. As ideas are created, they are also shared through rituals and physical markers like shrines. We create tools, and the knowledge of making them is shared because we all identify the use of a tool in our knowing the application of the tool.

What is so wonderful about human intelligence is just how varied it makes culture in each isolated group.

Let’s take the explanation of ‘God’. The shared cultural groups in Africa have very naturalized God(s) which are deeply connected with nature and the world. More complex ideas have been created to back up these beliefs. There are rain Gods, protector snake Gods, evil snake Gods, and so forth.

There are six major faiths over the world, which all share the idea of ‘God’ as an explanation for the world. I’m not contesting the veracity of anybody’s beliefs. The fact is that any held belief is made veridical to that particular culture’s worldview and ontology.

Yet over the world, as cultures have become increasingly complex, based on the telling and sharing of stories, shrines, rituals, folk-tales, belief in God(s) has blossomed into systems so complex that they identify under the rubric ‘religion’, and call themselves separate religions. What we see is that when ideas become different enough in kind, they reach a critical mass of becoming different by whole, not just by degree.

These complex ideas have created countries and cultures which feel so different in nature. They believe in Gods as different as the New Testament God, the old Hebrew YHWH, Zoroaster, Indra, Anubis, Shiva, Jesus (who is considered a God by some cultures), Quetzalcoatl, and so on.

Ideas of commerce have created boundaries between countries. Ideas of Kings, Queens, Presidents, have created divides.

Art has helped define cultures by giving them a certain ‘feel’, from the African tribal paintings to Dutch realism.

Histories have helped reinforce the ideas of cultures as separate. One nation shares the inherited history of Vasco da Gama, whilst another shared the inherited history of The Mary Celeste.

And thus cultures become more complex through the combinatorial assosiation of the multitudinous forms of culture, which create aggregate notions of cultures and nations.

But after all the divisions of Gods, history, art, culture, commerce, one thing remains-

We are all children of Africa.

What is so remarkable about the human race is how we can create such vibrant cultures which have so many differences, whilst still essentially being the same people. We are all those same Homo Sapiens which traveled around the world as early as 385,000 years ago. We’ve just adapted to our environments. Doing what is human.

And if Humanity is still around in 385,000 years time, will they look back and think on how remarkable it is that they’ve created cultures so much more complex than ours?


2 thoughts on “The marvel of human intelligence and the creation of culture

    1. I know my friend, had many lunches at ISKCON meetings in my younger years. 🙂 the picture was probably not the best choice, I agree!

      I agree also about the perils of modern society sadly. I think that there is a sense in which we identify ourselves in the world, and in such a chaotic confused world, we are bound to feel chaotic ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

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