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The Incremental Evolution of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Post of the Month: April 2011


Subject:    | Q:What is the single most advantageous human trait?
Date:       | 17 Apr 2011
Message-ID: |

This POTM is preceded by a back and forth between two Talk Origins regulars:

Ron Okimoto
>>>>> The brain that we have is likely the single greatest advantage that
>>>>> the human species has.

Walter Bushell
>>>> But relatively inutile without hands and vocal apparatus, which I think
>>>> were part of the feedback mechanism that lead to the big brain.

Ron Okimoto
>>> Like I said other species have grasping hands.

Walter Bushell
>> Opposable thumbs? Of course other hominoids have those, but they were in
>> our evolutionary line. But I think that human have the best hands in the
>> crown group.

Ron Okimoto
> Grasping hands that could evolve opposable thumbs if you develop the
> brain to use them.

Richard Norman begins his POTM:
I think there is a fundamental flaw in this whole thread: the assumption that there does exist a single most advantageous human trait in the first place. In my view, there is a large complex of coevolved traits that must combine with synergistic effects to produce the result. You start with a few seemingly innocuous factors shared with other animals but each new step opens up new avenues that can be used to advantage and the resulting package of positive feedback between the many factors results in an explosive (at least in the stodgy time frame of evolutionary time) package that is us.

My impression is that most people think it started with bipedalism that freed the hands. Opposable thumbs and manipulation of objects allowed for the development of tools. Of course all this requires more brain capacity both to manipulate the objects and to contemplate found things as objects that can be manipulated and then even altered. Increased brain capacity involves brain size and special metabolic needs to feed both the energy and specific chemical requirements of brain. Social organization in feeding and the use of tools and even fire in food acquisition and preparation became part of the package as did communication to maintain social groups and coordinate behavior but this, too, required even larger brains. No doubt hairlessness plus sweat glands and the ability to do long-distance running played a role in the package -- you can't leave out pieces if they all combine into an integrated whole. I won't mention the "emergence" of new abilities from the complex organization within the package lest that introduce irrelevant side arguments. So forget I just said that! So all these little pieces, possibly individually shared with other lineages, allowed a trajectory of evolutionary development that quickly became unique. Each piece fed on the others; each was necessary to produce the package. Yet it could develop piecewise -- no irreducible complexity here!

The ultimate result -- my suggestion for the "single most advantageous human trait -- is best described by the Bible! Seriously! The creators of the original creation myths were exceptionally intelligent and observant people keenly observant of human nature. The single feature in the story they built that separated animalistic humans (pre Fall) from true almost godlike humans (post Fall) was eating of the Tree of Knowledge. But not simply of knowledge; specifically Knowledge of Good and Evil. In this way humans became like gods, and would have attained that level but for mortality and so needed to be expelled from the Garden. So goes the legend and a good legend it is.

So what is required to attain Knowledge of Good and Evil? It needs, first of all, language that is capable of expressing abstract ideas. It requires consciousness of oneself and of others and an understanding that we all as actors in the physical world have inner motives as do others. It involves understanding that actions have consequences and that some consequences can be favorable for the group while others are detrimental to group activity. It involves knowing that desirable behavior must be encouraged and harmful behavior outlawed with a social organization that is capable of enforcing these rules of civilized life. In other words, it is the development of a brain capable of managing this extremely involved complex package of ideas that sets us apart. I tend to think this all is the natural result of the development of language (and social organization) that is capable of storing culture and transmitting it from generation to generation and between groups. Once that happens, evolution can quickly pull behavior from the genes (instinct) so that culture can dominate as it is far more malleable by environmental needs. And all that is an "emergent" property of the way the particular way the brain grew.

Now I will let those of you familiar with actual facts in physical anthropology tear apart my imagined and purely hypothetical scenario.

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