The state of nature arose from a cognitive revolution that transformed humans from a nonsapient archaic species to the modern conscious imaginative storytellers that we are today.


This was originally going to be a very brief page, but I was having so much fun with it, and it really does set the theme for a lot of what’s to come. Anyway, I did cut scads of fun stuff about social group size and structure, various takes on Dunbar numbers and brain size, specific genetic mutations beyond the FOXP2 you always read about, specific “wiring” in various bits of the brain for all these new developments like syntax in the left IFG/STG/MTG or emotional pre-emptive self-awareness in the pACC/r.DLPFC/SC-Pul-STS/etc or higher consciousness in probably the spindle-shaped Von Economo neurons (love that name) that make up about 56% of the AI and 58% of the pACC (and what about the claustrum?) and the high-speed connections that enable simulation, and how it all develops through childhood as pathways myelinize and etc, and theories on why we don’t have episodic memories from before learning to talk or perhaps even learning to read, and so many fun little throwaway asides and puns and digressions…

But I digress.

Lest you think this whole thing is a digression, there is method to my madness. These final pages of this chapter will prove to be relevant (I hope), not only to what the Framers thought, but also to what we right here right now are thinking when we take sides on all the contentious issues of Constitutional Law. Folks are going to disagree with my narrative here (lord, I hope they do), but with any luck we can all start the next chapter on the same page!

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There are now 17 comments... what are your thoughts?
  1. Leperflesh says

    Are you sure that “archaic homo sapiens” didn’t have words, or even thoughts? It’s been a decade or two since my last bio anth class, but I feel fairly certain that several previous Homo species must have had at least some degree of ability with symbolic logic, etc. I’m also thinking of e.g. Koko the gorilla, who was able to form word-groupings, express novel ideas, and some degree of reasoning. It seems to me that while the ability to use complex vocalizations came quite late in our recent evolutionary history, it’s a reach to state factually that archaic homo sapiens were incapable of [i]thoughts[/i], when we’ve proven a gorilla is capable.

    • Am I sure? I mean, I wasn’t there. And as I kind of hinted here, reality is always going to be a lot messier than the narratives we tell about it.

      Don’t read too much into what Koko did. Her trainer did plenty of that for us (much of what Koko was reported to have said appears instead to have been her trainer’s generous interpretation). Primates do have impressive communication skills, but so do bees, and communication is not language. Chimps and apes do have a touch of creativity that allows for strategic behavior — so do wolves — but they lack language. They cannot share their ideas with more than a few close family members who know them so well they can “read” their intentions intuitively. Humans, chimps, and orangutans are all adept at communicating by gesture, but humans blow the rest out of the water when it comes to explicit communication, rational thought, and social cognition. Apes also have a decent, rudimentary “theory of mind” as one would expect of a social animal, but they have nowhere near human levels of intentionality. Nor do they have anywhere near the same ability to understand what another person was trying to do, or what they were looking at, or otherwise fully comprehend that there is another similar “me” living inside that other head. We can make chimps behave like humans, passing on social information or seeming to communicate with symbols, but we do it naturally ourselves, when left to our own devices. All this tends to imply that other apes have an extremely limited ability to think the kinds of thoughts we think of as “thinking.” If at all.

      You might have a stronger point if you stick to archaic human species. There is eyebrow-raising evidence implying that archaic species may have had symbolic practices. Neanderthals buried their dead, for example, which one might interpret as evidence of some sort of sanctity belief. On the other hand, burying your dead could have been a protective demonstration of respect for others. A behavior that, while extremely social, requires no symbolic abstraction or narrative beyond “we take care of our own.” And such behaviors are not unique to genus Homo. But on the other hand…

      But Neanderthals and Denisovans and Heidelbergensis and even archaic Sapiens did not have the unique genetic traits that we evolved around 70,000 years ago (give or take). They lacked the radically new structures and abilities of our brain that make it possible for me to write this sentence and expect that you’ll understand it. I can tell you things like “I remember that the other end of the rabbit hole is behind the second tree on the left; if I smoke them out here, you can catch them over there.” The divisions may not be as cut-and-dried as my narrative, but no chimp, gorilla, or Neanderthal could say this, and there is little reason to suspect that they could think it.

      • “Neanderthals buried their dead, for example, which one might interpret as evidence of some sort of sanctity belief. On the other hand, burying your dead could have been a protective demonstration of respect for others”

        It could also be purely practical, dead bodies start to smell bad and may well be a disease vector.

  2. Robert Bristow-Johnson says

    so, uh, Nathan you teach philosophy or anthropology where?

    • Heck, I don’t teach nothing nowhere. I’m a lawyer, which means I’m a perpetual student.

      That’s one of the cool things about the law: It’s the study of what people say they do, what they really do, why they do it, how we can know it, and what can be done about it. It’s where history, philosophy, psychology, and economics meet. And in criminal law, at least, anthropology and neuroscience and genetics also have important forensic value. I’ve studied them all, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t love trying to keep up to date. And I’d be lying if I claimed expertise in any of them.

      One of the really fun parts of this comic — for me, anyway — has always been trying to synthesize current scholarship as best I can, with silly pictures and in as few words as possible (no, really!) keeping in mind that so much is still a subject of active research, and new studies drop all the time that shake up what everyone thinks they know. And as I always say, my favorite comments are the ones that tell me I got something wrong, and point me in a new direction!

  3. Thor Johnson says

    Great post. Interesting serendipity with a BBC program I was listening to this weekend; the program was called “The Hidden Brain”, and this weekend, it was a discussion on the evolution of religion; the researcher’s idea being that:
    1. Humans can group together in <25 and do fine (if someone farts, everybody knows who did it, and everyone knows who is trustworthy and who is not).

    2. You get over 50, and you need a virtue signal to say "John is good," so we invented religion to deal with the problems of the day… and you can see what the societal issues were based on the gods that were created in religion (and this is from my memory + my thinking, but the subject was fascinating):
    a) Gods who had stories that you needed to ask about weather/crops/etc (Greek) – we need food.
    b) Gods who are vengeful and have a moral code ingredient of being nice to others (Allah) – we're a society of traders and we need to know that we can trust our partners
    c) Gods who have strict rules and traditions of doing things (Jehovah) – you didn't eat shrimp because they didn't have refrigerators and that stuff would kill you faster than "lamb" or "cow."
    d) Gods that offer forgiveness for transgressions (Jesus) – "the man" was keeping you down a lot…

    3. Because of this need for virtue signalling, all of the religions have a thing that is called for that is not in "your best interest" from a personal sense… it's a display of worthiness (much like a beautiful peacock tail is actually a detriment to the ability to fight, but it's a signal to others "I'm beyond fighting")… the Journey to Mecca, Fasting, Lent, etc.

    Interesting/fascinating stuff.

    As far as pre-verbal memories go, I still have some… but they're surreal SciFi images — images powerful enough to persist even though there were no words associated with them….

    • I really enjoy that show. But though points 1, 2, and 3 are CLOSE, they’re not quite on the button. Hold tight for more on all that, because it’s part of what’s coming up next!

      My earliest true memories, like yours, are more image and emotional impression than sequential episodes. And I probably only remember them because I liked recalling them and telling myself their story after I’d learned to speak and read, giving meaning to the nameless impressions I’d formed. From the transition time when I learned to read, some of my most vivid memories are of newly-narrative dreams that affected me powerfully at the time. From what I’ve read (peppered strongly with my own confirmation bias and false consensus effect) this is probably a common human experience.

  4. jb says

    I think the overall story you’re telling here is reasonable, but it’s possible the timing was much more stretched out than you are claiming. There are certainly scientists who believe that archaic humans had language in the modern sense. One way or the other there does seem to have been some sort of cultural explosion 50,000 years or so ago, but rather than being a result of the de novo evolution of a whole new mental apparatus, as you seem to be arguing here, modern humans, with more or less the same kind of minds as archaics, may simply have reached some sort of tipping point, with some relatively small innovation (perhaps a modest increase in IQ) cascading into huge behavioral changes. The fact that Neanderthals and Denisovans both made small but significant genetic contributions to modern populations would seem to suggest that modern humans didn’t see them as animals, and could at least talk to them.

    Also, I just want to point out that evolution did not stop 50,000 years ago, as many people believe. In fact, surprisingly, it seems to have been accelerating over the past 10,000 years, as human populations have increased (more people means more opportunities for positive mutations) and people moved from foraging to agricultural societies (resulting in evolutionary pressure to adapt to new and significantly different lifestyles). There is an excellent discussion of this in The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending. (I tried make a link to Amazon for the book, but I don’t know if that will work here).

    • One person’s “timing was stretched out” is another person’s “blink of an evolutionary eye.” Researchers have gotten very good at estimating how long ago any given genetic mutation arose, and how fast it spread through the population. It’s a range, not a pinpoint. And it depends on what DNA you’re looking at. For example, Neanderthals were diverging from H. Heidelbergensis around 500,000 years ago, if your calculations are based on mitochondrial DNA. But if you’re using nDNA it could have been as recent as 270,000 years ago. That’s a big range!

      As for the beginnings of our own cognitive revolution, just a few years ago people were thinking it had happened much more recently, but archaeological evidence keeps pushing it towards the earlier part of the range.

      As best as I can tell from the available evidence, we H. Sapiens had diverged as long as 300,00 years ago, and were successful enough to spread as far as Morocco and South Africa. By 170,000 years ago, we were wearing clothes (and lice had evolved to live in our clothes), and a precocious population in South Africa was using red ocher and behaving at least as artistically as Neanderthals. But as recently as 100,000 years ago, we were still very much archaic. Bands that drifted out of Africa into Sinai until then simply couldn’t adapt to the new environment, and were out-competed by the Neanderthals already there.

      It looks to me as though the cognitive revolution was truly underway around 80,000 years ago. True art and ornament produced by a brain capable of symbolic behavior is being discovered in sites dated as early as 77,000 years ago. Toolmaking had gone from “monkey see monkey do” to creative refinement by 72,000 years ago. By 70,000 years ago, we’d advanced enough to start displacing Neanderthals when we wandered into Sinai. Music appears to have evolved right along with language (my favorite book on this is the outdated but incredibly insightful “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy” by Robert Jourdain) and we were playing flutes in Germany by 42,000 years ago. At that same time, incredibly organized seafarers were crossing the oceans from Indonesia. Crossing to Australia meant crossing 100 kilometers of open sea. That’s not accidentally washing ashore. That’s intentional migration. These were people (with a significant dose of Denisovan DNA from interbreeding) who told stories of what they expected to find beyond the horizon, and how they could get there. They weren’t lone adventurers but families traveling to settle. This required incredible powers of imagination and comprehension, shared narrative, foresight, creativity, invention, tools, tools to make tools, sophisticated oceangoing vessel technology, genius navigation by reading the propagation of waves across the globe and stars across the celestial sphere, precise mature language to convey all these narratives, and massive cooperation with significant division of labor. 42,000 years ago!

      And as you say, evolution is an ongoing thing. It wasn’t until around 37,000 years ago that the microencephalin mutation — the gene responsible for our enormous brain size — was dominant. But talk about “blink of an eye”! This was so successful that it spread essentially overnight, so far as our DNA is concerned. No genetic drift here, this was supercharged positive selection. (The Neanderthals go extinct around now, as well.)

      Physical evolution was ongoing as well. People in Tibet adapted to cold high-altitude living while folks in sub-Saharan Africa continued to adapt to more tropical demands. By 30,000 years ago, convergent evolution had led to lighter skin in populations of Europe and East Asia, two different genetic adaptations to UV exposure by populations that had long since diverged.

      And as will be mentioned in the next couple pages of the comic, further genetic mutations appear to coincide with massive punctuated changes in how human society has been organized. No spoilers, but things like the ADH1B mutation in southern China and the ASPM mutation in Eurasia (to name just two) coincide neatly with major revolutions in how we live.

      I would caution, however, against concluding that we were able to speak with Neanderthals and Denisovans simply because we interbred with them. Archaic species don’t require words to have sex, and neither do humans. (Language can make it oh so much more enjoyable, but it’s not a prerequisite.) Archaic DNA isn’t found in the Y chromosome very much. That could indicate that Neanderthal males couldn’t produce viable offspring with Sapiens females. It could also indicate that choosy Sapiens females weren’t opting to mate with less-to-offer archaics, while male Sapiens were less discriminate in where they sowed their wild oats. The latter is plausible in any primate species, and the former certainly becomes more likely as the species diverged. If language had any role to play in the mixing of our species, I’d glibly propose it was the LACK of Neanderthals’ ability to whisper sweet nothings that played a role, rather than their having such an ability.

  5. jb says

    OK, you’ve obviously been paying at least as much attention to the literature as I have! :-)

    I’d like to follow up though about your assertion that microencephalin is responsible for our large brain size, and that it spread recently and quickly through the modern human population . I hadn’t heard anything like that, but it would certainly be interesting if true. Do you think you could you point me to a link?

    It’s actually been quite a few years since I’ve seen any mention of microencephalin, but last I heard the gene had different variants in Eurasia and Sub-Saharan Africa — and since those populations diverged much further back than 37,000 years I don’t see how there could have been a recent sweep. Also, Neanderthal brains were as large as our, if not larger, so what would account for that? (Really interesting recent NYT article about Neanderthal brains here).

  6. Leperflesh says

    With respect, Nathan, quite a lot of what you’re posting is desperately calling for a [citation needed] tag! I don’t take issue with a statement like “some scientists are currently thinking that…” but you’re stating – both in comments and in your comic – a lot of things as absolute fact, which are at best well-supported theory and at worst just educated conjectures.

    This is not the same as legal research, where you can rely on your primary sources and paraphrase the laws on the books. When you say “Archaic Homo sapiens didn’t have words” that is stating as fact something that is not supported as fact by the literature. I appreciate what you’re reaching for in this part of your comic – I even agree with it! – but I’m concerned by what I see as overconfidence in the particular set of theories you’re presenting as settled science.

    • One of the main goals of this comic from its inception has been to present concepts WITHOUT citations or case names or anything academic. That’s the kind of stuff that turns off my target audience and interferes with clarity. That said, I do make the effort to ensure that my assertions aren’t coming out of left field. Plus, if I get something wrong, I know I can rely on my readers to let me know (and I’m glad that they will!)

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