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Are You Smarter Than a Caveman?

Hollywood has not been too kind to our ancestors. Generally described as “cavemen” (even though that term generally loops in women), these folks are portrayed as heavy browed, dim witted folks who commonly misuse first person pronouns with their Cookie Monster-like quips like “Me like fire! Me invent wheel!”

It’s not difficult to see how we got to this point. Evolution sort of dictates an increase in higher function, which sort of lends to this idea that higher evolution = higher intelligence. And when you think about how information and innovation has exploded in the last few centuries, it’s tempting to conclude that evolution is the cause behind that.

Let’s work with the assumption that evolution is real. On a grand enough time scale, it’s feasible to conclude that, yes, general intelligence would increase in the human species as a result of higher brain functions. But we’re talking a really, really big scale. Hundreds of thousands of years… that kind of big. To suggest that we’ve evolved so much just in the last few hundred years is, well, arrogant.

I reason that from my current reading of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and the book is named that way because if you follow the trajectory of human evolution, there are different “phases” (aka species) of the human race that have long since died out. Where Homo sapiens (what we are today) still lives on, species like erectus and habilus died out forever ago.

What Harari shares is that we don’t have strong evidence to conclude that sapiens today are really any cognitively smarter than sapiens 10,000 years ago. “But what about the marvels of modern technology? Don’t they point that we are smarter today?” you might ask. The answer is no, and it’s deceptively simple to understand why with one simple question:

If somebody dumped you in the middle of the wilderness, would you be able to survive?

As a former Boy Scout, I’m disappointed with myself that even I can’t answer yes to that question. I might be “smarter than the average bear” compared to most humans, but let me be honest: I’d be dead within a month or two. And you probably would be, too.

(What an uplifting thought! Somebody has taken their happy pills this morning.)

Not so the case for our dear cavemen of the past. They might not have had an iPhone, but they could survive even the harshest climates with little more than a couple rocks and sticks. We today are heavily reliant on others for pretty much all our basic needs. Grocery stores provide us food, utilities provide us electricity and water, and HBO has given us Curb Your Enthusiasm.

And that really explains technological advancement. We’re not necessarily smarter, but because others take care of various needs in our lives, we’re freed up to explore new territories. So I’m free to write these witty, oh so insightful posts because McDonald's sells McChickens, freeing me from having to forage for my own food.

Actually, one could make the argument that our sapiens species is generally dumber than it’s been in its entire history. Modern inventions have enabled us to discard knowledge in almost all subject areas, and some people have taken this freedom to memorize all the happenings of the Kardashians. (Watch the first few minutes of the movie Idiocracy for a great glimpse into our potential future.)

All that to say, I think there are two big lessons to walk away with here. First, we need to be grateful to those who support the infrastructure of our society. From the doctor to the statistician to the janitor, everybody plays their role in this thing we call life. A great book that illustrates this really well is AJ Jacobs’ recent release, Thanks A Thousand, centered on the use case of thanking everybody involved with making a basic cup of coffee happening.

The second big lesson has more to do with history. We generally regard historical knowledge with little value because we perceive those cultures as “not evolved” as ours. On our relatively small 8,000 year timescale, those who lived in 2019 BCE have the same cognitive ability as us here in 2019 CE. In other words, these weren’t dumb people. That said, we should regard the wisdom of the past with higher respect than we typically give it today. And yeah, we have transcended a lot in the empirical science realm, but when it comes to philosophical matters, I think many voices of history have a lot more to offer than the voices of today.

Speaking of wisdom from the past, I feel like ending with a note from the Ecclesiastical writer, Qoheleth, because as much of a downer as he is, he’s spot on here:

What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and it hurried back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; Round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet it is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things more wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough seeing, nor the ear it’s full of hearing.

What has been will be again, what has been done again;

There is nothing new under the sun.

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