Only human

Nearly every guy I know over 40 has back problems. This is not surprising. After all, the evolution of our primate ancestors to adapt to bipedal travel happened over an extremely small time scale, as these things go. You and I and all of civilization have happened along only quite recently.

In fact, the entire history of human civilization is just a tiny blip in evolutionary time. So it should not be surprising that the adaption of our spinal cords for upright posture is still very much a work in progress.

I think we have a similar problem with our human Theory of Mind. By far our biggest power-up as a species is our ability to model each others’ thoughts and emotions, and thereby, with the help of natural language, to use those mental models to form kinship groups that let us cooperate in ways that greatly increase the survival fitness of our species.

But this evolution too is a work in progress. When the exponential growth of civilization started to really take off — a mere five thousand or so years ago — our species was still in the process of gradually evolving its biological capacity for Theory of Mind.

To it’s not surprising that people have so much difficulty understanding each other. It’s not that there is anything wrong with us. It’s just that we are us. The brain of each human acts as an imperfectly evolved instrument for creating, and then acting on, a mental model what is going in the brains of other humans.

But that brain is still, as far as we know, the best goddamned instrument for doing such a thing. So while we bemoan (understandably) the tragedies of war, terror, irrational prejudice and unreasoned hatred, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that this is the best human brain we’re going to get, and that even in its imperfectly evolved form that brain is still pretty amazing.

Sure, we are often totally screwing up this whole civilization thing. But then again, we are only human.

One Response to “Only human”

  1. Gabe says:

    That’s actually a pretty thoughtful point. And the way we cope with it is that we take shortcuts. We simplify, we categorize, we rationalize, and we do everything in our power to shrink people so that our model of their mind fits snugly inside ours without taking up too much space.

    Realistically, other people are some of the most complex, nuanced, and difficult to predict things we deal with on a regular basis.

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