THE METEORIC ASCENT OF HUMANKIND

Evolution is a painfully slow process. Modifications from generation to generation are generally imperceptible. How come then that humankind can launch telescopes into Space while our cousin the Chimpanzee, with whom we share 98% of our genes, is still struggling to crack nuts in the jungle? No wonder thoughtful people have invoked Divine Intervention, or the arrival of wisdom from elsewhere by interstellar spacecraft (Arthur C Clarke in the story/film “2001”) . If we are not to believe in miracles then we are faced with a fearsome puzzle: ‘How have we become so clever so quickly?

Had aliens come to the Earth a mere 10,000 years ago they would have had no good grounds for believing that humans would soon erect Santa Sofia, build Venice on piles in the Lagoon, devise the Hay-on-Wye Festival, organise the D-day landings, get to the Moon or launch the Hubble Space Telescope. In a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, a marginal species has so come to dominate the Earth that we now worry that we will damage it irreparably. The zoologist Peter Medawar wrote: “For all their intelligence and dexterity. — qualities we have always attached great importance to — the higher primates (monkeys, apes and men ) have not been very successful. Human beings have a history of more than 500,000 years. Only during the last 5000 years or thereabouts have they begun to be, in a biological sense, a success.”

Then again the more we learn about other animals the harder it is to believe that we are much smarter than some of them. Jane Goodall found that we are by no means the only tool users; Cetaceans hunt collectively; birds navigate the globe precisely in ways we do not understand while crows can solve puzzles that defeat many humans. So it doesn’t look as if we are that much smarter than some other creatures….. and yet. Then again our advance has happened so recently, and spread so quickly. That sounds more like something cultural to me than organic Evolution. What trick have we learned in the last few thousand years or so that could boost our thinking capacity by a factor of something like a million? Finding it is not merely a colossal challenge, it may be the very clue we need to establish how we actually think. Explaining that factor of a million will be the acid test for any proposal which claims to understand Common Sense Thinking (CST).

After studying how scientists appear to think I found that we almost certainly use a method based on The Detective’s Equation. Now look hard at that Equation. Doesn’t it give you an idea?

The DETECTIVE’S EQUATION and its potential implications for the Miraculous Ascent of mankind, Can you work out the secret? It’s staring us in the face. Mind you it took me months to see it. But you have got an extra clue in the format of this script.

Yes it was WRITING! With it we were suddenly able to handle 10 or more clues instead of the 2 or 3 we could when we were illiterate. And in an EXPONENTIAL process like the Detective’s Equation that can make a difference of order millions. If you don’t believe me study the following Table of Odds derived from that Equation:

THINKERNAverage Weight (Av.)(Av.)NDECISIVENESS ODDS
Our Cat346464:1 Decisive in favour
Me 3464Decisive
Me & pen104MillionsVery Decisive
Me & pen101.560Decisive with confused Evidence
Team & pens15230,000Very Decisive with confusing evidence
Team & pens 151.525,000Ditto but more confusing
Research Community251.2100Decisive even with Very confused evidence
THE DECISIVENESS TABLE
Decisiveness values for different numbers of clues with different average Weights per clue. If the Av’s were less than 1 the Odds would be equally decisive but against; for instance if N were 10 but the average weight were 1/4, the Odds would be millions to one against the hypothesis H.

Recall that [‘Principle of Animal Wisdom’ or PAW] individual Weights can only take the values 4, 2, I, 1/2 or 1/4 so their averages in a particular investigation could take any value between 4.0 and 0.25. Where the evidence is confused or conflicting that average will tend towards zero as the various clues cancel one another out. Even so, with enough clues (N), we could still come to a decisive view regarding H, whatever H might be.

So I am suggesting that the Miraculous Ascent of Humankind can be ascribed entirely to our development of writing.

To back up that suggestion note:

(a) It fits almost perfectly into the chronology. The earliest phonetic script appears on the sarcophagus of the King of Biblos, a port in Phoenicia just North of present day Beirut and dated about 1200 BC. According to Herodotus, about 800 BC Cadmus took this script to the Greeks who modified it considerably, to include vowels (previously ‘understood’) and reversed it to write left to right. About 600 AD, via Etruria, it reached the Latinas, fore-runners of the Romans; and so we were off. Previous non-phonetic scripts were probably not flexible enough for sophisticated thinking, as well as being confined to a tiny priestly cast because so many glyphs were needed, thousands instead of tens.

Phonetic scripts, Phoenician in the centre, Greek first Left, Latin second; Persian first Right, Arabic second. The great similarities suggest that phonetic script was invented only once, probably around 1500 BC somewhere near Biblos in what is now the Lebanon. Courtesy Wikpedia, in which there are many fine articles on the history of scripts and languages,

(b) To demonstrate to yourself just how vital writing is to thinking, try to do a puzzle such as a Sudoku, a Crossword or a Codeword, without writing anything down. It can’t be done. As Einstein put it: “My pen and I are smarter than I am.”

(c) Daniel Boorstin the American scholar wrote: “I write to discover what I think.” Me too.

(d) Large or complex projects are absolutely dependant on documentation. It may be a pain in the arse but it is indispensable. For instance I was a member of the Hubble Space Telescope project for 35 years. So many teams were involved, so many individuals passed in and out of each team, so many subsystems relied upon one another, so many modifications were and had to be made that, without precise and regularly updated records, the whole thing would have been impossible. For instance Wide Field Camera One was vital, and depended on its CCD detectors. But when the first batch got ruined they couldn’t be replaced because the highly skilled technician at Texas Instruments who had ‘thinned’ them had gone off to have a baby and no one could either repeat her feat or find her. Had there been relevant documentation……. Likewise the effectiveness of your treatment by the NHS will be entirely dependent on the medical records that are meant to follow you around. It’s not bureaucracy, it is the indispensable accumulation of relevant information.

(e) If writing is all that makes us so smart we can no longer suppose that we are smarter than many other illiterate animals, be they chimpanzees or pelicans [see below]. Perhaps we should leave more room for them on this planet?

(f) There are so many fascinating and sometimes profound connections between Writing and Thinking, that one could write a whole book about them: in fact I have [see Thinking for Ourselves under Category My Books]. But let me mention just one last one here. The human need for Certainty gave rise to both Deduction (Logic ) on the one hand and Dogma (religion) on the other. But with Common Sense Thinking, allied with Writing, we no longer need either because, at least in principle we could reach sufficiently high Odds for or against any hypothesis to act on it with safety.

Being short this has to be a fairly superficial post. But you can follow up the rationality for the Detective’s Equation and Weights at:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/scamsmv5.pdf

or in my aforementioned book Thinking for Ourselves (see ‘my books’ Category here). I also have a couple of essays about really smart animals who have taught me much including ‘Our Jack‘ about the young Jackdaw who shared my life for a short while at:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/OUR-JACK-1.pdf

and ‘Browning and the Cockatoos‘ about a troop of Cockatoos which outsmarted the smartest guy in Canberra, which is at:

https://mjdisney.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Browningcocks-copy-2.pdf

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