Recap: 3.2 million years ago, Lucy took us down from the trees. She was a hominin, no longer ape but not yet human. Other hominin fossils date up to a million years further back but Lucy’s skeleton is 60% complete and gives us the greatest possible insight into her intermediary species of the hominins. The first human, Homo habilis, dates back to 2.6 million years ago. Like the chimpanzees, hominins had for ages used sticks and stones as tools. What promoted them to becoming human was that they now started designing and producing their tools, most famously and out of stone, the hand axe. Creating the hand axe, Homo habilis opened the Stone Age. Around 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus emerged. He is the one who had the brilliant idea to start walking upright and develop the human brain. With the brain, human cognition and consciousness grew and out of some of Homo erectus became Homo sapiens. The one we all stem from lived some 200’000 years ago, in East Africa. Homo sapiens quickly recognized that the hand axe could be improved and as he refined it, humans entered the Middle Stone Age.
A quick appraisal of the hand axe reveals that it was not only humans’ first tool but to this day, also their most valued one. The Swiss Army knife was the last mechanical version of the hand axe. Since, it has gone digital, as the smartphone.
Homo sapiens is also called the ‘modern’ human. But this has nothing to do with modernity as we are living it since the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. It refers to his physical features as they appear in fossil finds, particularly the size and shape of the skull. From the size and the shape of the skull, we can infer to the volume and structure of the brain. Lucy 3.2 million years ago, was African, dark skinned and hairy, 1.1 meters tall. She weighed 29 kilograms and her brain was 500 cm3. Lucy in the 2014 film with the same name, is a white American, blue-eyed and blonde, 1.6 meters tall. She weighed 57 kilograms and her brain was 1’350 cm3. She was forced into being used as a drug mule by an international drug ring. Bags of a very powerful mind-expanding drug were operated into her abdomen. She can escape, but one of her captors kicks her in the stomach, releasing the drug into her body and this gives Lucy access to the full capacity of the 1’350 cm3 of her brain.
Lucy brings human order into the material chaos of the universe. In this brain-born cosmos, she develops physical and mental capabilities beyond human imagination: Instant learning; telepathy; mental time travel; painlessness and psychokinesis, which is the capacity to influence physics by the mind – mind over matter. She becomes superhuman. She knows that this cannot last because she is losing her vital energy and beginning to physically disintegrate. With the drug ring on her heels, she contacts a scientist who might be able to save her life. He can’t, but he convinces her to pass on her now infinite knowledge on the nature of human life and the universe. During the final shoot-out between the police and the drug ring in the hallway of a university in Paris, Lucy up-loads her complete awareness into a super-computer: In a space-time journey into the past, Lucy explains the nature of life, evolution and time, the reality of human being. Starting from the Eifel Tower, she flashes to the busy Time Square in New York, she goes back in time and meets a group of proud American Indians on their horses and later, the original Lucy, her not quite yet human ancestor. They touch fingers. She skips the crocodiles, but further backward, she is attacked by a dinosaur. She travels all the way back to the beginning of life, of matter and time, into the Big Bang. Physically disintegrated, Lucy ascends to the space-time continuum, leaving behind only her designer clothes and – as a woman with that affinity for shoes – stiletto heels. As a gooey black matter, her revelation of the universe and human evolution engulfs, consumes, and transforms the computer of the scientist and – gets stored away in a USB stick.
I never used mind-expanding drugs and the little mental training I did was limited to trying to improve my performance in running. So, the brain power Lucy developed evades me. But I hear Bilha and our houseboy chatter in the kitchen. My stomach is slightly active. I check my watch, it’s close to one o’clock, time for lunch. I smell something cooking and hope it’s a soup. I love soup and a piece of bread for lunch. It’s good for my soul. I decide to take off my reading glasses, stand up from my desk, and walk to the kitchen to see what’s cooking. Already on the way there, I smell that it’s an omelet. In that case, I will have to decide what I want to drink with it because when it’s a soup, I don’t drink anything. With all other luncheon snacks, I take a glass of the fresh pressed lemonade a jug of which is always ready. But today when I open the fridge, I decide to take a Coke. Should I add a slice of lime? – The protagonist of this little episode is my own brain, of average human capacity, I assume.
After all, when evolution started growing the human brain, it was not after the superhuman capabilities of Lucy in the film. It was just continuing to improve the brain of the original Lucy, with the aim of building her successors’ capacities to get best food, best safety, and best reproduction. The brain is important for this because, in response to sensual stimulation, it computes and coordinates the reactions to and from our body. As a part of the human body, the brain itself is physical and organic. And well into the Middle Stone Age, the stimulating inputs to the brain were mostly coming from the physical senses of what humans saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. And they were responding to their physiological needs. Human behavior was still closer to being animal, navigating the world in search of food and mates, led by the two primal instincts of survival and sexuality. The instinctive autopilot of the reptilian brain was serving them well for eat, drink, sleep; fight or flee; and sexual reproduction. The limbic system of the mammalian brain complemented these functions through habits, memories and learning, and emotions. And already since Homo erectus, the growing cortex allowed them to decide on certain responses to the stimulations that came from their environment and from the biology and genes of their own body.
Over time, the cortex started expanding its functions to new uses: From recognizing stimulations and coordinating the natural responses thereto, it started interposing consciousness and became aware of the mental states and processes involved. And, while organizing the response to all the stimulations it continuously received, the cortex started making its own input into the process. It would now suppress, override and adapt the natural reactions of the reptilian and mammalian brain: In our physical environment, it’s hot or cold weather. Today it’s hot, I’m sweating and I’m thirsty. But I will not drink water now, I will relish a beer in the evening. In our social environment, we can run into a friend or a foe. Meeting a foe, we can look the other way and act as if we had not seen him. But as a former diplomat, I know how important it is to greet your opponent. If you can, with a smile. At least on your face.
Thus, the brain introduced the next step in human evolution, it created the mind and mental senses. The state of human being expanded from being biological and physiological to also being mental and psychological. Humans developed self-awareness and a sense of self. They learned that they were a distinct part of nature and different from other living things. Although anthropologists often call this the Cognitive Revolution, it is not only human cognition that drove the hike. Humans became conscious of the mental states and processes that drive them. And today, we know that the human mind and mental senses, as the basic instincts, also work unconsciously.
So, what are these new mental senses? We discovered physics: The world of things and objects, and their motion in space and time, how they fall, bounce, bend, and break. With rationality, reason and logic, we apprehend cause and effect. We have a sense for space and time, allowing us to navigate the world and keep track of where things are. Who or what, when, where and why? With the hand axe, already Homo habilis had introduced technology. And we keep on designing and using ever more sophisticated tools to achieve ever more specific functions. Take the smartphone. With the acquired knowledge, we establish a mental data base. We can think and abstract, reason and rationalize, and imagine. Things make sense to us, they have a meaning and we can understand. And the grunts and groans of human communication became speech. We now use language to describe things, express emotions, share ideas, and explain what we want.
As a social animal, humans had always cooperated to satisfy their physiological needs of survival and sexuality. But even such unique human features as pair bonding and paternal parenting for better results in procreation were anchored in biology and not their consciousness. It’s only with the development of his mental senses that Homo sapiens kindled a sense of community: We can recognize and understand other people, their needs, behaviors, desires, and beliefs. We communicate and cooperate with them. First, of course, for our physiological needs of survival and procreation, but then for things that go far beyond this. Let’s not forget the foundation of Homo economicus: A sense for quantities and amounts for the exchange of goods and favors. One, two, three, a few, several, many. Reciprocity and equivalence. We have built communities and whole societies around the psychological needs of belonging, shared norms, customs and values, and identity. Out of this longing for community, we have even developed a universal sense of morality, distinguishing between right and wrong, good and evil. And here again, we meet the binaries.
We have a sense for life as such: The living world of the plants and other animals, all with the hidden essence driving their growth and movements. And finally, the question of humans’ place in all of this. Origins, life and death, and spirituality. In answer to all these questions, we can talk about things we have never seen, touched, or smelled. We think and talk religions, myths, legends, fantasies. And other abstractions. – And then, we check our smartphone.