Meatheads – The Paradox of Human Evolution

What all mammalian animals have in common is that they share the workings of a spinal column topped by a brainstem. Fundamentally, these are essentially the same in all of us animals. The brainstem contains the pathways to where all brain activity passes through to the rest of the body and is structurally connected to and a continuation of the spinal column.

Humans have the largest brain in the animal world compared to body size. In any animal that has the remarkable features of having a large brain that works in tandem with an equally remarkable anatomical tool such as the human hands you will likely see extraordinary strides in their evolution. When this brain and its hands are components of a bipedal, upright creature, it suggests that freeing the hands and arms from the job of forelimbs added to the evolutionary development of hominids that is unmatched on this planet.

We tend to describe early humans as hunter-gatherers but in fact, all animals are hunter-gatherers of sorts. It was the progressively efficient hunting skills of humans, however, that enabled them to enjoy a regular diet of meat and fish. As the human brain grew larger so did humans acquire more meat in their diet which led to increasing brain size.

Hunting led to the development of tool-making, which in turn led to cooperative teamwork, the teamwork led to the necessity of communication, the communication led to the need for verbal skills, all of which contributed to communal forethought and planning. While the brain was evolving, the natural selection of both our hands and feet occurred along similar lines that contributed to our increasing manual dexterity and foot balance for walking and running.

Unfortunately, it’s when we turned the development of the hunting tools of our hands, cleverness and communicative skills into weapons that the human species began to cannibalize itself on a large scale.

The primitive evolution of our consciousness was and is trapped inside of a body too advanced for its own good.

Even today, fear, ignorance and superstition dominate the mental evolution of Mother Nature’s quintessential fighting machine. We live in a death culture where our magnificent tools of precision and beauty are conjoined with a never-ending nightmare of self-inflicted predator and prey.

We are, indeed, our worst enemy.

Therein lays the paradox of human evolution.

~Vidda Crochetta

Comments | 20

  • That resonates with me. Mind

    That resonates with me. Mind if I share it elsewhere with your name attached?

    • Resonates

      Certainly, Nan.
      Glad you can relate to it!

      • agree

        Not all the logic, research, or scientifically deduced data in the world can change one’s values if they don’t want to see. That’s where we need to begin.

  • and once we learn something...

    Once we learn something, it is difficult, if not impossible, to unlearn it.

    There have been periods of time when things have been forgotten by the masses, and libraries have been destroyed, but our core knowledge seems to be added to more than subtracted from.

    So, we probably can’t go back or unlearn our hunting and tool making.

    That would indicate that the solution might lie in getting even smarter about things, and learning a better way of doing things.

    Reading this also reminded me of watching the cat use a single claw to pick food out of her bowl. The evolution has begun. I’ll watch for when she starts making spears or arrowheads.

    • Feline Spearchuckers

      “Reading this also reminded me of watching the cat use a single claw to pick food out of her bowl. The evolution has begun. I’ll watch for when she starts making spears or arrowheads.”
      lol !!

    • Heart lags behind brain in humans

      The answer lies in heart education.

  • Sharp Edges

    This voyage you describe is measured in millions of years, yet the sharp turn into the realm of Homo Maniacus is less than a ten thousand year span. Is this monstrous development a facet of evolution, or a purely cultural aberration that will not likely survive the stringent censors of natural selection?

    It wasn’t until a confluence of events in the recent past that our species demonstrated its propensity for wanton self-destruction. Written language, agriculture, sedentary lifestyle, and hierarchal religiosity…all combined to give rise to overpopulation, embedded dogmatic superstition, oligarchical controls, and hunting food sources to their extinction. I have my doubts this is an evolutionary adaption. It seems to me more a short term opportunistic gambit, and as such may not have the staying power of an evolutionary change.

    It’s relevant to consider that Neanderthal had a larger brain capacity, yet showed none of the predisposition toward genocide that Homo Sapiens have cultivated.

    I’m always glad to see these kinds of ruminations aired in forums such as these, as it says it may not be too late for us chimps-gone-mad to get our act together.

    • Two Forms of Evolution + “chimps-gone-mad “?

      Natural selection in evolution seems to be dominated by anatomical changes. However, I suspect that there are two forms of evolution in the development of all vertebrate brain-stemmed creatures: one as indicated by the fossil record and the other indicated by changes in mental evolution – the former being “measured in millions of years“and the latter subject to potentially rapid changes, whether over thousands of years, or overnight. In that sense cultural aberrations are tied into the natural selection process, and evolutionary adaptation as in, say, “learning fossils” that are not dug from the ground.

      It is unlikely that science can really say what the scale infighting of Neanderthals experienced without have more precise data of a species gone extinct around 30,000 years ago. I agree that genocide on the scale that humans employ it is not likely. We also cannot be conversant with the primitive consciousness development of Neanderthals.

      In the case of evolved humans who predate so-called civilization (as far back as 150,000-200,000 years ago, who were anatomically the same as humans today), we face a gray area where the mix of a cultural “opportunistic gambit“ might only have been a matter of degree. So that the genesis of using vital hunting tools turned into defensive or aggressive use against each other cannot be ascertained with what we know (or don’t know) about humans 12,000-150,000 years ago.

      Your reference to “chimps-gone-mad “ calls to mind Jared Diamond’s book “The Third Chimpanzee” where he sees humans being as one of the three chimpanzee species that evolved in Central Africa. Two of the chimp species remained in Africa, the third chimpanzee, (us humans) migrated around the world.

      I love the clever term “Homo Maniacus”” !

    • Cartoon History

      Have you ever read Cartoon History of the Universe Part I? It’s hilarious. Talk about wanton self-destruction. But I agree that our capacity to really do ourselves in has increased manyfold in the last 100 years. My theory is that when God died around the turn of the last century, Science took over as the ruler of the universe and with that, an idea that all technology, no matter how horrible, had to be developed and used if possible. So not only do we create incredibly destructive weapons, we develop all sorts of other technological gizmos and substances that are marketed as improvements but in the long run, threaten our viability.

      Very strange, the power of ideas to prevail over common sense perception of reality. But maybe that’s just cuz we’re meatheads. 😉

      • Paradox Planet

        Yeah, that’s a fun and epic take on our long habit of head-scratching barbarism. The book is in our library. Also whimsical, and a eye opener, is the ‘Memory of Fire’ series. I’m drawn irresistibly to these works that look at how beings capable of such beauty, artistry and benevolence, also can at the same time perpetrate unthinkable cruelty and brutality on ourselves and each other.

        A piece of the evolutionary puzzle that may give a clue is that humans have an unusually long enfeeblement in infancy- an inordinately lengthy nurturing period. Supposedly this gives time for language and bonding to develop. But maybe this extended time of being babes-in-arms sets up, along with our so-called higher consciousness, a greedy streak, and our twisted sense of entitlement and ownership.

      • just cuz we're meatheads. ;)

        I had never heard of Cartoon History of the Universe Part I, Lise, so I Wikied it. I was surprised to see the series started in 1990 and that Jackie Onassis at Doubleday “championed” its publication.
        Of course, the notion of the ‘strange case” of the human Jekyll and Hyde aberration is not really new, although it’s not too often that we hear it linked a growing brain size and intellect from a primitive diet of meat.

        Also Spinoza’s mention of human’s unusually long enfeebled infancy greedy and demanding for the teats shows the other side of a long nurturing period that you don’t get to hear about too often either.

  • Not all human cultures are meatheads

    I really liked this posting and wanted to respond days ago. I just want to speak to this as a therapist and ecopsychologist.

    I’d like to start off with the notion that we have a “triune brain.” Basically, that means that we are three brained creatures. We have the reptilian brain that governs much or our autonomic system and our startle responses of fight, flight and freeze. Then, on top of the reptile brain, we have the mammal brain or limbic system that, among many other things, is the seat of emotions, memories (fear, love, fun etc) and holds our ability to attach and bond with the people and things we love in the world. And finally, on top of the limbic brain is the big neo-cortex (the part we usually like to boast about) that allows us rational thought, language, math, critical thinking and countless other things. Then, if that wasn’t enough, there is the fact that our brains are split in two and sort of connected by something called the corpus callosum. So we’re a split brain animal with three brains and some very unusual wiring – sounds pretty weird. That might explain why it is so difficult to get along with another person who coincidentally also has 3 brains split in two with funky wiring.

    But how did we get this huge neo-cortex and why did it evolve into what it is? There are lots of theories on that, but the one I like the best concerns the predator-prey relationship we had with other animals. As I understand it, evolution tends to happen for a reason and so as we hunted animals we were able to cull the slower or less smart ones of each of the species we pursued – those were the ones that were easiest to kill and the quicker more adaptable animals of each species were the ones that got away. So, then perhaps humans were partially involved in the selection process that drives evolution. As these animals got a bit quicker and more intelligent it seems we got smarter (bigger brains) to catch these more elusive creatures. A spiraling up together of traits, brains, and intelligence occurred and in essence we all raised each other up. Evolution takes a community of predators and prey and our so maybe our crazy big brains are due to great teamwork. Go team!

    Now the one thing I don’t agree with Vidda on is that with “hunting tools of our hands, cleverness and communicative skills into weapons that the human species began to cannibalize itself on a large scale.” Our brains and bodies evolved alongside with other species in this teamwork I described and there is all kinds of evidence of cultures and societies that recognized this and that have lived in a radically far greater harmony with other people as well as with the more-than-human world than we do in our hyper-industrialized society. The notions of being deeply related to a mountain, a creek, the trees, the sky, and other animals perhaps sounds nicely poetic to our ears, but ultimately falls flat to our lived-in experience of the world. The hyper-industrial beast is flattening the whole world (and our very experience of the world) and so any thought of people living with a profound sense of a spiritual connection to all beings and the land is inconsistent with the colonized industrial fortified minds we appear to possess. Maybe that’s what all the zombie movies (that seem to come out every day) are about – creatures severely lacking “limbic resonance” with the greater world and driven to eating flesh (resources). In other words “zombies R’ us”, but not the human species in general. There’s lots more details to all this – I’m trying to keep it short as possible.

    To end on a more positive note, we live in a time when it is absolutely imperative that we evolve our worldview to be inclusive of a profoundly rich spiritual connection to the other-than-human world and the land we inhabit. I believe that we all naturally possess an indigenous aspect of our selves that has been thrown into deep exile by industrial parts which have been inserted into our psyches straight from our schooling, parents, media, technology, religions, and so many other sources. As Aldo Leopold said, we’ve learned to “see one thing by becoming blind to the other.” So I’m saying that one thing we might consider is a sort of enviro-mentalism – I think it’s needed and the good news is that it’s happening all over the world. I’m not saying that anything like this will “save the world”, but I believe that we need to “change our minds” to make any significant inspirational change in this world.

    • Genesis of Consciousness+ the Advent of Set-Top Consciousness

      Thanks DaveC. That’s a great comment.
      This took a bit of time to reply….however,
      I would add that the “triune brain” with the reptilian, limbic and neo-cortex is in all mammalian brains. A significant difference between animals is where the neo-cortex comes into play (as you describe, the part we humans “like to boast about.”) In other terms, it could be thought of as a form of embellishment, whereby the embellishment of the human brain is much larger and more complex than, say, the embellishment of a cat. In fact, the human female is unique in that she has unusually wide hips that evolved to function as a wider birth canal that facilitates birth of the large brain (cranium) babies.

      The two-brain hemispheres are united by the corpus callosum, which is a fairly recent development in brain evolution (maybe less than 60,000 thousand years ago when the corpus callosum evolved in all mammals, not just humans). If I’ve read it correctly, the corpus callosum is what allowed the two hemispheres to communicate with each, hence, the genesis of consciousness.

      I suggest that spiritualism, as described by humans, is likely a byproduct of the bicameral mind when the two brain hemispheres acquired the ability to communicate with each other. This communication is manifested by all animals enjoying the processes of consciousness, including dreaming and thinking, that in human development gave rise to forethought, planning, creativity, teamwork, etc.

      It is our hands that works closely with these qualities that makes us amazing. Unfortunately, this consciousness (sometimes called spirituality) also gave humans fear, ignorance, superstition and a “belief dependency syndrome” that we live with to this very day in harmful measures.

      The “spiraling up together of traits, brains, and intelligence” between species you describe is a fascinating component that drives co-evolution of species (bees and flowers for instance).

      The Aldo Leopold quote you gave: “to “see one thing by becoming blind to the other” also relates to the experience of a blind person who can have a higher sense of hearing than normal.

      In addition, while it may be true the some cultures may “have lived in a radically far greater harmony with other people as well as with the more-than-human world than we do in our hyper-industrialized society,” nevertheless, the death culture I describe rules the human consciousness today and that probably makes humans one of the most dangerous creatures this side of the Galaxy.

    • The Subconscious Sez: What About Me?

      Great comment — like Vidda, it took me a while to think it through. I’m going to muddy the waters a little. The feeling I have is that I know about the various parts of the brain and a little about their evolution, but there’s this other part of the brain which we don’t much talk about anymore, and that’s the subconscious. Maybe subconscious information and impulses emanate from one of the parts of the brain you listed, but wherever it’s from, I don’t think we pay enough attention to it. I think it might be where some of that spiritual stuff is coming from.

      Scientists know that we need to sleep and to dream in order to be mentally healthy. But that’s as far as it goes. We don’t look into the content of dreams and I would argue that we’re taught to completely discount their importance. In other words, although many people do derive meaning from dreams, we’re not technically supposed to.

      Either way, there’s more going on in our minds than emotion and rational thought. We get little messages from our non-verbal subconscious minds all the time. Most of us are taught to ignore that kind of input, so we may not notice that the subconscious is trying to get our attention. But if you are paying attention, you get a lot of insightful data that you wouldn’t otherwise. I’m thinking here of dreams, visions, vibes, hunches, and other strange thought patterns that you’re pretty sure you didn’t come up with by yourself. Usually the messages I get are pointing out something important or potentially dangerous that I wasn’t noticing. Other times they just comment on how I’m doing.

      Some cultures really value their dreams. Native Americans took great stock in dreams and visions. So do the indigenous people of Australia. The Bible contains a number of accounts of dream interpretation including a notable one by Daniel. So dreams used to be counted as important (and still we slaughtered each other.)

      I guess being in touch with our subconscious minds is not enough to make us better, more evolved people in every case, but it might make us more self-aware and spiritually aware too. In times that feel increasingly surreal, subconscious information might help us navigate them better. As I heard on the radio once, if all you have is reason, you can never make up your mind (or know what you really think/believe/know). We might be ignoring important information that could help us evolve…

      P.S. I love the idea of enviro-mentalism. 😉

  • Ill-defined human spirituality

    The complexity of brain anatomy, like so many other things of science and medicine keep the debates open with quite a bit of agreement and disputes. I wish I had studied this stuff when I was young but we didn’t have an encyclopedic desktop at our fingers back then. In any discussion of brain evolution and function by laymen it should be understood that this is not exact science. The duality of the hippocampus, the connecting features of the corpus callusom and other components that involve brain hemispheric communication, memory, thinking, dreaming, emotions, spatial and motor navigation, etc. all add to the difficulties of understanding human nature, probably more so than other animals who do not employ our “embellishment.”

    In my lifetime, many people have used the term spirituality as a means to help describe human involvement with each other and our surroundings. I’ve heard it claimed that we are all connected to a mass, universal consciousness that ties into one’s perception and use of the word spirituality.

    Is it possible that many humans have mistaken our own narrow perception of our individual understanding of consciousness to claim that there is a universal consciousness based in spirituality? Minimally, an ill-defined human spirituality is only as real as our brain makes it.

    After all, since the two halves of the brain “talks to itself” (not just to other brains) it is capable of convincing “itself” of knowing or believing things that are both real and unreal.

    Therefore any claim that we have some mystical, associative, working relationship with “all things” through a mystical universal consciousness or that a form of universal spirituality actually exists, however, can only be human conjecture, at best.

  • Brain size surge linked directly linked to innovation of cooking

    According to a new study, a surge in human brain size that occurred roughly 1.8 million years ago can be directly linked to the innovation of cooking.
    Homo erectus, considered the first modern human species, learned to cook and doubled its brain size over the course of 600,000 years. Similar size primates—gorillas, chimpanzees, and other great apes, all of which subsisted on a diet of raw foods—did not.

    “Much more than harnessing fire, what truly allowed us to become human was using fire for cooking,” said study co-author Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

    And as the team write in their paper, gorillas could never eat enough nutrients to support their enormous size and the expensive tissue of the brain. “Apes can’t afford both brain and body,” said Herculano-Houzel.
    Humans can’t either. But when we came to a fork in the evolutionary road—brawn this way, brains that way—we took the cerebral route. This development came to be known as encephalization: We ended up with brains that are much bigger than our body size would indicate.

    Cooking was the key, said Herculano-Houzel, whose study appeared this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Heating our food unlocked nutrition: 100 percent of a cooked meal is metabolized by the body, whereas raw foods yield just 30 or 40 percent of their nutrients.
    Applying fire to food also softens tough fibers, releases flavors, and speeds up the process of chewing and digesting. The extra nutrition, and the improved eating experience, allowed our prehistoric ancestors to spend less time searching for food—and less time chewing through tough plants for meager caloric reward.

    Cooking, therefore, gave us both the nutrition we needed to develop large brains and the time we needed to use them for things more interesting than chewing. It was at this point, said Herculano-Houzel, that having a large brain stopped being an evolutionary liability—a feature that required a lot of effort to support with nutrients—and became an asset: something that could help us gain those nutrients more easily. We could now spend time thinking of better ways to hunt, to live, to develop culture, art, and early technologies—all the things that made us who we are now.

    Read full text:

  • Another theory has it that

    Another theory has it that the desire to communicate led to ever more complex gutteral emanations which led to the development of vocal chords and ultimately to speech. Speech accelerated the development of the brain to accomodate all of its ramifications.

    • "...the communication led to the need for verbal skills"

      Yes, as I wrote in the 4th paragraph above, it is a likely theory, one that adds to the mix of complexity that made up our unique evolutionary patterns and progress.

      “Hunting led to the development of tool-making, which in turn led to cooperative teamwork, the teamwork led to the necessity of communication, the communication led to the need for verbal skills, all of which contributed to communal forethought and planning.”

  • Being thickheaded is good as far as grey matter is concerned

    The association between regional cortical thickness and intelligence:

    “Previous studies have shown that intelligence and cognitive ability are correlated with regional brain structure and function. The association between regional cortical thickness and intelligence has been little studied and most previous studies of normal children had a relatively small sample. So with improvements in MRI-based quantification of cortical thickness and a much larger sample, researchers aimed to examine this relationship and to further characterize and identify brain areas where cortical thickness was associated with cognitive performance.

    Cortical thickness may in part reflect the amount of complex connections between nerve cells. In other words, thicker cortices are likely to have more complex connections with consequences on cognitive ability. A positive link between cortical thickness and cognitive ability was detected in many areas of the frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes. The regions with the greatest relationship were the ‘multi-modal association’ areas, where information converges from various regions of the brain for processing.”

    Full text:

  • Cooking tubers evolved bigger human brains?

    Richard W. Wrangham, a British primatologist, contends that “cooking has played [a role] in human evolution. He has argued that cooking food is obligatory for humans as a result of biological adaptations and that cooking, in particular the consumption of cooked tubers (yams,cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes), might explain the increase in hominid brain sizes, smaller teeth and jaws, and decrease in sexual dimorphism that occurred roughly 1.8 million years ago.

    Most anthropologists disagree with Wrangham’s ideas, pointing out that there is no solid evidence to support Wrangham’s claims.

    The mainstream explanation is that human ancestors, prior to the advent of cooking, turned to eating meats, which then caused the evolutionary shift to smaller guts and larger brains.” ~wikipedia

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