Curiouser and Curiouser

How must come before why.  Before we humans try to answer the question, “Why are we here?”, it is necessary to ask, “How did we become thinking beings?”.


Apocalypse?, by mikelehen via Flickr

Now, if you don’t believe in evolution, dear reader, you may stop here and tune back in to Harold Camping’s Family Radio for the latest updates on the end of it all anyway.  But if you understand that paleontology, geology, anthropology, and biology, including DNA analysis, all present a consistent and still-unfolding beautiful tableau that supports the story of evolution, then read on.  (I discussed how consistent a story is evolution in a post last year, “Blown Away By A Book”.)

The great majority of the animal kingdom on our remote blue marble are not self-aware.  They are creatures of instinct with eyes, ears, skin, nervous systems, senses like ours, but they do not have the capacity think in the abstract.  They do not question and when they look in a mirror, they do not recognize the image as themselves.  There are a few creatures which share a capacity for self-awareness with us, including apes, dolphins (porpoises) and elephants, but only humans command complex, abstract thinking.  How did that happen?


Image by Travis S. via Flickr

The latest evidence for the evolution of the mammalian brain comes in an article by an AP science writer.  Since scientists know a great deal now about the consistent specialization of different parts of the brain they can estimate brain functionality from examination of the shape of brains.  CT scans of early skull fossils reveal brain shape, and thus, brain functionality.  According to the article, they show that brain growth in these early creatures afforded an improved sense of smell, contributing to survivability 190 million years ago.  That improvement in brain growth enabled other functions, eventually leading to, wonder of wonders, abstract thought.

Now, here we are, we wondering creatures, on the cusp of an explosion in discovery in a mere blip of geological history.  The time during which our species has been Homo Sapiens, 190,000 years or so, is only one one-thousandth of the time since that early mammal lived.  Understanding such vast time spans is critical to understanding the wonder of evolution.  And as I covered in a previous post, it is only in the last 6,000 years or so that the invention of writing has leveraged true abstract though beyond the level of myth and legend and enabled true science.

I find it significant that with the recent installation of a device, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, on the International Space Station, humanity is delving into the origins of the universe even as we discover more about how we came to be the curious creatures that we are.  Don’t you?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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9 Responses to Curiouser and Curiouser

  1. Jim,
    Very good stuff.
    I want to quote part of what you said:

    …paleontology, geology, anthropology, and biology, including DNA analysis, all present a consistent and still-unfolding beautiful tableau that supports the story of evolution…

    That statement says it all.

    Thanks for writing it.



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I have a picture on my computer desktop taken from the Hubble telescope. It shows “clouds” of matter swirling in space millions of light years (maybe even billions) in the distance. I sometimes wonder if or even when a man might stand at that point in space and see the view with his naked eye.

    It seems to me that the question of how did we get to where we are today is only part of the issue. Where might we “go” tomorrow is the other half of the question, to me.

    And of course who knows if another Hubble telescope is “out there” peering into our own backyard and trying to decide what the “blue marble” is all about.



  3. Pingback: Evolution: Politicians Should Declare, Fact Or Fiction? « The Erstwhile Conservative: A Blog of Repentance

  4. jwhester says:

    Interesting post. I have a question for you: How do we know that the “great majority of the animal kingdom on our remote blue marble are not self-aware”?


  5. Just heard about the tornado. Are you okay?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, fine. The damn thing tore a swath through the middle of town beginning just two miles south of where we live. Our little development is untouched. The only effects, so far, are low water pressure, a boil order and no natural gas. But the temperature this morning is in the high 60’s, so no problem. What a mess. I may do a short post on it.

      Thanks for checking on us, Keith.



  6. Jennifer Lockett says:

    Just looked up some old lectures of mine about primate cranial capacity. The big jump seems to have been with early Homo (Homo habilis) about 2.3 mya, which also coincides with a focus on site over smell. There seems to be some debate about whether or not early members of the genus Homo had linguistic ability. My gut reaction is that they did have rudimentary language skills, perhaps not ‘true’ language but certainly beyond what we see in other non-primates.
    Very interesting article.


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