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Did Our Ancestors Think Like Us?

How history may have changed our minds, and why it matters.

Imagine that you are a time-traveler, able to travel back roughly 40,000 years to the age of the first anatomically modern homo sapiens. Imagine stepping out of your time machine and standing face to face with one of your ancestors: Another human with a brain just as big as yours, and genes virtually identical to your genes. Would you be able to speak to this ancient human? Befriend them? Fall in love with them? Or would your ancestor be unrecognizable, as distinct from you as a wolf is distinct from a pet dog?

Creative Commons.
Prehistoric hand stencils from Cueva de las Manos in Argentina
Source: Creative Commons.

In my blog, I will be wrestling with these sorts of questions. The history of the human mind might not be talked about as often as the causes of mental illness or the chemical composition of love, but it is just as much of a mystery. We know that humans today are very different from humans who lived thousands of years ago: Today’s humans communicate through elaborate languages, practice complex religions, and live in communities where almost everyone is a stranger. But there may be more fundamental differences that we don’t know about: Do we feel emotions in the same way that our ancestors felt emotions? Do we problem-solve in the same way that our ancestors solved problems? Do we think about our romantic partners in the same way that our ancestors viewed their romantic partners? Psychologists continue to fiercely debate these issues. Some think that, since we have the same genes as ancient humans, we should show the same mannerisms. Others suspect that human psychology may have changed dramatically over time. Nobody definitely knows (I certainly don’t), but my hunch is that the human mind today works very differently than did our ancestor’s minds.

I have this hunch because of two realities: the first is that humans are brilliant learners. This isn’t to say that other animals aren’t good at learning. A study published just last year used a sort of reverse peep show to show that female fruit flies decide which males are most desirable from watching other females copulate. Other studies show that Stickleback fish learn where to forage from one another, New Caledonian crows learn how to make tools from one another, and Norway rats learn whether food is safe to eat by watching other rats try it first.

Many animals learn how to solve problems by watching other animals try and fail, but humans appear to take social learning to another level: we learn how to think from one another. Consider that when people move to a new culture, they actually begin taking on the emotions of that culture, reporting more everyday sadness in cultures that feel more sadness and surprise in cultures where people feel more surprise. Consider that people’s ability to read others’ thoughts and feelings from their behavior depends on the number of words in their native language indicating mental states. Consider that people’s level of prejudice towards other groups (i.e. the extent of their “us versus them” mentality) and moral convictions (i.e. their belief that some acts are fundamentally right or wrong) strongly depends on whether or not they follow an Abrahamic religion. And consider that people’s ability to think “creatively,” to generate new solutions that diverge from old ones, depends on how strictly their culture regulates social norms. This is just a small sampling from hundreds of studies that show how flexible the human mind is.

The second reality that makes me think our minds work differently today than they did thousands of years ago is that human culture is staggeringly diverse. We speak over 6,000 languages, follow 4,000 religions, and live our lives according to a sprawling set of social and moral customs. Some other animals have diverse culture: Chimpanzees, for example, forage for food in a number of different ways that are probably socially learned. But human cultural diversity goes beyond one or two kinds of differences; our cultures are different in almost every way imaginable. The development of this cultural diversity may have had a profound impact on our psychologies.

When you put these realities together, you have (a) an amazingly diverse species with (b) an amazing capacity to learn from diversity. Add thousands of years of development and cultural change to the mix and you likely get modern human thinking that scarcely resembles ancient human psychology. This doesn’t mean that today’s humans are “better” than yesterday’s; it just means that humans are fascinating animals, more cognitively malleable than any other.

Our cognitive malleability matters for several important reasons. Intellectually, it is a wonderful mystery. We know how humans think today, but we don’t know how we got this way, or how our minds worked thousands of years ago. Puzzles are the essence of scientific innovation, and I think the changing nature of the human mind is one of the greatest historical puzzles of all.

But outside of the research world, learning about our species’ cognitive malleability may be an important key to reducing conflict. Many conflicts break out because one group does not understand why another group believes in a different god, follows different social norms, or speaks a different language. This lack of understanding leads to dangerous theories about the origins of our differences (e.g. the fallacious idea that Black Americans perform worse than White Americans on standardized tests because they have inferior genes). Recognizing the mind’s malleability is an important step towards recognizing how much our environments shape our everyday thoughts and behaviors, and in turn recognizing that changing environments and institutions is often the only way to reconcile cultural rifts or inequalities.

This is what I will be writing about in my blog. I hope you enjoy it, and if you want to see me cover a particular topic (within the blog’s theme) I will gladly take suggestions. Thanks for reading!

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