The What if game: how humans evolved from apes to Shakespeare

Bradshaw rock paintings  Western Australia
Bradshaw rock paintings
Western Australia

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god!   Hamlet

The second book in Terry Pratchett’s “The Science of Discworld, the globe” tackles an important question in the evolution of man. How did humans go from being ape like creatures to ones that can write eloquent poetry? In other words, how did the human mind evolve to think beyond its immediate surroundings?

Science has proven that our closest relative is the chimpanzee. We share 98% of our genomes with them, yet we have little in common. That 2% difference seems to be a pretty big deal.

Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, Pratchett’s co-authors, walk the readers through the evolution of the human brain. It’s a rather convoluted story, one with gaps and seemingly full of conjectures* (*This is what one scientist thinks when another disagrees) . The biggest mystery and subject of debate is how over time we acquired a large brain, and how that brain developed the capacity to think beyond instinct. We know from the fossil records that 8 millions years ago the ancestors of humans and chimps parted, and since then the human brain has tripled in size. What we don’t know is why.

In two recent studies, researchers from Duke University suggest the human brain boost may have been powered by a metabolic shift that meant more fuel for brains, and less fuel for muscles.

Two researchers from the UK noted “the human brain uses more energy, pound for pound, than any other tissue. Yet our body burns the same number of calories as other primates our size”. They think we may have diverted our energy to the brain, allowing it to develop. This may also be the reason why our muscle mass differs from apes and chimps; what we gained in brain mass we lost in muscle mass.

Yet another theory, the Aquatic Ape theory, suggests at some point millions of years ago our ancestors moved from the Savannahs and back into the water. While most scientists balk at this suggestion it does answer some questions on why we look much different from our ape cousins. The theory suggests that a diet rich in seafood would account for brain development. If you would like to read a truly wonderful article on this subject I highly recommend reading Martin Clemens, “Aquatic Ape theory: An argument for our water origins.

Yet none of these theories explain how we developed into the philosophical apes we are today. As Cohen and Stewart explain, it’s not the big brain that counts; it’s what we do with it. They map out what they think is important to human evolution: the idea that by becoming storytellers we gained language and culture.

It is a large map, one too big to fully flesh out here, but the idea goes something like this: Our early ancestors learned to play the “What if game”.

Imagine one of our ancestors out in the Savanna plains, just chilling and taking in the breeze when he or she, notices a lion in the grass to the right, and possibly one to the front. Instead of acting on instinct or freezing in place, our ancestor thinks, “What if?”. What if I slowly back up towards that tree?” What if one runs out before the other, could I make it to the tree?” A story of what if starts to play out in our ancestor’s mind, and from that an idea of escape begins to form. Now let’s say he does escape and goes back to his clan and tells the story of how he escaped. His experience is shared with others. This is the beginning of what Cohen and Stewart call “extelligence”. The idea that shared knowledge benefits a clan as a whole and allows for group survival. As early humans began to share more and more information or stories, the more structured their world became. Structure led to stability and stability led to civilizations. This makes sense, yet I found myself asking a question: What allowed for the development of the what if game, and how did our earliest ancestors share this knowledge? Here is where some of my own conjecture comes in, so take it for what it’s worth.


“To sleep, perchance to dream” Hamlet

We know animals learn and share their experiences. Parents pass down survival methods to their young and we see group think in many species. Yet without the ability to communicate we cannot be sure if this is intentional or instinct. And even if it is intentional, we are the only animal to find creative ways to express our ideas and share them with our clan. What was the catalyst for our development of language and art?

Anthropologist Kate Glaskin, in her article, “Dreams, memory, and the ancestors: Creativity, culture, and the science of sleep” reminds us thatEthnography from Aboriginal Australia attests to the significance of dreams in the creation of new songs, designs, and ceremonies”. We know this from drawings, and oral traditions that talk of how early Aboriginals shared knowledge gained through dreams. Other early cultures such as the Native Americans did the same. Before written language and possibly before fully developed language, dreams played an important role in the development of early culture. Glaskin notes, “Advances made in neuroscience mean that, increasingly, scientists are able to map neural activity occurring in different sleep phases. Can this capability help us to understand the emergence of creativity, such as that which appears to have its origins in dreams?”

If it is true that creativity emerged from dreams, couldn’t it also be true that storytelling, a form of creativity, also emerged from dreams? Perhaps early man learned to play the what if game because he may be the only animal to have complex dreams? Let’s play the game.

What if our early ancestors found themselves dreaming of past events, only in the dream the outcome was different. And, what if they used these same dreams as learning tools? Early man may not have just learn to be creative on cave walls and in song from dreams, he may have used dreams as a way of learning to think beyond the immediate and start asking himself and his clan, “What if”? If these dreams became oral teachings then we would have our first storytellers and shared emerging extelligence.

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Bottom, Midsummer’s Night Dream

Clemens, Martin. Aquatic Ape theory: An argument for our water origins. Mysterious Universe. org

Glaskin, Kate. Dreams, memory, and the ancestors: Creativity, culture, and the science of sleep. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Scientific American. How did human brains get to be so big? Scientific

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

3 thoughts on “The What if game: how humans evolved from apes to Shakespeare”

  1. I like this “what-if?” hypothesis. It chimes in with my idea that humans have a more developed sense of narrative than many other animals. What-if accounts for many of us scripting our lives according to basic plots (we’re on a journey, everything I touch turns bad, or I will go from rags to riches, everything comes full circle); it also accounts for really innovative and creative thinking where we can imagine narratives that don’t follow the accepted route. Many organisms have a rudimentary sense of narrative (even if it’s only live-eat-reproduce-die) but it’s humans that can most imaginatively think out of the box. If that’s true, what then — as you point out — were the triggers to it happening?

    By the way, I was much struck by the aquatic ape theory as popularised by Elaine Morgan’s The Descent of Woman which I read back in the 70s. It didn’t seem to elicit much serious academic discussion then or later, which I thought was a shame, so I’m glad it got a mention here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Chris. Yes, we do script our lives on “what-if” and sadly deconstruction our past by this question. I really think you would enjoy book two of the Science of Disworld. Many of your ideas are shared by the authors.

      Liked by 1 person

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