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

The Science of Discworld or why we believe lies-to-children


51vUHaAJhLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The day the news broke that Sir Terry Pratchett passed away I visited my local library in search of books from the Discworld series with the intended purpose of rereading it. Unfortunately for Carson City fantasy lovers the picking is slim. All together the library has roughly 5 of his books, not counting those housed in the YA section. I picked up Mort and Sourcery (and yes, to all the pedants out there, this is how it’s spelled).

Since my local library wasn’t much of a source I reluctantly visited Amazon. The desire to remain a virtual visitor in Discworld enticed me. (I told myself no more books but well….)Skimming through the many titles and book type options I came across a title that gave me pause; The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Normally I would’ve passed on such a tittle as there is a copiousness amount of The …… of Discworld. There is: The Magic of Discworld, The Map of Discworld, the Folklore of Discworld (okay, this one sounds promising) and if I looked hard enough, I would’ve found The Food of Discworld, by Sir Pratchett and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (if that last name doesn’t ring a bell don’t try to fake it during a discussion of Discworld, you’ll never make it).

The point is I wanted a story, not a “behind the scene”, “making of” or “you won’t believe what’s in this ‘pork’ pie”. These types of books are for collectors and the gastronomically brave stupid.

What caught my eye about The Science of Discworld was the fact that the two co-authors are scientist writers which led me to believe that there may be more going on in this book than another “making of”. I was right. This is the blurb:

Not just another science book and not just another Discworld novella, The Science of Discworld is a creative, mind-bending mash-up of fiction and fact, that offers a wizard’s-eye view of our world that will forever change how you look at the universe.

Can Unseen University’s eccentric wizards and orangutan Librarian possibly shed any useful light on hard, rational Earthly science?

In the course of an exciting experiment, the wizards of Discworld have accidentally created a new universe. Within this universe is a planet that they name Roundworld. Roundworld is, of course, Earth, and the universe is our own. As the wizards watch their creation grow, Terry Pratchett and acclaimed science writers Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen use Discworld to examine science from the outside. Interwoven with the Pratchett’s original story are entertaining, enlightening chapters which explain key scientific principles such as the Big Bang theory and the evolution of life on earth, as well as great moments in the history of science.

Scientifically, this is a magical book. For not only do we get a brand new Discworld story, we are offered a lesson in science by way of humor, and the unpacking of what Cohen and Stewart call “lies- to- children.”

Lies- to- children are false statements, but nevertheless leads a child’s mind towards a more accurate explanation. It’s a short cut to the truth. What’s a rainbow? It’s light passing through rain. Why is that cat mad? Because Mr. Schrodinger likes to pull pranks on his colleagues, and small animals.

But as the writers point out, “Unfortunately, what most of us know about science consists of vaguely remembered lies-to-children”. This was a big take-away for me. In my quest to understand why people are prone to believing false statements and easily disproven “facts”, the writers have opened my eyes to the possibility that we cling to the K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) principal because this is how we were first introduced to science and historical events. Many of us were never told there is more to the story and most of us it seems, are happy to live in a world full of lies.

The book offers readers a chance to grow beyond lies-to-children. Though admittedly at times it is more than a general book on natural science, it’s basically a primer on how the universe works from the atom to the galaxies. Don’t be discouraged if at times it seems a little daunting. The writers are willing to push their readers beyond general knowledge in order to get past simple explanations and our grammar school understanding of the world around us.

In between we are entertained by Pratchett’s narrative: one that pokes fun of science and science fiction. He does this by having the wizards create a universe housed in a bubble (it’s bigger on the inside) and watching as first a solar system is created, then a habitual, yet dangerous planet that no one would want to live on. When Pratchett gets to the evolution of apes, I could not stop laughing:

There was probably something you could do with a stick, he thought. Hopefully, it might involve sex. He poked around the debris and found not a stick but a dried-up thighbone, which had a sufficiently stick-like shape.

He rattled it on the ground a few times. It didn’t do anything much. Then he reluctantly decided it would probably be impossible to mate with at that moment, and hurled it high into the air.

It rose, turning over and over.

When it fell, it knocked me unconscious. (Might have made Arthur C. Clarke’s book more enjoyable if he had written these lines).

Rincewind sighed. He’d seen species come, and he’d seen them go, and this one could only have been put on earth for entertainment value. They had the same approach to life as clowns, with the same touch of viciousness.

Towards the end of the book it is mentioned that more on evolution is coming. It turns out this is the first in a series of four. Sir Pratchett’s last gift to his readers is a series of “Roundworld” books. They are: The Science of Discworld II The Globe, III Darwin’s Watch, and finally IV Judgment Day. I and II are available now. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Thank you Sir Pratchett for more stories, and thank you Stewart and Cohen for not making up lies-to-adults. We tell them to ourselves more than we should.


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