4 Apr 2009

The Mind of the Wild: Shepard, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Ch.4, subsection 1

Paul Shepard

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Chapter IV: How the Mind Once Lived

Subsection 1

The Mind of the Wild

Long before civilization, there were human ancestors who foraged the Pliocene/Pleistocene savannas. They emerged from a "mammalian ecology" that had been under development already for about 50 million years. Our prehuman ancestors survived and adapted as animals. Gradually their brain would double in size. And the way it developed was guided by the demand that they outsmart their predators and prey.
Our mind came out of that long ago scene and we owe its capacity to our ancient ancestors who faced, survived, and adapted to a challenging, rich, wild milieu that remains etched on our craniums like ancient paintings on cave walls. (51c, emphasis mine)
Mammals at this time played a game of hunter and hunted "based on energy flow and food chains."
This game of predation and survival was a long-standing matter of mutual pruning that favored the most swift, cunning, and discerning over those who were slow to catch on and flee. (52a)
If our ancestors had developed in the jungle, we would not have needed to abstract matters from what is immediate to us. Our prey's footprints would wash away in the jungle's wetness. So we would not be able to think of them as being here at a previous time, and now at a nearby place. The thickness and noise of the forest would conceal our enemies' sounds. So we would not be able to locate them them with our ears. The jungle's rich texture and contents allows for some many "hidey-holes" that it would tax our minds too much to try to deduce their locations. And there would be so many sources of protein nearby, such as insects and rodents, that we would not need to conduct a lengthy chase for such nourishment.

However, we developed on the savanna. It is open. So we can see predators and prey from afar. And we can hear them at great distances. This allowed our ancestral "thinkers to displace events in both time and space." (52b)
A bent tuft of grass, slowly raising its head, clocks the time since it was trampled; a distant call in known terrain says it is the there, and not the here, where attention should be paid. In open terrain, big mobile prey can escape easily and dangerous predators may be forced to strategize from a distance." (52b)
Before our species arrived upon the savanna, other species had played this game. They came and went as smarter competitors drove less clever ones away or into extinction. But we entered with some neurological advantages.
Because of little neural connections, our ancestors were well ahead of most of their kinfolk in the swamps, brush, and forest in terms of discerning the relationships between clues: the color of droppings, the presence of blood, the body language of a pregnant or nursing female, the intentionality of lions, and a thousand other important events that occurred around them. (52c, emphasis mine)
Our ancestors entered in a very primitive and vulnerable state.
But they brought with them the venerable skills of primate scheming, intrigue, and an arboreal and social agility that had characterized simians for millions of years. (52d)
There were important advantages we brought along or perfected: bipedality, larger size, the hand, and, of course, that calculating brain already bigger in ratio to body size than mostmammals possessed. (53a, emphasis mine)
Like other primates, we had the innate ability to learn by imitation. But soon this primitive sort of learning
was "transcended by the unique human capacity to reason abstractly. This ability may have arisen in the course of hunting." (53a, emphasis mine)

Perhaps we "called" or "scolded" other animals to determine their locations. Or perhaps we "read" their tracks, which involves deductive and hermeneutic capacities. Or we could have made other interpretive reasoningsbased on
the smell of urine, the age and composition of dung, the drying of bitten stems, or the overall pattern of footprints and traces in a day's experience. Escalated into a year's experience, animal migrations could be anticipated by the signs of plant phenology, the phases of the moon and sun, and the changing sounds of the year. (53b)
And unlike chimpanzees, we hunted. So effective were our techniques that we captured animals much larger than ourselves. This required social organization that might have originated in mutual scavenging.

In these open playing fields, the "catcher had to be smarter than the caught." (53d)
Those who fled had to understand the limits of distance, the intentions of others, and the ability to control the abyssal terror that itself would engulf them if they submitted to panic. Out of this immense drama among dozens of species of big mammals, herbivore and carnivore, came brains, mind, memory, and strategy -- spontaneous and conscious. (53-54)
Our ancestors did not at first rule this game-space. But our brains soon came to double the size of chimpanzees'.
They learned the open-country craft of the hunter and the cunning of the prey, for they were the stalking, tracking predator, the wary, elusive victim, and a passing opportunist in a reciprocity not only between hunter and hunted but within the group and, eventually, aspects of the self. (54b)
There were indirect consequences of our evolution as smart hunters. We formed societies.
Out of their peculiar vulnerability, their proclivity for seeking rock shelters, and their strong primate instincts for communication came the selection of a genome for thinking out events. (54bc)

Shepard, Paul. Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1998.

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