We, humans, go through our lives using two completely different mental systems. One is ancient, inherited from our animal ancestors, “algorithmic”, always active ( I will talk about it shortly), and the other system- which is very, very separate and new, just about 50,000 thousand years old.
To illustrate this shocking concept I will use a metaphor and a parable.
If you ask what is a hybrid car, the answer is very simple: it uses two engines, sometimes it is electric and sometimes an old-fashioned combustion engine.
Many scientists think that a similar metaphor can be useful to understand our human mind.
It would be appropriate to leave this to science, but in the 21st century, the subject of human nature is very important for our survival as a species.
As we desperately try to avert the doom and gloom of the environmental disaster, this metaphor can unexpectedly bring a glimmer of hope, the way to work, and chances of survival. ( “Rome conference or die” talks a lot about our niche crisis).
Simple animals have brains full of evolutionary beneficial algorithms, like codes, and instructions of “if so it is good to do this”, but “if that, it is better to do something else”.
These algorithms are different from computer codes invented by a bunch of geeks- they were selected over literally billions of years by evolutionary mechanisms.
They include everything that we feel is right, good, and real.
They aim to help us to 1. Survive
3. Protect our genes
They aim at keeping the species’ niches as strong as possible.
So, these instructions are really, really smart.
Our brains are full of them, it is why our brains are so huge. They direct all automatic functions, breathing, digesting, seeing, fighting covid, fearing covid, disliking covid vaccines, balancing these two, and many other instinctual functions.
But when you meet a friend, suddenly you are piggybacking on “great to see her” or “who is she?” a completely new system. You chat. The language. These ancient algorithms would not do.
Why? They are big and clumsy. And the more complex they are and the more branches these instructions branch themselves into, the clumsier they become. But the crucial difference between these two systems (Merlin Donald in ” A mind so rare“calls ours the first hybrid brain) is that: The algorithms create the world for the organism that is its own, it can not be shared- it is why animals learn poorly- and teach poorly. My hypothesis suggests that like animals, hominids with all their intelligence and culture did not have symbolic language. They were ready for it though.
So, they did not have “I” or” you” or “self”, they did not have” things” in their communications, no creativity, no imagination, no mathematics. It is actually extremely difficult for us to imagine and describe with words living in that pre-linguistic world, animal algorithms world.
About a hundred years ago Jacob von Uexkull ( A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans:1934), imagined and described the life of a tick, he called its world UMWELT.- perception and action, perception and action, etc, etc. Then in 1974, Thomas Nagel wrote: “What it is like to be a bat” saying basically-” we do not know, we need new concepts or theories”.
Thus a Parable: A dying Neanderthal is rescued by some women from the Sapiens band.
The time is about 50,000 years ago. The Neandertals were decimated by climate and by technologically advanced Sapiens. The content of our DNA suggests that very few Sapiens (10 thousand or less) and no other hominids survived this period after Mount Tuba’s and Campi Flegrei’s eruptions.
But soon (after a few thousand years ) these survivors flourish, populating Africa, Europe, the Fertile Crescent, and then the rest of the globe.
Pre-linguistic Sapiens -maybe helped by Neanderthals, maybe by extended childhood- (see below)- were inventing symbolic language, selfhood, and shared reality.
The Last Neanderthal
Hunger. Hunger and freezing.
The clouds are lower, bad, it is going to be more snow.
It’s getting dark but need to get to the bottom of the mountain, there can be a cave, or at least a rock overhanging. Can make a camp there. A camp?
What kind of camp? There is nobody here.
Again cold black despair. Damn, there was the son, a wonderful, strong boy.
Is gone, gone, gone, did not withstand the cold.
Hungry froze, died.
Burial in despair, crying digging the bloody snow. It was two or three days ago.
Earlier (the Moon was full), it was the Woman.
She was not eating so the son could have her food.
She died , frozen, still wonderful, incredible.
She explained, she showed where to go. She said, showed: “ go, go, need to go following the Sun”
“ But there could be Others. No strength, no people to fight, they will kill.”
She said again and again:
“No worry, go, go , following the Sun, no worry, no fear about the Others, need to follow the Sun”
She died, need to go, go further.
Tiredness, hunger, freezing.
The wind goes to the bones, everything hurts.
Step after step, step after step.
No more food? Chewing my sheepskin, my leather belt, ate some rotten crumbs at the bottom of the sack.
Finished , and nothing was left. Only step after step, following the direction where there was the Sun.
Now it is getting dark, getting even colder, the wind.
Still walking… still walking?
The Woman and the Son are already here?
Darker and darker.
A tiny light.
There is a light, red light.
Fire. No, can not be, there was no storm or lighting since the last New Moon.
But there is, there is, something flickering like a fire. Our people? There are no our people there. Others!
Need to get there, fire means warmth.
They will kill, no strength to fight, barely walking.
What to do? Fear and hunger. The Woman says “go, go.”
So, step after step, step after step, whatever…
Maybe, possible to approach stealthily, steal food? Is this possible?
Fear, terrible fear.
Shadows of Others, now visible. Women?? A child??
Falling in the ditch, thud. Terrible pain, in the leg.
Now warm, really warm. Difficult to breathe, cough, cough it out. Spit out the phlegm, better.
Run!, need to run! No. The body doesn’t move, and this bad pain in the leg.
So, crawling, maybe? The cave. The Other. An old woman, showing something.
“ Don’t run”? Yes, that’s it “ Don’t run”
Aha. “Lie down” and “Leg, no good”.
“Eat?” she gestures.
Cough, fever, everything hurts. “Drink, drink”.
She repeats the gesture ” Drink”,
And: “Yes, wait”
Warm drinking! warm and good, salty?-Throat burning.
That’s it, thanks,
The night feels hot, the pain in the leg, can’t run. The Moon is full! so many days?
How come? Sleep.
The Others scream. What?
A young Other with the spear! Fear. He wants to kill. The old woman screams the child cries, and an old Other came, screams. Pushing young killer away. An old woman gestures, “no fear, no worry, you are mine”.
The child, a little girl, laughs, and brings “sweet and tart” food. Very good.
Another woman. Beautiful. She gives warm meat, ah, so good, so beautiful, so good.
Walking slowly, with pain, but better.
There is nobody around, only Little Girl.
Hearing something terrible, oh, so well known, terrible killer on the four legs. Sensing it, smelling, feeling its ugly breath. Even if it tries to crawl quietly. The little girl. It is ready to pounce on her.
Need to be saved, need to live. A spear is here, pain, pain. Only slim chance, all my strength, NOW.
A huge shadow hit in the air. Now this sharp stone and break its eyes, its skull, HIT, HIT,
Its claws tear stomach, ouch, and it is dead. The little girl screaming, runs to me, blood everywhere.
The others running here, the terrible four-legged lying pierced with a spear, skull broken.
Old woman, the Beautiful, crying, screaming. Thanking??
The Moon is New, how many days??
The stomach wound is still terrible, oozing. Sleep.
The little girl gives “sweet and tart’. She laughs, and dances.
The Beautiful teaches Little Girl. It is good.
The Little Girl shows, pointing with her little finger: “this?”
The Beautiful responds “ apple”.
She turns and looks at me: “Call it apple”
The Beautiful laughs, falling in love: “yes, apple”.
The end of the parable.
We met our “last Neanderthal”, he lives on instincts, the ancient and newer algorithms. The new science, “archaeogenetics” tells us that neanderthals split from homo ancestry about 500,000 years ago, just before symbolic language was developed. But in the last few lines of the parable, he discovers “me” and “you” and “apple” (a thing), and very soon, I am sure he will try to have as many apples as possible to impress The Beautiful (and the Old Woman).
It could have happened for the first time with the help of our Hero and the Beautiful, but it occurs in every human infant who learns shared reality, names, the language.
Every human baby is born with inherited instincts, similar to these of the primitive hominid.
But she is surrounded, she is “bathed” in human language, names, things, people, and actions.
As our Hero tries to understand the budding language of Sapiens, every human infant begins to understand some words (around 3 to 6 months of age) then the objects and names merge into Piaget’s “object permanence” (around 9 months), and then she starts to point and practice first words.
Back to the parable: Where did the “apple” come from? It was still like a miracle or an extremely rare event. Unlikely modern infants, the Little Girl was not surrounded by human speech and names of objects. Instead, she was exposed to useful responses and skills she had to practice and imitate. The Beautiful could have used the word ”apple” before, as a part of an instinctual action-related expression, like “going to pick up apples”. Teaching the child was pretty normal, but teaching our hero and getting his understanding- was an incredible breakthrough. In the end, these three ancient people, the Neanderthal, Beautiful; and Little Girl shared the piece of the algorithm, the concept, the name, the thing- an apple.
It was the magic of translation- the magic of naming, and we could imagine that new words and concepts of self “I” and “You “ and other simple “things” followed and streamed like an avalanche.
The language with objects and people opened so far forbidden domains of ownership and calculating. And the hominids were (at last) ready for this critical jump, they were not only ultra-social but also “ultra” engaged with material culture (Colin Renfrew, Prehistory). This was the beginning of the world we now call “reality”. It was a different world than ticks or bats… and hominids’. It was a uniquely human reality shared in this social circle and soon shared by all humans.
When in 1769 Cook’s expedition encountered Haush people on Tierra Fuego they could use gestures, “play charades” and understand each other ( see “The Language Game” by Christiansen and Chater). Both groups had language, the “things”, the “I “and “you” concepts invented by their ancestors; the last Neanderthal, Little Girl, and Beautiful.
This concept challenges the belief deep-seated in our collective unconsciousness, an image of a human being as a smarter animal. When you open the skull you have the same brain as an animal but bigger. When scientists look into its function, again it is the same but smarter, more complex, with more memory, better thinking, etc.
Morals, spirituality, and understanding are all better and deeper than animals. When I and my cat are looking through the window we see the same world. When we err, we go back to “primitive” behavior and we act like “animals”.
The consequences of this unspoken myth are profound. It implies that we can’t change, can’t be blamed, and can’t be responsible. The forces that created this mess are beyond us, whether divine or “in our genes.” Or most likely: “whatever”. Even religious people who do not believe in the evolution of animals into humans see the human world as essentially the same as animals but more complex.
So, the new paradigm, the hybrid mind: the ancient and newer algorithms are working constantly, the instinctual world separated for each of us, but when we talk, write, think creatively, when we act consciously, we piggyback new reality, a new World built in the infancy shared by every human, and by humans only.
This is how interdependent we are and how vulnerable is this new part of our nature.