The most significant developments in society and technology have all occurred in the last 10,000 years or so. This includes the agricultural, scientific, industrial and digital revolutions, not to mention the dawn of religion, money and all the other symbolic concepts that separate homo sapiens from other species.
We don’t know much about human activities over 10,000 years ago. But we know that prehistoric people were genetically and intellectually equivalent to modern humans; research indicates that the level of intelligence required for major social and technological advances in history evolved as early as 60,000 years ago, when our ancestors began migrating from Africa.
This begs the question: what took so long? Why humans spent 50,000 years (or more) in seemingly peaceful prehistory – with hunter-gatherers living in exactly the same way across thousands of generations – before starting the trajectory that took us from cave paintings to (almost) cars self-driving in the blink of an eye comparative?
This question is at the heart of the savant paradox, a problem first formulated by British archaeologist and paleolinguist Colin Renfrew in a 1996 essay for Modeling the human mind titled “The Paradox of Wise Behavior: How to Test Potential?”
The wise paradox has since cemented itself as one of the great unsolved mysteries of human existence. It joins the Fermi paradox (named after the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi), which asks why the Earth appears to be the only precursor to life in our seemingly infinite Universe.
While there is no commonly accepted solution to the savant paradox, several neuroscientists and archaeologists have produced tantalizing hypotheses based on new discoveries relating to ancient humans, as well as the brains we inherited from them.
Preconceptions of prehistory
One possibility is that we haven’t given enough credence to examples of human development that took place in the distant past. Upon closer inspection, prehistory may not have been as tranquil or simplistic as it is often presented.
In their book The dawn of everythinganthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow dismiss the idea that hunter-gatherers lack clearly defined social hierarchies, an idea that dates back to the Enlightenment-era rivalry between Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Instead, Graeber and Wengrow argue that there is reason to believe that prehistoric social hierarchies were not only startlingly complicated but also diverse, with some isolated pockets of people resorting to extreme egalitarianism while others organized themselves along the lines of commodity slavery. mobile.
But that is not all. Archaeological studies have long suggested that complex speech and self-conscious reflection developed around 40,000 BC, which is also around the time homo sapiens AND Homo neanderthalensis they are thought to have coexisted in southwestern Europe.
These transitions were accompanied by a myriad of other new behaviors, including the refinement of stone tools from “scales” to blades, the production of artifacts and personal ornaments made from bone, antler, and ivory, and the emergence of naturalistic art in the modern – day France and Spain.
More recent discoveries suggest that some of these behaviors occurred even earlier, in Africa. Evidence of symbolic expression in the form of intentional patterns of red ochre, found in Blombos Cave, near Cape Town, dates back to 70,000 BC, while some experts argue that language developed 200,000 years ago.
At first glance, the use of language and stone tools may not seem as impressive as the invention of, say, the steam engine or the Internet. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as the baby steps taken by ancient humans allowed their modern descendants to run. When the oft-ignored developments of prehistoric times are given their due, the overall development of civilization begins to seem more linear than exponential, making the savant’s paradox less paradoxical.
However, there is another side to this coin: the one concerning the very nature of knowledge.
While our genetic intelligence has changed little in the last 60,000 years, the way we apply that intelligence has clearly changed. The agricultural revolution, which occurred between 12,000 and 9,000 BC, following the end of the last ice age, played a crucial – and even catalyst – role in that transformation.
Before agriculture, it was difficult for hunter-gatherers to preserve the knowledge they had accumulated over their individual lifetimes. Because they lived in small groups, were often killed while hunting, and had little contact with other tribes, information rarely spread to another tribe or generation.
David Christian, a Big Historian, has referred to modern primates as an analogy. When a skilled hunter among a herd of baboons dies, his hunting techniques are not passed down after his death. As a result, the ranks – and, by extension, the species – do not expand.
In retrospect, the agricultural revolution is important not only because it enabled human beings to live in larger groups, live longer, and establish lasting contacts with other communities, but also because all of these things made it easier for us to preserve and pass on the knowledge.
In their work, scholars such as Christian refer to the ability to preserve and transmit knowledge as collective learning. Besides being the key to solving the savant paradox, it may very well be the overarching theme of human history in general.
Christian certainly seems to think so. As does Renfrew, who in one of his many essays on the subject writes that, since civilization emerged long after the biological basis of intelligence, the emphasis must be placed on “the socialization process aspects of shared experience” .
The centrality of the agricultural revolution is reflected in the archaeological record, which shows that monetary systems and organized religion—two cornerstones of society—didn’t come into being on a large scale until ancient humans began farming.
It is worth noting that the link between population density and human development also goes back to prehistoric times, with the same document showing that Homo Ergaster toolmaking improved in quality and variety when early humans lived closest together, but stagnated as they spread out.
Renfrew, for his part, concludes that the agricultural revolution – which would usher in the first large-scale societies – must have activated “special mechanisms” of intelligence and behavior whose potential, while “inherent in the genome”, had remained hitherto sleepy.
The gossip trap
Scholars are constantly devising new ways of looking at the savants’ paradox. An original perspective was recently outlined by the American neuroscientist Erik Hoel in his award-winning essay The gossip trapin turn a review by Graeber and Wengrow The dawn of everything.
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In his essay, Hoel also questions assumptions about the distant past. The discovery of prehistoric developments such as beadmaking and rock art, he argues, does not solve the savant’s paradox, it only makes later developments more perplexing. He also doubts that the agricultural revolution was delayed by the last ice age, as early farmers worked in extreme environmental conditions.
For his solution to the paradox of the wise man, Hoel resorts to the aforementioned comparisons with the Fermi paradox. Since the latter is often explained by the existence of a “Great Filter” – i.e. if aliens exist, they won’t contact us until humanity is more advanced – the former may have something to do with a “Great Trap ” which prevented civilization from escaping prehistory.
As the title of his essay suggests, Hoel identifies this trap as humanity’s propensity for gossip, which would play a large part in small hunter-gatherer tribes where everyone knew each other personally. In the anthropological literature, gossip is described as a “leveling mechanism” that prevents individuals from gaining too much power.
Evidence of this mechanism can be found in prehistory, when, according to Graeber and Wengrow, “talented hunters [were] systematically mocked and belittled,” as well as in modern times, when, in one example Hoel cites, well-heeled Haitian farmers will buy several smaller fields instead of one large tract of land so as not to antagonize their peers.
Once people started living in larger groups, informal relationships based on gossip and popularity gave way to formal institutions whose authority is not simply vested in their social reputation. Civilization, concludes Hoel, is really “a superstructure that levels the leveling mechanisms, freeing us from the trap of gossip”.
However, Hoel suggests that social media may be leading us back into the gossip trap. The basic idea is that social media is resurrecting “our innate form of government,” which is pure social power. Social media is able to do this because it facilitates the transmission of gossip like no other technology has before, allowing virtually anyone to gossip about someone else. This echoes the nature of humanity’s small group beginnings.
“A clear sign that you’re living in a gossip trap is when the primary mode of resolving disputes becomes social pressure,” she writes in her essay. “And almost everywhere you look lately, it’s like social media is wearing a leather suit made of our laws, institutions and governments. Doesn’t it seem, just in the last decade, that raw social power has surpassed anything resembling formal power?
He adds later, “…with the advent of social media and the subsequent triumph of spreading gossip about Dunbar’s number, we may have simply inadvertently performed the equivalent of summoning an ancient god.”
Alongside collective learning and its relationship to the agricultural revolution, the gossip trap provides another piece to the puzzle of the savants’ paradox.