The Limitations of Homo sapiens

If you’ve ever had a dog, you no doubt have experienced walking them on a leash and getting wrapped around a pole or tree. You go on one side; the dog heads for the other. Your dog isn’t stupid, but she doesn’t understand the concept of two objects (you and the dog) being tethered. It does not compute. So she doesn’t see that pole as a problem.

Likewise, if you put a treat in a bucket and set it beside another bucket and release the dog, she will choose the correct bucket with the treat. But if you hide the bucket with a treat under a cloth and place it next to a cloth on the ground, your dog doesn’t know what to do. It’s obvious to you that the larger object is the bucket, while the flat cloth on the ground is not. But a dog’s brain just doesn’t work that way.

There are many examples of animals having certain kinds of intelligence: spatial awareness, memory, counting. Corvids and other birds are quite adept at some of these. But all animals have areas of cognitive limitation — and that includes us, Homo sapiens. We have defined and quantified so many areas of cognition and applied it to animals (who either have or lack the skill), but what about cognition that is beyond what evolution has endowed us with? A dog does not know that she lacks the concept of tethering. What sorts of understanding do we lack that we remain in the dark about?

The many problems in the world are due, I think, in large part to our lack of understanding what we do not understand. We have created technology that is capable of destroying all that we know and is also capable of lifting us up beyond our basest instincts, but we lack the skills to deal with any of it adequately.

On the negative side, mankind has always been capable of extreme tribalism, violence, and atrocity. That instinct has culminated in the power to obliterate everything. Mankind is also highly social, and we have developed relationships with many animals and created the ability to connect over great distances. We are also prone to being fearful and greedy, so our societies reflect this with the chasm between the haves and have nots. Sharing is not always easy for us, in spite of our Kindergarten teachers.

It isn’t surprising that in the 21st century, at the so-called “apex of civilization” (doubtful), we are still tribal, suspicious, fearful, and greedy overall. We still war with “them,” we still try to keep the best cookies for ourselves, many prefer superstition to science (antivaxxers, Creationists, et al), and we have been wholly inadequate to the challenge of crises on a global scale. Yes, we have the capacity to see and record that we have caused the climate to change, perhaps irrevocably, and that continuing to extract finite resources for an infinite greed is doomed to fail. But the people who have benefited from this trajectory remain unwilling to see beyond their next paycheck, and they have convinced many that all is well. Inaction is so much easier. Future sight, the ability to act and plan for the sake of our children and grandchildren, is a skill that western civilization has not cultivated, although many so-called “primitives” are quite good at it.

Do we possess the consciousness to move beyond destruction, greed, and tribalism? Is this an understanding that we can acquire? The history of spiritual masters suggest that we all can. But will we choose to?

In the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, young children were presented with a marshmallow and a choice: you may eat this now, or you can wait and receive two later. The kids who chose to wait were exercising delayed gratification, which required more discipline. If we view mankind as a whole, we must collectively acquire the discipline to delay personal immediate gratification (for example, in the form of obscene profits that contribute to global calamity) for a reward that is ill-defined and that we may never personally experience. It is the equivalent of planting a tree for your grandchildren to enjoy. A healthy planet, greater equality, peace. These things are not profitable in the capitalist sense, so can we place a greater value on things that do not line our pocketbooks?

Our challenges can be met, but we are now required to stretch beyond our limitations, to cultivate skills that have long been dormant, or unused, or even undiscovered. If we can do this, we might yet become a truly intelligent species. If we cannot, then we are surely nature’s idiots.

By —, CC BY-SA 2.0,

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