The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Human Intelligence


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In the book “The Descent of Man” by Charles Darwin, Darwin discusses how humans evolved into the most dominant specie to ever exist. We have grown intellectually at an astonishing rate. We have used our curiosity and imagination in very unique ways to find and build ways to help us adapt to the environment. Humans used these two components to build tools that helped us grow intellectually and most importantly, survive. Darwin’s examination of our use of tools and inquisitive imagination shows how powerful they are in the evolution of mental powers.

At the age of 22, Charles Darwin was invited to travel in the HMS Beagle as a naturalist. He spent 5 years traveling the world while collecting a ton of notes and observations about animal and plant life. This voyage was the best opportunity he had in his life. It helped him gather evidence to support his theory on evolution. However, Darwin waited more than 20 years before publishing his theory. He knew that the public would ridicule his radical ideas. In 1859, he published his book “On the Origin of Species”, but he didn’t publish his ideas of human evolution until 1871 when he released his book “The Descent of Man”. It sparked a ton of controversy because he literally argued that humans were animals. This also led to religious and science implications as expected. In his book, Darwin challenged the way society thought about religion by taking a more scientific approach. He published a gargantuan amount of evidence that he has gathered his whole life to argue how we have evolved as human beings.Darwin explains how humans relied on cognition for survival. We built stone tools in which we used to scavenge meat. We invented many tools, traps, weapons and we were capable in using them creatively in a variety of ways which includes obtaining food, defending ourselves and killing or catching preys. Darwin mentions a couple of inventions such as the rafts or canoes that we used for fishing or traveling to close-by islands which were “direct results of the development of his powers of observation, memory, curiosity, imagination and reason” (Darwin 84).

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Humans were very creative and inventive. Humans had an incredible sense of curiosity that allowed them to be as ingenious as they are today. For example, Darwin took a stuffed and coiled-up snake into the monkey-house to test how the monkeys would react to seeing a snake surrounding their area. At first, they were frightened and even cried. However, after a while, all the monkeys gathered in a circle and started staring at the snake. They later approached the stuffed snake and examined it. Darwin attempted this experiment again, but this time with a real living snake. The results were quite shocking: one of the monkeys immediately ran to the compartment in which the snake was placed and opened the paper bag a little to peak in and see what’s inside, but after he peaked, he immediately ran away. This monkey took a ton of risks. What if the snake bit and killed him? The monkey wanted to know why there was a foreign object in his surrounding and he wasn’t afraid to go up to it. His curiosity outweighed his fear from the foreign object. Darwin emphasizes that this is one the big reasons why humans have become more advanced than any other specie on earth.

To this point, Darwin discussed the power and impact of curiosity on mankind and how it pushes us to go into zones that we are not familiar or comfortable with. However, there is a key component that is still missing and that is imagination. Curiosity without imagination is worthless. As Darwin puts it “The imagination is one of the highest prerogatives of man. By this faculty he unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results” (Darwin 121). Darwin provides specific examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of imagination such as elephants in India that break branches off from trees to use them to drive away the flies. Another example are monkeys which had weak teeth, used stones to break open nuts. Furthermore, Darwin asserts that they even hid the stone and not allow anybody else to touch it. This demonstrates how monkeys used their imaginations to condition themselves to seeing stones as a symbol of a tool that they frequently used as an alternative to break open nuts due to the fact that they have weak teeth. This shows how our imagination have given us the chance to adapt in our environment very creatively.

As a result of our incredible development in imagination and curiosity, we have been capable of learning quickly and thinking outside of the box. As an example, Darwin talks about the monkey which was taught to open the lid of a large box with a stick. After the monkey learned this specific skill, he was able to use the same tool as a lever to move heavy bodies. This demonstrates how monkeys were proficient in critical thinking. They did not use the same tool for the same exact job, but rather applied the knowledge that they’ve learned to create new purposes or uses for the tool. Adding to his argument, Darwin claims to have seen an orang using a blanket or straw to cover and protect herself when she thought that she was going to be whipped. This is yet another example proving how our creative thinking has allowed us to thinkoutside the box. Imagine that the orang did in fact get whipped, the use of a foreign object could have protected herself from serious injuries, or possibly death. The orang can now mate and reproduce because the whipping could not have severely impacted her fitness by using protection. The blanket or foreign object represents an adaptation that we have created to help us thrive in the world we live in.

At this point, you might be thinking “well how the heck were humans able to evolve into the beasts they are today?” “What made them have this much power if they all were animals?” Well Darwin and recent scientific evidence may have a couple of answers for you. Darwin states that “Man could not have attained his present dominant position in the world without the use of his hands” (Darwin 88). Humans had some physiological advantages that carried them through evolution. One of the biggest physiological advantages that humans have is the precision of their hand. Our use of tools, imagination and curiosity, as discussed earlier, have all contributed to what Darwins calls “the perfect hand”. Darwin asserts that hammering with precision, throwing with incredible aim and forming a barbed spear all require an exquisite development of the hand. However, this development did not happen in the span of a few years, but rather thousands and thousands of years. Ever since humans have started building and using tools, they have been developing their hands to adapt to such conditions. Constantly relying on the hand for adaptation and survival has allowed it to become stronger and evolve throughout the years.

Moving on from Darwin, scientific evidence proves that one of the main reasons why humans have become so intelligent is because of our extremely well developed cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is a layer in the human brain that allows us to create tools, acquire complex skills, use language and live in social groups. In animals, the cerebral cortex is smooth. However, in humans, it is wrinkled and folded. As a result, the wrinkles and folds create a much larger surface area and size which increases the capacity for thinking, remembering and learning. The cerebral cortex has grown so much that it covers about 80% of the brain’s weight. This explains why humans are capable of storing a massive amount of information in their brains.

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