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Evolution of the Human Mind (Understanding Ourselves)


Many conflicts between countries, cultures, and individuals occur because we have different belief systems and ideas of right and wrong. Unlike animals though, how is it that human beings seem to have so many different beliefs and interpretations of the world? We have hundreds of religions, we discriminate in unlimited ways, and we have so many perceptions of what is right and wrong. Our diverse beliefs increase the probability of conflict between us and can make it more difficult for us to work together. Quite clearly human beings demonstrate more complex belief systems than animals as shown for example by our many religious beliefs. Let's now look at how the belief systems of human beings are different from animals. If we can better understand how we are different we may be able to reduce conflicts resulting from our diverse belief systems.

Abstract thought and our ability to reason

The physical world is the world where we live in the moment with no thoughts of the future or the past. It is the world of matter and energy that you can reach out and touch. When I think of the physical world I imagine a creature like a bird in the moment, singing in the forest, or possibly a rabbit eating grass in a meadow. It is the world we feel when we dive into the ocean and are revived by the tingling sensation of cold water on our bodies. In that moment when we plunge into the water, if we had concerns in our mind of the past or future, they are erased for a moment of immediate sensation. It is the world of "now".

Now consider the world of abstract thought. Consider the following words: conceive, imagine, hypothesize, postulate, extrapolate, theorize, interpolate, and even dream. To me, all these words describe the world that we create beyond the physical world of matter and energy that we are a part of. Our world of abstract thought allows us to conceive what might be beyond the immediate physical world. Abstract thought is like a map in our minds with all our beliefs as the different locations. We actually exist in the "now" which is our current location but our beliefs are all the possible places we imagine we can go. There is no certainty about what we will find if we visit them but they are all the possible places (or beliefs) that we can imagine.

Our ability of abstract thought allows us to reason between what was before, what is now, and what might be. We experience the concept of time in order to connect our thoughts of the past and future. It is the world of abstract thought for which we create probabilities of the things we believe might be, come to be, or even what we believe may have been. For example, one may ask oneself "what is the probability that I will have a good business meeting tomorrow?" Abstract thought allows us to reason, be intelligent, and create our technologies. It allows us to conceive what might come to be, which in some cases is accurate, but in many other cases is far from what actually occurs. How did we gain the ability of abstract thought that seems to set us apart from most other creatures?

Here is one answer that might be the case. As humans evolved it was absolutely essential to "conceive" the relationships between matter and energy so that we could manipulate our environment thereby creating our complex technologies. We learned to "conceive", "imagine", and to "simulate" ideas before actually implementing them, not so different from the example discussed of the chimp finding a stick to eat termites. Imagine a caveman being able to conceive the creation of a spear even before making it. In realizing something sharp at the end of the stick was useful in hunting, the caveman conceives combining a stick with a piece of sharp flint, attaching the flint to the stick with some sinew from an animal it had hunted, then creating the spear. He then imagines a device to hurl the spear, maybe a bow. Yes, a bow and arrow.

My suggestion is that our minds became able to recall our experiences and concepts from memory, combine them, and allow us to imagine the infinite possibilities that might come from combining them. This became the human mapping system we call intelligence. It has become a part of all of us. It allows us to remember the past, connect it to the present, and extrapolate to the future to create technologies and of course an unlimited number of belief systems. It may even be what allows us to experience the concept of time as part of our mapping system. After all, at the very moment when you run into the waves in the ocean do you really think of "time”? I think probably not.

As we continued to evolve we came to see the world through different eyes than other animals. It was as if simpler creatures lived in the moment looking at the world 2-dimensionally where one simple action just led to another. As we evolved though not only could we see the space in front of us like other animals as we moved along in our world, but we came to see a type of depth, almost another dimension. That depth was the multitude of possible scenarios we could imagine might be in the future. For example a simpler animal might just go to the river each day to drink but we might go there imagining first what it would be like if it was rainy out, if it was sunny, or if our friends were down at the river as well. We could even envision, project, extrapolate, or conceive what it might be down at the river in a day from now, or a week, or a month. We began to be able to conceptualize our possible situations beyond just experiencing them in the moment. We learned to give probability estimates to what we conceived might be. In a sense we were able to extrapolate and map out the world around us in our minds without actually physically experiencing it. As we developed our ability to conceptualize different possible future scenarios we applied the concept of "time" to organize our abstract thoughts. For example, scenario 1 might occur in a day from now, scenario 2 in 2 days, and so on. Unlike simpler creatures, we even began to imagine scenarios of what might happen after we die. We were now able to live beyond the moment. In our minds we could interpolate infinite situations and possibilities by combining and connecting all our past experiences and memories.


Our ability of abstract thought has allowed us to do amazing things. An artist can imagine a beautiful landscape and then transfer his conceptualization from his mind to a painting for everyone to see. An engineer can design a building on paper and even use "science" to determine what materials to use and how thick they need to be in order to ensure the greatest strength for the building, even before starting construction. Going further, the early cavemen drawing images of bison on cave walls, their Sun Gods, or any images with meaning that they could conceive may have been the beginning of extending their imagination to new unlimited places.

As human beings we can just about conceive anything. I can for example imagine that there is a planet like Earth just outside of our solar system that no one has found. It is populated with dinosaurs and it is much like the Earth was when the dinosaurs existed. I can "conceptualize" this and you can interpret my idea and decide if you will agree or not. If a scientist agrees with me then you might be more prone to agree. If 90% of the world agrees you might think it even more probable. Going further, if someone you respect and trust who always seems to be right tells you this it might seem more probable to the point that you might label it as "true".

If I can so easily imagine the dinosaur idea mentioned above and put it forth to anyone, it comes as no surprise that we as human beings are exposed to and must interpret and decipher a virtually infinite number of "conceptions" in our lives. In addition, we ourselves can create a virtually infinite number of "conceptions". As we create these abstract thoughts our imaginations can run off and allow us to reach places in our mind that no other animal can go. Like a child reading a fairy tale we can find great comfort and peace in our conceptions but at the same time our ability to conceive can cause us to create inaccurate beliefs causing us to get in trouble in ways that animals do not.

For example, I have never heard of two lions fighting over what they imagined the next world might look like after they die. I have never heard of two lions fighting over what they imagined would happen to them after they die. Yes, they fight over their mates, over their offspring, and for resources like food and shelter but I have not heard of them fighting over such things as their religious beliefs. For example, one individual may believe their image of life after death is completely different than that of another individual. This can lead to conflict that would not be found in other animals. Such conflicts over religious beliefs often occur between countries and cultures. Regardless of whether a specific belief is true or not, I believe as human beings we need to observe that our unique ability of abstract thought, leading to our diverse beliefs, may often lead to unnecessary conflicts.

As a result of our ability to reason and conceptualize we imagine infinite relationships between objects and events around us for which we cannot help but create an overwhelming need for answers. What lies ahead in our future? Why am I here? Why is the sky blue? The point I want to make is that, unlike simpler animals we create an endless number of questions for ourselves and we end up needing answers to these complex questions. Hence we are very vulnerable to accepting inaccurate assumptions and misleading beliefs from those who might claim to have the answers to our questions. Often their intent may only be that they are looking for power and control. For example, consider the Jim Jones Massacre where followers of his beliefs became a part of a mass suicide. This obviously is an extreme example, but it shows clearly how we might sacrifice our existence in our physical world for beliefs that are impressed upon us of what might be better worlds than the physical one in which we exist. Any belief system that might lead us to conceive that there is a better world worth sacrificing one's existence in the physical world in which we live, can clearly be detrimental to survival.


In conclusion, our unique human ability to "conceptualize" can leave us vulnerable to beliefs that might cause conflict between us and cause us to harm each other, the Earth, and ourselves. Only we can choose which beliefs we wish to live by. My hope is that, with respect for our ideologies, that we recognize that our unique evolved ability of abstract thought may be part of the cause for human beings having such diverse beliefs. These beliefs can lead to unnecessary conflicts in a world where conflicts have become more dangerous due to technological side effects.

Conceptions of the past

I have talked a lot about how human beings can "conceive" diverse beliefs leaving them open to conflicts rarely found with animals. It also seems that human beings find more conflict through their inability to forget the past. Our enhanced capability of memory compared to other animals has also increased the probability of conflict between us. For example, if two sea lions fight over a space in the rocks, in a few moments their dispute is over and they accept their new positions. With human beings though, when we lose things that we value in conflicts, we often "remember" the dispute and continue to fight for months, years, decades, or even centuries later. I should also qualify this point by noting that our agreements over the past can also prevent us from having unnecessary conflicts as well.

An example of a current day conflict is the Israeli–Palestinian conflict which has gone on for over 100 years. With no comment on the right and wrong behind the conflict, I think it is fair to observe that animals would probably not have carried on so long simply because they would have forgotten the reasons behind the conflict and accepted the territories they ended up with. I hope that parties associated with such conflicts can continue to persevere at resolving their differences by reexamining the reasons behind them. Specifically, is it possible that a lot of discrimination and anger over which many conflicts occur between countries is due to some of the unique ways that we are different from other creatures. Can we separate the discrimination and hate that has grown over generations that fuels many current day conflicts from the real immediate reasons for conflicts? Can we then see each other all as human beings and attempt to work together over the territories or resources being disputed and find a way to apportion them to everyone's benefit, regardless of the past? This is especially important in the presence of our new technologies like nuclear weapons that have a greater impact on the world outside of the zones of conflict.

I find it interesting how in North America for example, before the Europeans came, the Native Indians inhabited the land. Essentially, North America was invaded and ownership was transferred, but the original inhabitants may never forget how the territory was taken from them. Animals would long have forgotten. For example, a buffalo that still might roam the plains in North America would have no memory of the past to be able to feel remorse against the fact that its species was virtually made extinct due to the new residents of North America.

Regarding conceptions of the past, I am suggesting that human beings not only are more vulnerable to having conflicts because of their diverse beliefs but they also are vulnerable to conflicts because they continue to fight for the "way it was" making it extremely difficult to "forgive and forget".

Our inherent need to question the world around us


Imagine after hours of crossing the plains an elephant arrives to the river where it immerses itself, cools its body, and quenches its thirst. That moment for the elephant involves no thought of the past or the future, just the pleasure of feeling the cool water on it's body. The elephant is in the moment. Now imagine a tribesman who also comes down to the river. He too enjoys the same pleasure but he looks to the left into the hills from where the rich body of pleasure runs from. He cannot help but ask himself "What is the source of the river"? He then looks to the right and asks himself "Where does this river flow to"? Where does it end? I doubt very much that the elephant stops to ponder these two questions. For the tribesman it is his nature to ask such questions. The tribesman carries with him the quality of abstract thought - an inherent desire to create a mental map of the world around him.

Now imagine the river as life itself. In the same way that the tribesman might ask himself "Where am I from and how did I get here?" just as he asked himself from where the river flowed. Likewise he asks himself "Where am I going and what will happen to me after I am gone?" just as he wonders where the river runs to as it leaves the valley. It seems that as part of our ability of abstract thought we cannot help but seek answers to questions such as these. They are like a void within us that must be filled. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What will happen to me after I am gone? I do not expect that the elephant would take the time to stop and ponder such questions in the same way. It seems that our need to question and understand the world is part of our condition. In so, it can leave us very vulnerable and open to accept belief systems that may not be accurate representations of the physical reality that we exist in. Unlike simpler animals, this can increase the probability of conflict between us.

It all follows, that in our best interest to minimize conflict between us, individuals, cultures, and countries need to remain open minded regarding their beliefs and try to be more tolerant of the beliefs of others when at all possible. Further it is very important that the interpretations of reality that we choose, our beliefs, be accurate representations of the physical world. As the side effects of our technologies have a greater impact it will become a luxury to interpret the world inaccurately. In the past we may have been able to get away with inaccurate belief systems, but in the future the cost of misinterpreting reality may be significantly greater.

As a simple example, if an asteroid were going to collide with a planet a choice could be made to act and destroy it. Some, based on their religion though, might believe that they will be saved from it or, if they do perish, they will go to a better place anyway. Hence they might take no action to avoid or prevent the impact of the asteroid. Regardless of whether the beliefs of the religion are true or not such an interpretation of reality would likely threaten their physical existence. One could simply imagine two planets in such a situation where one life form chose to react to the asteroid and the other chose to ignore the consequences. In all likelihood those on the planet that reacted to the collision of the asteroid would survive hence they would endure in the physical reality they live in. Further, their "interpretation of reality" and their ideas of "right and wrong" that enabled them to make the choices they did to survive would survive with them.

Summary on the evolution of the human mind

As human beings evolved and we learned to manipulate matter and energy to create technologies to help us survive we gained the ability of "abstract thought" and "reason". Though our intelligence and abstract thought enables us to benefit from the creation of complex technologies they have also caused us to create infinite belief systems to interpret reality, often in the form of religions. Whether they are true or not, we have become vulnerable to conflict over these different interpretations of the world. We can fight over diverse beliefs, we can fight over the past as we remember it, and we can fight over the future as we think it might be.

I think the lesson for humanity is that because we have evolved to have such diverse beliefs (e.g. religions, ego, and discrimination), we must accept that even with its benefits, our diverse beliefs can also be seen as a possible flaw making us more vulnerable to conflict than other animals. We must break free from our old habits of finding conflict over our beliefs and acknowledge this vulnerability. When we are about to fight or disagree we need to ask ourselves "Is the conflict we are facing one that we can put behind us?" When all seems lost can we still ask ourselves "Is there a way to resolve this problem without killing thousands of human beings and other life?" Can we learn to accept the past for the promise of a better future?

We can always look into the past at our wars that occurred over religion, discrimination, or conflicting belief systems and say they do not matter. They do matter though because they are the actions that define the world we live in. They set the precedents for the future and as our capacity to impact each other and the planet continues to grow through our technologies, our choices in handling conflicts will matter more. We must look upon ourselves objectively and recognize the unique characteristics in ourselves that cause unnecessary conflicts between us. We can then move on to making the choices that will be the best for the future of Life and Earth. As we make these choices it will be more important than ever that they are based on accurate interpretations of reality, given our technologies will have a greater and greater impact on the world.

Elephant Image courtesy of pakorn at

© 2015