Our outstanding ability to solve abstract problems evolved because it is ‘adaptive’. It has enabled us to adapt our lives, so that we can survive and breed in a range of – sometimes very hostile – environments. And our ability to solve abstract problems enables us to dominate other life-forms wherever we encounter them.
Even though we are poorly armed with teeth and claws, we can still out-compete all other animals for resources. And we can exploit or destroy other animals almost at will.
Evolution has blessed us… hasn’t it?
The blunt instrument
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Evolution is a blunt instrument. Humans compete with one another, too – and our vast problem-solving ability has enabled us to solve the problem of destroying vast numbers of other humans we don’t like. In the 21st century, humans have the ability to destroy themselves completely because of their problem-solving ability. The ‘dumb’ cockroach could never achieve a species wide self-destruction.
Problem-solving ability also brings humans the capacity to over-think problems – and create the many of the problems that we often call mental disorders. Uniquely, humans have phobias, guilt and shame. No non-human animal on the planet is troubled by such problems – except the tiny number that have come into close contact with humans.
So, our evolutionary blessing, our problem-solving ability, is double-edged.
That widely-used phrase, ‘the ascent of man’ disguises a fundamental truth about evolution. It is always an experiment. Our high intelligence (the ability to solve abstract problems) is just one of those experiments – and the final outcome remains uncertain.
No top dogs in evolution
Evolution ‘selects’ organic life for survival by one single criterion – whether or not it is well-adapted to its environment. The cockroach is one of those organism that has constantly managed to adapt to varied and changing environments. Cockroaches have survived for 100 million years without ever ‘ascending’ into a more intelligent form.
This is because there is no ‘ascent’ in evolution. Evolution has no direction. Humans are not at the top of an ‘evolutionary tree’. Rather, we are all fellow travellers – jostling with all the other life forms on Earth that seek to survive long enough to breed .
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