Evolutionary Lurches


Recently I read a book by William Calvin about human evolution called A Brief History of the Mind. Although I found it a bit dry, it did have some interesting theories about how human civilizations develop and dissolve and rise again overtime. These intriguing ideas were not the crux of his book, but I found these tidbits of conjecture far more interesting than the main idea he discussed for 200 plus pages.

So what is an evolutionary lurch? Well succinctly, it is a jump in the brain process that enables us humans to create better methods of hunting or gathering i.e. thinking; it allows us to advance as a species. Think of evolution as steps – perhaps at some point we take two or three at a time, skipping over some steps in evolution and jumping onto the next – and our brain enlarges just a bit more each time – we have to hold all the information somewhere…right?

Calvin spends a lot of time in the book showing how one of our first evolutionary lurches was creating a ballistic device to hunt animals from afar…aka a spear or spear thrower. The evolutionary lurch happened because our ancient ancestors thought up this creative approach to kill more animals at a faster rate and we could stay in one place for a longer period of time; basically enlarging our brain by enabling us to spend time on other things besides following animal tracks – allowing us to evolve from nomads following the herds to hunter-gatherers.

The discovery of Maize about 10,000 years ago was another evolutionary lurch for North/South American Natives. Now instead of hunting-gathering, the people could stay in one place for a longer period of time; raise crops, families and societies and allow the herds to come to them.

But all this – although I love to read about it – was not what intrigued me. What is particularly fascinating is when Calvin discusses how a society falls and a new one rises from the ashes so to speak. War, Disease, Civil Unrest, Natural Disaster; there is a myriad of reasons, but Calvin mentions how the center of a society deteriorates and it is the members on the fringes who survive and live to form a slightly better/more advanced society then the one before – sometimes an evolutionary lurch in and of itself.

I remember Khrushchev telling us we would be ‘buried from within’. And I remember my lessons about ancient Rome and how the center did not hold. I guess with all the troubles in the world I am wondering if we are heading towards another evolutionary lurch. It is an interesting and disturbing concept to think about.

Click here for more information about William Calvin

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