The Role of Imagination in Human Evolution
We humans have had a very long, tumultuous, and at times bleak history. Over the last seven million years, our genus, the Homo genus, has experienced an amazing amount of change. Today, when we look at our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, and bonobos, we often feel a great gap between us. How could we be so closely related, and yet so different? What separates us from them, and vice versa? Seven million years ago, we and the chimpanzee and bonobo split off evolutionarily; them taking one path, and us taking another. Our last common ancestor died some seven million years ago, which is a great amount of time to change, and change we did.
From our humble beginnings with Sahelanthropus tchadensis, to modern day Homo Sapiens Sapiens, change has been the name of the game. But when we look at our cousins, they seem to still closely resemble those forebears who died and are forever lost in the mists of time. What spurred our evolution, while theirs stagnated? What allowed us, simple apes barely different from the others, to gain control of fire? Build cities that sprawl for miles across the surface of the earth, and leave behind masterful works of art that last for thousands of years? Why is it us, and not chimpanzees, gorillas, or orangutans who are orbiting the earth in spacecraft created and built by our own two hands? Is it our physical, or mental differences that have allowed us to come so far? What caused these differences to arise? It is in imagination, that the possible answer may be found. Imagination, a quality that only we modern humans possess, has been a key component in our evolutionary history; a major factor in the development of our mental and physical capabilities.
Without imagination, we would not be recognizable today. Despite what you may think when one first considers this, it is the role of imagination that has created the spark of our being, and has led us to what we are today. Let us embark on a journey, down the road of human evolution, and explore the immensely important, but undervalued role of imagination in human biological evolution.
What Makes Us Different?
When one looks into the eyes of a great ape, be it a gorilla, chimp, bonobo, or orangutans, we see something that we do not see in the eyes of any other animals. We see ourselves, a deep reflection of the past can be seen starring right back at you. It is these creatures whom we share the earth with, that are closest to us genetically, physically, and possibly even mentally. At one point in history, we were in fact the same creature; until we diverged that is. Today, there are key differences between us and the great apes. In both mental and physical senses. Of course, we possess much grander intellectual capabilities, walk upright, and have language skills that are unmatched in the animal kingdom.
It is easy to see how we are different. But when one considers that we arose out of the same source only seven million years ago, it really begs the simple, although hard to answer question of “Well, what happened”? There are as many answers to this questions, as there are anthropologists to answer it. However, one theory that is sorely overlooked, is the role of imagination in human evolution. What is meant but this, is how our cognitive ability to create, observe, and understand things that are not physically before us, has led us to some of the greatest cognitive advancements in our history. It is these advancements that led to many of our physical changes. It is imagination, thoughts for the future, that have allowed our genus to grow, and prosper where our cousins have dwindled and failed. It was the cognitive power, and the thought process to overcome fear of fire, to master it to do our bidding. Without fire, we would not be who we are today, and without imagination we would have never tamed fire.
Take for example, one of the prevailing ideas on how our brains developed into the powerhouses that they are today. It is with Homo Erectus, that we believe fire was first used, and it can clearly be supported by a variety of factors including archaeological evidance, as well as the fact that the brain of Homo Erectus nearly doubled over that of Homo Habilis, its believed predecessor. But why is this? To explain why the use of fire, and cooking is so crucial to the development of the human brain, we can turn to Harvard University’s Richard Wrangham, and his cooking hypothesis.
He states that mastering fire was one of, if not the most crucial event in human history. The use of fire, and the cooking of our goof allowed our ancestors to more easily digest what they were eating, as cooked food is much easier for our stomachs and as our guts shrank, for lack of needing so much power, our brains were then freed to grow, and use up more of the energy we consumed. As our guts and teeth shrank, our heads were able to change shape, providing room for our growing brains. It was then these brains that went further and faster into what we know today.
But what caused us to start cooking in the first place? No other animal, ape or otherwise has ever even attempted to master fire, and cook their food. If chimpanzees were able to master this ability today, it indeed would most likely set them on a evolutionary path mirroring that of our earliest ancestors.
It was imagination, the thought that the combination of this burning, unknowable and untamable power, with the raw meat of an animal, to create food, that allowed this phenomenon to begin in the first place. It can clearly be seen in animals that lack imagination, that there is no hope for something of this magnitude to occur.
Imagination brings beings out of the world of chance, and into the world of creation. It is this key component that separates us from all other animals, it is imagination that put our ancestors on a path of evolution that no other creature could follow. It is imagination, that made us who we are today.
What is imagination? Defined by Merriam Webster as “the act of power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality” is our ability to manipulate, understand, and change the world around us to better benefit us. No other creature has ever existed that has possessed the cognitive abilities that we modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens are privileged to enjoy. But it cannot be overlooked that while of course our imagination today is far grander than that of Homo Erectus, it cannot be ignored that such advanced cognitive abilities must have been present, and even earlier in our history in fact.
To create anything at all, be it a simple stone tool, or an iPhone, one must have the ability to see in their mind something that is not there. Something that they cannot see, touch, or hold. While this may seem like nothing to you or me, imagine living your life wholly at the moment. Not capable of thinking of what is about to happen, or how one could make the situation better. Instead, you are there, and you must act on instinct and past experience alone. This is how our cousins, the great apes, see the world. It is what has held them back, while we grew and prospered despite our physical and genetic similarities.
But where did this ability arise? Tracing something like imagination is not easy, and while it can be seen everywhere one looks today, just five thousand years ago the written record ends entirely, and all that we have left is archeological evidence. After ten thousand years, even this is scarce and all that we have left is inference. We know what was going on to a certain extent, and we know our ancestors were successful for we would not be here today. We know how they hunted, and in many cases how they lived. We know in fact much about them, but in the scheme of things, it is so little. To try to understand the minds of humans that died millennia ago is like understanding the mind of a dog today. While we can get glimpses of what they are thinking and understanding, the exact workings are not known to us. We can assume that our ancestors, modern humans, going back to a certain point around fifty-thousand years, would have felt, and thought the same as we do today.
While it is believed that fully modern cognitive humans emerged only fifty-thousand years ago, anatomically modern humans emerged in Morocco near three hundred thousand years ago, and even before that the various branches of the human family tree lived, and died across the continent of Africa and Europe. Very little is left behind of these early hominids and almost nothing that gives light to the way they thought. It is only after the cognitive revolution, that we begin to see traces of art, and decoration. But these are obvious examples of imagination. It is long before this that the roots of our cognitive abilities began to form. What made us first strike two stones together to make tools? What made Homo Habilis, a creature so ape-like it is argued to even be human, do something that no other creatures are known to do?
Something in its mind, allowed it to visualize, conceptualize, and then create something. Stone tools, first made by Homo Habilis, were the first things that we brought into the world, and they would not be the last by far. But it is these stone tools, that set the precedent for everything we would, and will ever do. Imagination is our ability to create, and bring things from our minds into the world; something no other creature can do. How and why we did this, we may never know. From the earliest stone tools to the masterpieces of Lausxou and Chauvet, we have contained to invent and create. It is this that separates us from all other creatures, including our closest relatives.
The Role of Imagination in Human Evolution:
At this point, it should be quiet clear, how important imagination is to our development. Without our ability to conceptualize things that were not real, and bring them into our physical world, we would never have created our first stone tools, never have butchered animals to provide our growing brains the nutrients they need. We would never have conquered fire, and began cooking our foods, releasing the important and vital nutrients in our expanding diets. Without imagination, we would not have had the food we needed to allow our brains to grow and expand our cognitive powers.
Our guts would not have shrunk, and our teeth would have stayed the same exaggerated size, not allowing our jaw muscles to shrink giving room for our brains to expand. With the expansion of our brains, we began to have even more grand ideas, and the story goes on until we reach where we are today. It is the crucial role of imagination that has led to our cognitive development. Whatever caused the first spark of imagination in our earliest ancestors is unknown, but we must be thankful for whatever in our DNA, or environment caused this sudden change; sparking our development for millennia to come, and setting our path apart from all other animals on this planet.
It is vastly underestimated, the role in which imagination plays in human evolution. We would not be the creatures that we are today, had not a spark occurred in our earliest ancestors, allowing us to bring into reality that which had never even been conceived. It is our ability to see something in our mind and bring it into this world that has allowed us to gallop ahead of the others in terms of evolution.
Without the idea to manipulate the world around us, we would never have been able to provide for ourselves, and our ever-growing and demanding brains. Imagination has pathed the way for us to become what we are today, just as it will lay the way for our futures as well. It is only our imagination that limits what we can do, and those limits expand with each and every generation. The future is bright, as long as we understand the role imagination plays, and embrace it to its fullest.