from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

Homo Sapiens: The Rational Animal

The idea of evolution sometimes arises in political argument, but usually from a wrong perspective. Conceptions such as “survival of the fittest” may apply to herds of animals and predators, but in the realm of politics such notions typically just inflame strong emotions. Evolution may also be used erroneously to explain human behavior. Some theories of evolutionary psychology, for instance, hold that our behavior is an inexorable outcome of natural selection—that is, humans have no choice and are thusly impelled by a variety of “tendencies.” In other words, most behavior, at least in the long run, supposedly has an adaptive function; otherwise, the particular behavior would not have been selected.

Ironically, many who take an evolutionary perspective on society and psychology overlook essential evolutionary attributes of humans. Up to the point of explaining human behavior, many of their theories have clear validity; they can be effectively applied to species such as salmon, alligators, doves, and hamsters. But their arguments begin to fall apart with their own kind. Insufficient or even false explanations begin to surface. The reason for this will be covered in the coming pages.

Before we delve directly into this reason, we must place it into a context. We must go back and consider our species as it has evolved, or rather arisen, over the last few million years. We must go back to a point where it would be difficult to say that we were fully human—back to a time of watchful, hungry days of foraging and scavenging and dark, often insecure nights.

When we examine Homo sapiens’ evolution, we see that we are a relatively young species. Primates started to branch off on their separate evolutionary courses about 8 to 10 million years ago. Though a relatively short time geologically speaking, those 8 to 10 million years have led to drastic differences between humans and other primates.

Primates encompass roughly 200 species consisting of monkeys, lesser apes, and the great apes (the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan), and of course Homo sapiens. Certain apes, especially the chimpanzee, are most often compared and contrasted with humans. In fact chimps are our genetically closest relatives. They have approximately 99% of the same genetic makeup (i.e., DNA configuration) as humans. Surprisingly, this is the same minute disparity that exists between horse and donkey, water buffalo and cape buffalo, and house cat and lion.100

Since this is the case, why are humans and chimps so remarkably different? What is it that distinguishes us from all other primates? Answers such as “our different social order,” “our culture,” “our unique language use,” or “our instinctive tool-making ability” all fall short of the fundamentals of this topic.

A brief sketch of our “family tree” is in order. A degree of controversy exists about when—and from what former species (or subspecies)—humans branched off from earlier hominids. Even though this has generated various “branch” theories, the following stands as a general approximation of our evolution.

Our most distant ancestor, Australopithecus, lived approximately 3 to 4 million years ago. This species had more human-like qualities than any of its predecessors. It had a brain roughly one third the size of modern day humans. Judging by such things as spinal column and hip/femur configuration, it appears to be the first primate species that was an upright biped. While it shared with other primates a particularly unique anatomic characteristic in the animal world—an opposable thumb—its thumb was more usable, on account of being longer and more divergent. Undoubtedly this allowed for greater inspection and manipulation of objects, which enhanced the possibilities for greater intelligence to emerge as a viable trait.17

Australopithecus was followed by Homo habilis about 1.5 to 2 million years ago. This species was somewhat larger by current fossil records. Most scientists infer that habilis was a scavenger. It made use of round tools to do such things as break apart bones of dead animals to access calorie-rich marrow.

Homo habilis was then followed by Homo erectus, a considerably larger creature (5 to 7 feet tall) that existed approximately 1 to 1.5 million years ago. Erectus had a brain much closer in size to modern humans (about two-thirds the size)—which it put to use by making sharp tools for hunting, not just scavenging. This species was also the first to use fire, and fire was advantageous for traveling out of Africa (a direction of migration currently considered the most plausible). The characteristic ability to walk on two feet freed the hands to carry and transport all sorts of necessities and instruments. Presumably, this allowed erectus and its descendants to venture into previously unknown areas. Now a creature had evolved that was more independent of its immediate surroundings. For example, it did not have to stay close to a watering hole; it could transport water to wherever desired. Similar advantages were apparent with food.53

From Homo erectus emerged varieties such as Peking Man and Java Man, as well as Neanderthal Man. Most speculate that the Neanderthals either died out or were wiped out by competition with sapiens. The other hominid types further evolved into Homo sapiens.

Our species has changed little physically during the last 100,000 years (or maybe even the last quarter million years). Yet it began to evidence behavior resembling modern day humans about 30,000 years ago—for example with the art drawings created by Cro Magnon Man. From that period, Primitive Man emerged, which brings us to present day humans.

Hominid brain size has basically tripled within the last few million years—from Australopithecus to us. This has been mostly in the frontal cortex area, providing new levels of thinking and decision-making. We can also note the corresponding evolution of wider hips in females (yet not so wide as to impede mobility), which enabled the birth of infants with larger craniums.

The enlargement of the hominid brain is a genetic mutation beyond comparison. In fact, the mutation allows one to make statements such as these. Quantitative brain changes led to qualitative shifts in cognitive capability. The increases in brain size (and accordingly, the new integration of nerve cells) were not merely additive in nature. Instead of yielding just more of the same, they generated entirely different qualities.85 Scientist James Trefil explained it elegantly this way:

I will take as a working hypothesis, then, that as we add neurons to our nascent brain, we will see the same sort of behavior that we see in any other complex system. When we reach a certain level of complexity, new kinds of phenomena will manifest themselves.

Given the level of complexity of a single neuron and the degree of connectedness of the brain, it also seems to be reasonable to suppose that there would be more than one kind of emergent property that characterizes the system, and that these properties will appear at different levels of complexity. The result will be a sort of cascade of emergent properties as more and more neurons are added to the system.101 (p.201)

The immense brain alteration in hominids gave rise to a form of consciousness like no other in the known universe: the capacity to reason, or conceptualize. To say that this change definitely benefited the species is the understatement of all understatements. Without such a change, words like “benefit”—in addition to having no meaning for us—would not exist. But what exactly is the ability to reason?

The philosopher Ayn Rand eloquently defined reason as the faculty and process that identifies and integrates the material or data provided by one’s sensory/perceptual mechanism.76 Abstract identifications are made by means of concept-formation. Rand defined a concept as “a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to their distinguishing characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition.”81(p.10) She expanded on this:

The units involved may be any aspect of reality: entities, attributes, actions, qualities, relationships, etc.; they may be perceptual concretes or other, earlier-formed concepts. The act of isolation involved is a process of abstraction: i.e., a selective mental focus that takes out or separates a certain aspect of reality from all others (e.g., isolates a certain attribute from the entities possessing it, or a certain action from the entities performing it, etc.). The uniting involved is not a mere sum, but an integration, i.e., a blending of the units into a single, new mental entity which is used thereafter as a single unit of thought (but which can be broken into its component units whenever required).81(p.10)

Concepts are a completely new level of awareness that allow an organism—now a rational organism—to function in highly creative ways. Reason allows an organism to alter behavior consciously (or volitionally).

In order to be fully formed and utilized, concepts need to have labels to represent them in a concrete fashion (for instance, the words on this page). Be they actual words or signs (such as in American Sign Language), these concrete labels become the repertoire of a language.

To be comprehensible, all words or signs in a language must have specific meanings. They must be defined according to their most distinguishing aspects. Without definitions, we could never differentiate one word or sign from another; language would be a mess of inarticulate concretes (or emotional cues not dissimilar to other primate squeals, grunts, and groans).

Concepts must be defined distinctly in order to be comprehensible. As Rand so wisely said, “The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions.”81(p.49)

So, our ability to conceptualize is what fundamentally distinguishes us from other animals that possess consciousness. While it can be said that higher mammals such as chimpanzees are extraordinarily intelligent in their own right, they lack the ability to abstract and form concepts.

Though seldom mentioned, being intelligent and being able to conceptualize are two entirely different characteristics. Intelligence is a contextually related phenomenon that depends on a specified standard by which to judge it. For example, a dog that fetches a ball or walks at heal could be considered more intelligent than a cat that is quite apathetic to these activities (no offense to cat owners). A horse that runs the barrels or poles in a rodeo could be considered more intelligent than a cow whose usual destiny is to be pastured, eat, grow, and be turned into steaks and burgers. One standard of intelligence for these animals would be the extent to which they respond keenly to training. Other standards could be their degree of alertness or the manner in which they interact with each other or with us (presumably a cat could gain points in this regard).

Brain size has a bearing on whether an organism can reason. This observation is based on study of the brains of other primates, and dolphins, which lack a rational faculty. Their brains, albeit relatively large in their own right, are still quite less developed than humans’. The general amount of folds, or convolutions, and thus total area of cortex is much less, and the frontal cortex in particular is significantly smaller.

Large brain size in relation to body-size appears to be a necessary condition for rationality, but not a sufficient one. A certain amount of cortex is required for reasoning capability to emerge. The natural path on which Homo sapiens advanced genetically, and therefore physiologically, resulted in the unique acquisition of reason.

Chimpanzees may be at a stage of development that immediately preceded the emergence of language in hominids. But the australopithecines were already on a different evolutionary track. They had the necessary genetic makeup to eventually evolve into Homo sapiens. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, as well as the rest of the species of apes and monkeys, did not. Apparently their adaptations were suitable to their environments. And for some genetic or environmental reason, no mutations were either proper or sufficiently adaptive enough to put them on a course to reasoning ability.

Unique hominid features probably all contributed to the emergence and utilization of a rational faculty. The ability to walk on two feet freed the development of highly specialized hands. Remarkable visual/hand coordination facilitated complex tasks. The mouth and throat were configured to allow precise speech, which enabled language. These and other distinguishing physical characteristics opened a new world for a new species.

Although humans evidently are the only reasoning creatures in this solar system, reasoning ability can evolve in other solar systems as well. Actually, it is quite probable that our planet is merely one of thousands (if not millions) capable of sustaining life of an advanced form.91 To hold the view that we are the only fortunate ones, naturally denies recognition of the enormity of the universe and the statistics of the situation. As far as astronomers can see, there are tens of billions of galaxies. Each contains hundreds of billions of stars. Thus, perhaps billions of planetary systems have allowed intelligent life to flourish in galaxies throughout the universe. Multitudes of extraterrestrial life forms probably have either acquired reasoning ability or will acquire it. Although, for many to acquire it simultaneously is less likely, because the window of time in which we have acquired it is a mere fleeting instant, geologically speaking.

While the rational faculty can be seen as a unique model of life—which we will further explore and validate—many levels or dimensions within this model could definitely arise. For example, other reasoning creatures could have greater memory power than us (for instance, better encoding, storage, and retrieval). With a more potent memory, a reasoning creature could deal more efficiently with concepts and possibly work with many different cognitive sequences concurrently. But we will leave these types of transformations open to speculation. For now, we need to explore the complex nature of our own particular faculty.

One could surmise that the evolution towards conceptualization (and hence language) began with primitive hand gesturing. Australopithecus had at least the cognitive capacity of present apes. Like apes, it lacked speech. Specifically, it did not have the proper configuration of the supralaryngeal vocal tract, which allows for rapid transmission of phonetic segments. Speech arose during the last phases of hominid evolution—within the last few hundred thousand years. Presupposed in this trait are brain mechanisms that facilitate voluntary vocal control.59 (This, of course, is in contradistinction to the mimicking and vocalizing of a parrot, which to us can be heard and understood, but to the parrot are conceptually meaningless. As human as it sounds, “Polly want a cracker” enunciated by a bird is simply a learned utterance.)

The new human anatomy allowing speech did make it harder to efficiently chew food and easier to choke on it. But we gained the inestimable advantage of being able to convey our thoughts efficiently and communicate with ease—a small trade-off indeed.

The transition to conceptualization enabled humans to pull themselves out of a world laden with a constant array of particulars or concrete-bound perceptions. We began to see relationships, form generalizations, and formulate categories and classifications of things. Without the ability to deal with reality conceptually—as opposed to merely perceptually—we would be like our fellow primates, living in an austere environment, sustaining ourselves by a combination of learned and innate, repetitive operations. Fishing out termites from mounds with sticks, traversing the open savanna in search of a watering hole, running or hiding from numerous predators with slashing claws and puncturing fangs, would all be part of our world.

Scientists and laymen alike frequently note that humans and other primates possess intelligent behavior, but just in different degrees. Few appear to stand firm on the statement that only humans can reason and therefore utilize language. A question might remain about whether primates possess any ability to conceptualize. Naturally, research with primates has tried to ascertain their cognitive capabilities.

To be sure, the debate over whether other animals such as primates can “communicate with language” is a long-standing one. However, communication can be interpreted in many ways, and it should not be equated with the ability to reason. If we equate the two, we hinder epistemological clarity. Epistemology is basically

the study of knowledge—specifically conceptual knowledge. Thus it is a foundational branch of philosophy (like metaphysics). Epistemology must ask questions such as: What is knowledge? What type of being can acquire it, and why? How is it acquired? How is it validated?

Many studies have been done to see exactly what other primates, namely chimpanzees, can do with gesturing techniques—in response to the fact that chimps, like our early ancestors, cannot vocalize proficiently. Hence, signing systems have been regarded as most conducive to training chimps because such systems do not place impossible physical demands on them. From an evolutionary perspective signing seems to be the next plausible step for creatures that resemble humans but are unable to vocalize an assortment of phonemes that is a prerequisite to utilizing speech.

One effective type of sign language, American Sign Language (ASL), was originally developed for people who were deaf or hearing impaired. ASL has emerged as an entirely self-contained language. In fact, it contains a rich complexity of semantics that rivals any verbal language, even though for efficiency reasons it lacks the larger vocabulary of languages like English. Syntax and meaning in sign language are often compacted in unison and contemporaneous, rather than being presented in a consecutive and progressive fashion as with verbal words.90 A person who is proficient in ASL can articulate any sort of concept he or she desires.

When chimps are trained in ASL from a young age, they sometimes respond in a fashion similar to children about the age of two. Although the range and diversity of symbol use is less than children, chimps can generate rudimentary associations and make various requests. They can also recognize classes of objects such as dogs, flowers, and so on.58

Certainly, we should see this as highly intelligent behavior. The chimps’ capacity for discrimination among all sorts of things reflects greater cognitive processing than many other animals. Their operations are somewhat more refined than, for example, a dog that barks to be let outside, or playfully brings one a rope to play tug-of-war. The fact that they can utilize signs to make simplistic observations and requests tells us that they are at a more refined stage of cognitive functioning—and, perhaps, at the start of conceptual functioning.

One could make a solid case, though, that trained chimps do not fully understand—in a conceptual manner—what they are doing (much like talking birds). Yet this also calls into question whether small children around the age of two understand what they are doing. Many researchers have searched for comparisons and contrasts between young children and chimps.

Some quite ingenious “theory of mind” experiments have been devised. They reveal, for example, that chimps (stationed as helpers) are typically unable to form an idea of what another person (or chimp) knows or does not know based on the shared experimental experience. Children, however, are able to form a mental theory as they observe and assist uninformed subjects in the experiment. Children form a theory, while chimps proceed through the usual trial and error process.101

Children between the ages of one and two may not explicitly reflect on thought and behavior in the complex ways older children do. Nonetheless, they do comprehend the nature of their experiences. They are constantly making judgments and sometimes pondering them. In contrast to chimps, young children around the age of two also follow numerous rules of grammar and syntax (and with a high degree of precision). Moreover, they learn hundreds of words automatically, while chimps have to be taught—often painstakingly—to assimilate a small fraction of the average child’s vocabulary.72

Also, small children who have reached the stage known as the “language explosion” (which normally begins when they approach the age of two), evidence a thirst for knowledge, unlike chimps. The human ability to acquire and deal with knowledge, in the conceptual sense, not merely learned behavior, therefore makes them different than other primates—even the most impressively intelligent ones, such as chimps. We are active processors of information in our environment. Eventually we gain knowledge of more and more complex abstractions.

By being inquisitive, focused, and thoughtful, children are constantly trying to make sense of their environment in an abstract way. Question-asking and discriminating among a continuous flow of particulars are orders of the day for young children. Even though science demands that grown humans resolutely attempt to teach chimpanzees language, we must keep in mind our differences. Grown chimpanzees never earnestly try to teach their youngsters (or us) a language, although they show the signs they have learned and youngsters may pick up some symbols and signs vicariously. In any event, we must comprehend the nature of both final products: a mature human and a mature chimpanzee.

To do this, we must conceptualize. We must grasp reality in a our own unique way, a way impossible to other creatures, no matter how many signs or symbols they are taught to use. After all, no matter how hard we try, we will never be agile enough to climb and swing from trees like chimps. We will never be able to take off into the sky like Canadian geese. We will never be able to swim like dolphins or gallop like horses. Why, then, should we request that these other animals perform our unique feats?


Related to the topic of conceptualization are cases of persons who are congenitally deaf. Some unfortunate babies are not recognized as hearing impaired until a number of years after birth. Hence, they are not taught a language appropriate to them; when spoken to, all they see are lip movements and rudimentary gestures. When their exposure to language is delayed on account of this, their conceptual ability is negatively affected. Oliver Sacks investigated these consequences, and commented on an 11 year-old boy he came to know, named Joseph. Joseph was finally diagnosed deaf after living four years in silence:

Joseph saw, distinguished, categorized, used; he had no problems with perceptual categorization or generalization, but he could not, it seemed, go much beyond this, hold abstract ideas in mind, reflect, play, plan. He seemed completely literal—unable to juggle images or hypotheses or possibilities, unable to enter an imaginative or figurative realm. And yet, one still felt, he was of normal intelligence, despite these manifest limitations of intellectual functioning. It was not that he lacked a mind, but that he was not using his mind fully.90(p.40)

Other persons, such as the widely known Helen Keller, have neither hearing nor sight. One might think that being stripped of the two most prominent senses would totally debilitate one’s capacity to function in a conceptual manner. Helen Keller was able to reflect on this issue later, after she had acquired—astoundingly—the ability to read and write.

When she was without language for a large part of her childhood, her world consisted of all the sensations of smell, touch, and taste that gave her countless varieties of perceptual experiences—to which she could ascribe different meanings and value-judgments. Up to the poignant episode when she acquired her first word, “water” (which was when her conceptual world opened before her), she was relegated to highly diverse perceptual experiences that could only be related to in a simplistic manner.47 One could say that before she learned language, she could not make her concepts explicit. She had neither concrete names for various concepts nor definitions to differentiate them. So the acquisition of regular knowledge was an impossibility for her; she could not expand her mental world through precise linguistic thought.

The point of all this is that, for a human being with a physically healthy brain, the capacity to conceptualize is always intact. Under extreme and harsh developmental conditions, such as early childhood isolation from language (for instance, the inferred condition of the “wild boy” of Aveyron), this capacity may never be fully activated.52 But it still exists as a potentiality.

As mentioned, language is a necessary extension of our ability to conceptualize. One could suspect that primitive humans without language might have been able to form elementary concepts about aspects of their surroundings. But, similar to those of the young Helen Keller, they were all implicit. Without a language by which to make concepts explicit, perhaps only a fleeting abstract grasp of particulars mixed with more or less vivid emotions could be experienced. What pre-language, primitive humans lacked was a method of filing concepts by means of words and definitions.

Over time, hominids began to see reality in a new way. In conformance to the laws of evolution, the original genetic alterations that facilitated this were probably minute (thereby allowing greater chance for viability). And perhaps the gradual physiological changes were just as small, taking into account the time scales involved. But again, with DNA, small quantitative changes can yield substantial qualitative differences. Amazingly, what was created from this DNA alteration was a mind and psychology ready for acquiring knowledge and, accordingly, for experiencing a whole new world through thoughts and emotions.

But for thousands of years, multitudes of people have lived and died never quite understanding the internal power they possessed. If there is one thing besides their own existence that people have taken for granted, it is their ability to reason. But then, only a reasoning mind can take something for granted. And, only for a reasoning mind is psychology an issue. Only for a reasoning mind is politics an issue as well. Only humans can think in terms of issues.

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103 Wollstein, Jarret B. Society Without Coercion [located in Society Without Government. New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972.]