When Did We Become Mentally Modern?
Ever since Darwin came up with the whole idea of evolution, there's been one dominant picture of the moment we truly became human. It's that cartoon sequence: You see a hairy ape man with a heavy brow hunched in profile. Then, bit by bit, his back uncurls and straightens until all of a sudden there is he, upright, truly a man.
Recently I've been thinking about this image, because I've decided that we somehow ended up with the wrong one — that there's something much more fundamental to being human than our ability to stand upright.
Think, for a minute, about the beginning of your day. If the beginning of your day is anything like mine, it goes something like this:
1. About two hours before you'd actually like to be conscious the numbers on your alarm clock hit that magical combination, 6:15, and suddenly your room is filled with a sound indicating that you are doing something terribly, terribly wrong.
2. You make the alarm stop and head to the shower where you listen to the news — talking heads who fill your brain with different pictures from faraway places.
3. Then comes the problem of trying to dress yourself for work. You leaf through the hangers in your closet in search of something that might suggest competence, professionalism, a sense of purpose. You go through a lot of hangers.
4. Finally you find something, but as you're zipping yourself up your 3-year-old comes in and decides that the closet is not in fact a closet, but a train headed for a distant locale. "We're going to ASIA!" he screams over and over as he opens and closes the closet doors about 2,000 times.
5. You head to the coffee shop for a cup of joe, give the nice woman behind the counter $2, and stumble out the door to work.
You have been awake for approximately two hours and almost every moment in your day has been predicated not on your ability to stand upright, but on something else entirely — your completely underrated, chronically overlooked capacity for symbolic thought.
Thinking symbolically is the foundation of everything we do — we live in a symbolic world.
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