This week I read (actually listened to) The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley. I was alerted to the existence of this book by Sean Carroll’s interview of Bulley on his podcast, which provides a good overview of their overall thesis.
People have long struggled to identify what, if anything, sets humans apart from other animals. Most things that have historically been focused on, such as reasoning ability, tool use, culture, war, symbolic communication, even agriculture, have been shown to exist to varying degrees in other species.
Strictly speaking, foresight isn’t that much different. Many animals are able to think ahead several seconds or even minutes into the future. But what seems to set humans apart is our ability to engage in far reaching mental time travel, to think of things that happened days, months, or years ago, and then to imagine what might happen equally far into the future.
There are animals that engage in behavior that seems to involve extensive forethought. Squirrels store nuts for the winter, beavers build dams, and bears fatten up to survive winter hibernation. But in these cases, there’s generally less there than we interpret.
Young squirrels, for instance, store nuts even if they’ve never encountered a winter or been around other squirrels to learn it. Compare this with a troop of monkeys who open peanuts with a particular tool and technique, which another troop of the same species living far away doesn’t use. In one case we have animals engaging in innate instinctive behavior, in another a learned cultural one. Storing nuts is what squirrels do, and they evolved to do it because it was adaptive, not because they individually learned to do it.
But even in relatively intelligent species, such as great apes, dolphins, or crows, the ability to plan and think through complex causal scenarios is limited compared to humans, even compared to very young children. And no non-human animal seems to have a developed concept of tomorrow, much less next season or next year. Animals generally can’t project far beyond the present moment. There seems to be a substantial gap here between humans and other species.
This gap famously led Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, to doubt that the human mind could be explained by natural selection. Human intelligence, it seemed to him, and many others, was too advanced, far in excess for what was needed for survival. Of course, this overlooks the danger that other humans present to human survival, and the resulting evolutionary arms race that can happen even within a species. Human level intelligence, it seems, was mostly an adaptation for dealing with other humans.
(This does seem to highlight again just how unusual human intelligence is, along with the associated dexterity, reminding us that technological civilizations may be extremely rare in the universe. A conclusion that fits with the Fermi paradox.)
Charles Darwin, the other discoverer of natural selection, strongly disagreed with Wallace. Darwin’s take has aged far better as the seeming gap has been filled somewhat with the discovery of extinct human lineages such as Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and many others. If these species were still around, our continuity with other primate species might seem more obvious. Their absence makes it look like humans are categorically distinct.
But even in earlier human species, it’s not clear how advanced their foresight capabilities might have been. Tool use becomes notably more sophisticated with Homo erectus a couple of million years ago, but erectus mostly used the same tools throughout their existence, with little signs of innovation over that time. It’s only with the more recent lineages in the last 100,000-200,000 years or so that we start to see a pattern of innovation and improvements.
A key question may be when language evolved, or at least language similar to how we use it today. We can see the earliest prototypes of language in monkeys who use specific cries to warn each other of different types of danger. But that’s a far cry from the rich hierarchical syntax that exists in all human languages.
The authors spend some time discussing the importance of symbolic thought, of using abstractions such as language, math, art, calendars, etc, to aid in remembering the past and planning for the future. But I’m not sure they emphasize enough just how pivotal this ability is. Imagine trying to remember your overall life if you didn’t have the concept of years and particular symbolic milestones, such as graduations, jobs, marriages, etc, to organize things around. You might be able to recall individual episodes, but organizing them in any coherent fashion seems dubious.
The concept of forethought also reminds me of my own compatibilist take on free will. I don’t think we have libertarian free will, a will that somehow transcends the laws of physics. But social responsibility still seems like a coherent and useful concept. And the capacity of forethought seems central to that view. I suspect our practical intuition of free will revolves around the capacity for foresight coupled with the freedom to make decisions based on it.
This fits when we remember who tends to be held responsible for their actions in society. Animals generally aren’t, because their foresight capabilities are limited. And young children usually aren’t because their own foresight is still developing; we increasingly add responsibilities as they get older. And the certifiably insane usually get a pass. The consequences are reserved for those who have some ability to understand them and can take them into account in their decision making.
So extended forethought, enabled and enhanced by symbolic thought and abstract reasoning, seems to be a major attribute that sets humanity apart. At least for now, until someone discovers some species somewhere that blurs even this distinction.
To be human seems to be to live as much in the past and future as in the present. It’s both a blessing and a curse, since non-human animals aren’t burdened with the worries about future events as we are, such the knowledge we all have of our own mortality. But of course, humans live far better, with much more control of our environment, thanks to that foresight.
What do you think? Do the authors get it right? What do you think about my view on the crucial importance of symbolic thought? Or the relation between foresight and free will?