Stephen T. Asma in Aeon:
We were clinging at a 45-degree angle to the Mount Bisoke volcano, having hacked and crawled for three hours through stinging nettles. We started out in Rwanda; now we were in the Congo. Of course we weren’t supposed to be there, but mountain gorillas don’t respect national borders. With our machete-wielding guides, we had found the gorilla group called ‘Amahoro’, Kinyarwanda for ‘peace’. I just hoped they were in a peaceful mood today.
Before coming to Africa, I had just finished writing a review of America’s two new mother-ship museum exhibits: the Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Like every other presentation of our prehistory, these otherwise excellent exhibits focused on the evolution of our big neo-cortical brains — the adaptive significance of tool use, linguistic ability, increasing cultural sophistication. I guess it seems natural to celebrate the development of our unique cognitive abilities, since these distinguish us from our mammal relations.
Out in the bush, however, I began to appreciate how biased this cognitive picture really is. We owe a debt to our big neo-cortices, but our survival owes much more to the emotional skills that were under construction in mammals long before the Homo sapiens cortex explosion. We share a rich emotional life with our animal brethren because emotions helped us all survive in a hostile world. Indeed, the more we understand what mammals have in common, the more we have to rethink everything about even our specifically human intelligence.