Thank you for such a great question!
One of the great things about science is that
there can be many different approaches to
answering these types of big, meaningful
questions. One way to answer a question like the
one you ask is called evolutionary
psychology, which I study at UC Santa Barbara.
Evolutionary psychology begins with the
observation, like you do, that all animals are
designed to maximize the survival and, most
importantly, the reproduction of their genes. The
designer in this case is the process of
evolution by natural selection: genes that
happen to have effects that make them better at
replicating themselves in a given environment are
the genes that tend to increase in number.
The process of natural selection, over geologic
time, has sculpted the great variety of life we
see all around, with each organism adapted
to its particular environment. Homo sapiens
are no different. Our species, and our brains and
minds, have evolved to exploit the environment
that our species inhabited for hundreds of
thousands of years. Evolutionary psychologists
have found evidence that, much like our heart is
designed to pump blood or our eyes to see, our
minds are designed to solve all sorts of other
problems we faced in the distant past, like
navigating, communicating with a spoken language,
finding the ideal mate, finding the best food,
maintaining good friendships, being treated
fairly, helping your family, and many others.
In this way, humans still do very much care about
their survival and reproduction, even today.
But the brain/mind, you note, can do all sorts of
things that it was not designed to do, like
solving calculus problems, playing the stock
market, and drafting legislation. Evolutionary
psychologists argue that these evolutionarily
novel abilities come about as a
byproduct of our existing abilities. So the
same nerves that control our natural ability to
walk upright also give us the ability to surf,
even though natural selection never designed our
nerves for surfing. In all domains of modern life,
it seems that we have to make do with a brain that
was designed for the stone age. It just so
happened that natural selection designed our brain
to be capable of language and making lots of
inferences, enabling the accumulation and
expansion of knowledge over time into areas that
have little to do with our direct survival and
I hope this provides some of an answer to your
great and big question.
I thought we had brains that have a bigger frontal
cortex in the front of the brain, compared with
other animals. But I'm finding links on google
that disagree with this idea:
Gorillas Agree: Human Frontal Cortex is
Nothing Special - Scientific ...
There's an idea that we became intelligent in
special ways after we started cooking our food!
We didn't need to use so much of our head for big
teeth and jaws, for chewing raw food.
Here's an article about that, from the
What are the economy, politics, and appearance if
not interest in survival and reproduction?
Humans make more plans for the future than just
about any other animal, but very few humans
devote much effort to goals other than that.
There are humans who do art and science, but
art has been observed in other animals, and
science is just a sophisticated expression of
curiosity, which is common among the more
intelligent animals. Humans do some things more
than other animals do, but there isn't anything
that humans do that is truly unique.
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