Ever wondered why you find Jon Stewart so funny? Or why you are willing to listen to one of those 10-minute-long jokes about a priest, a rabi and hot air balloon just so you can hear the punch line?

Well, according to William Calvin, a theoretical neurobiologist with an appointment to psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, it is only in the last 50,000 years that humans have developed the intellect to be to able to understand a complicated joke.

This “great leap forward” of human intelligence is the main topic of Calvin’s new book, “A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond.”

Calvin’s talk, given last Thursday, was part of the Rush Rhees Library Neilly Book Series and was the first lecture to be given in the Hawkins-Carlson Room, which was recently renovated.

Calvin began his discussion by comparing humans to apes. According to Calvin, who speaks with a rich Jimmy Stewart-like drawl, chimps are actually able to understand language at a level that is equivalent to a human two-year-old’s comprehension.

However, the two-year-old can generate words, unlike the ape, and will eventually incorporate syntax into their communication abilities.

A chart was displayed to show the physical progression of Neanderthals to Homo erectus to Homo sapiens and then finally to Homo sapien sapiens. That extra “sapiens” is thrown in there to indicate that we are now able to be innovative and inciteful. This explosion of creativity is a rather new characteristic for humans, Calvin believes. He also proposes that this evolution of the intellect came long after the brain stopped growing. Bigger is not better in the case of the brain, according to Calvin.

It seems like it should make sense – the more brain material you have the smarter one should be – at least this is what I have always said to comfort myself when I get upset about hats not fitting my freakishly large head. However, archeological findings show that in the two early periods of human history, which were each about a million years, there was no progress despite the rapid rate of brain growth. The increase in brain plasticity could have been due to imitation, ability to cooperate or protolanguage. So, basically, even though these ancestors had the same size brain that we do now, they would not be able to understand most of the jokes in David Letterman’s opening monologue – though they could probably understand Jay Leno.

It was only 50,000 years ago that humans began to make tools with mechanistic details like sharp edges and grating. Calvin believes that the main trigger for this sudden leap in intelligence was our ability to form long sentences. This progression is what accounts for us being able to plan, follow rules, appreciate intricate music arrangements and act logically.

If it were not for the leap forward, we would still be running around caves with grimy hair, dirty feet and using grunts to communicate. Sounds like your average college student on a Monday morning.

Lepore can be reached at mlepore@campustimes.org.



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