Are we smarter than cavemen?

Published May 16, 2018

Perhaps we have better tools than cavemen, as we no longer have to concern ourselves with starting a fire or hunting for food, but when it comes to our actions, it is without a doubt that we haven’t evolved much.

Cavemen, as the stories go, had to react quickly in order to eat or to not be eaten. Gone are the days that we need to react so quickly in order to survive.

Cavemen probably practiced, probably at times not willingly, the art of hunting over and over as well as the ability to evade predators. This was built into their natural system of reactions, which made them automatic when it came to acting out these tactics. Think of an NBA player dribbling the ball so much during practice that it becomes automatic for them, regardless of how hard we non-NBA players think it is. This can be compared to the 10,000 hour rule, written about by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, which says that 10,000 hours of practice could make anyone become an expert in a given field. Of course there is opposition to this, but it remains that this amount of deliberate practice holds for fields that do not require much change, like basketball, or being a skilled hunter.

Getting back to our inability to surpass cavemen when it comes to cognitive evolution, I believe it is best described by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman discusses System 1 and System 2 processes, where System 1 is responsible for the quick reactions (our immediate responses) and System 2 is responsible for our more mature reactions, after we’ve had time to process the situation and think through it. Cavemen survived with System 1. We no longer have to.

Often, our emotions get the best of us and prevent System 2 responses. I believe Daniel Goleman describes why the best. He is credited with the phrase, ‘amygdala hijack,’ from his book, Emotional Intelligence, which means that the center part of our brain, the amygdala, reacts before the cerebral part of our brain. This was very useful when it came to the stories of cavemen and survival, the automatic actions that often benefit them. But today, when survival isn’t ‘eat or be eaten’ for the overwhelming majority of us, an amygdala hijack often results in us not controlling our emotions.

This happens quite often on Twitter. Simply observing an argument gives someone the ability to see when one party is victim to an amygdala hijack, as they wouldn’t respond that way given time to think. System 2 responses, as Kahneman called them, seem to be few and far between on Twitter, those rare discussions that result in understanding from both parties.

Twitter is a microcosm of the real world. Sure, both parties are behind a computer screen, but their reactions and feelings are very real. If we can’t learn to control our System 1 responses that all too often result in sarcasm and insults, will we ever get past an amygdala hijack and be smarter than the humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago?


I have compiled a small reading list of books that led me to this blog post (in alphabetical order):
-A Million Years in a Day: A Curious history of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, Greg Jenner
-Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald
-Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, Daniel Goleman
-Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, Jonah Berger
-Reclaim Your Brain: How to Calm Your Thoughts, Heal Your Mind, and Bring Your Life Back Under Control, Joseph A. Annibali
-Say This, Not That: A Foolproof Guide to Effective Interpersonal Communication, Carl Alasko
-Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Rob Brotherton
-The Comfort Trap: Or, What ?if You’re Still Riding a Dead Horse?, Judith Sills
-The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
-The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, Walter Mischel
-The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Matt Ridley
The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, Will Storr
-Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt
-Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
-What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, Malcolm Gladwell
Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age, Susan Neiman
-Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking, Matthew E. May
-You are Not So Smart: Why you have too many friends on facebook, why your memory is mostly fiction, and 46 other ways you’re deluding yourself, David McRaney
-You are Now Less Dumb: How to conquer mob mentality, how to buy happiness, and all the other ways to outsmart yourself, David McRaney
-Your Killer Emotions: The 7 Steps to Mastering the Toxic Emotions, Urges, and Impulses that Sabotage You, Ken Lindner