Yesterday I was putting the finishing touches to an introductory lecture on Descartes when I listened to a news item which now has me re-structuring it (the lecture) somewhat. Based upon a comparison of the skull structures of Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans (AMHs), a team of researchers have suggested that the development of higher cognitive functions within human beings has an environmentally demonstrable evolutionary base. An overview of the argument can be found here whereas the article itself can be read here.
This made me wonder whether the development of philosophical and scientific speculation could also be explained along similar lines, that is to say, that philosophy and science, as with non-sensory and non-perceptual cognitive functions, might also be explainable in terms of environmental challenges characteristic of a particular historical epoch. This is a question of time-scales, at least initially, so I did a little more reading. There is evidence of Neanderthal existence which dates back approximately a quarter of a million years – evidence of their existence ceases around 25,000 years ago. Thales lived around 2,700 years ago. Aristotle died around 2,300 years ago, The School of Athens was painted just over 500 years ago, Descartes died 363 years ago. It is often easy to think of Descartes, or Raphael, or Thales, as far distant predecessors yet they are extremely close relatives when compared to the Neanderthal. I composed a graph to give a sense for how large the gap is: DarwinianCartesianism
What can this graph be taken to mean? Does it mean that philosophy and science have had a minimal effect upon the evolution of the species? Or, on the other hand, does it underline the unfathomable intellectual progress that has been made by the species in a relatively minimal period of time?