You can get a good idea of an animal’s abilities by looking at its brain. Bird brains are much more geared up to visual processing than human brains, and in dogs the part of the brain that interprets smell is 40 times larger than in humans.
What takes up most space in a human brain? The neo-cortex, or grey matter. It’s unique to mammals, and humans have a far larger neo-cortex than any other mammal. But what is it for?
Unscrew the top of your head and open up your neo-cortex. Take a good look inside. You’ll find all kinds of stuff in here that other animals don’t have. Shopping lists, song lyrics, juicy gossip, instructions for downloading stuff from iTunes. Lots and lots of stuff, filling up every available nook and cranny. But what is it for?
Everything in the neo-cortex is an abstract symbol of some kind. Numbers, letters, words, concepts – the neo-cortex is stuffed full of them.
It’s believed that the neo-cortex evolved primarily to provide us with better social skills. But if you switch on the TV and watch the news headlines, it will quickly become apparent that “better social skills” doesn’t equate to “getting on well with your neighbours.”
The pinnacle of social skills is language, and when you have language you don’t have to simply kill your enemies. You can threaten them, bitch about them behind their back, or persuade your friends to help you kill them. Language is power. And power is an evolutionary advantage.
So that’s what brains are for. Surviving. And thriving. And killing. And singing songs about it afterwards.
Brains make us awesome. They make us into monsters. And they make us aware that we are monsters. Being a monster and being awesome go together. You can’t have one without the other.
The most amazing thing about our brains is their universal capacity. You see, language is all about abstraction. If you name an object, you’ve created a mental model of it. That lumpy thing on the ground has become a “rock.” Now you can expand that concept. Put some “rocks” together in the right way, and what do you get? A “cathedral”.
Once you can create abstract symbols, there’s no stopping you. Literally. You can create poems, you can create scientific laws, and you can create space stations.
Our brains give us power over others, and they give us power over the world around us. Without them, we are short-lived, socially-inept animals living in the dirt. With them, we are like gods.
Gods, and monsters.