Force Of Nature

Force of Nature

by Daniel Bennett on May 06

Evolution of Mastery

For three million years we were hunter-gatherers, and it was through the evolutionary pressures of that way of life that a brain so adaptable and creative eventually emerged. Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads.

Richard Leakey

It is hard for us to imagine now, but our earliest human ancestors who ventured out into the grasslands of East Africa some six million years ago were remarkably weak and vulnerable creatures.

They stood less than five feet tall.

They walked upright and could run on their two legs, but nowhere near as fast as the swift predators on four legs that pursued them.

They were skinny – their arms could not provide much defence.

They had no claws or fangs or poison to resort to if under attack.

To gather fruits, nuts, and insects, or to scavenge dead meat, they had to move out in the open savanna where they became easy prey to leopards or packs of hyenas.

So weak and small in number, they might have easily become extinct.

And yet within the space of a few million years (remarkably short on the timescale of evolution), these rather physically unimpressive ancestors of ours transformed themselves into the most formidable hunters on the planet.

What could possibly account for such a miraculous turnaround?  

Some have speculated that it was their standing on two legs, which freed up the hands to make tools with their opposable thumbs and precision grip.

But such physical explanations miss the point. Our dominance, our mastery does not stem from our hands but from our brains, from our fashioning the mind into the most powerful instrument known in nature – far more powerful than any claw. And at the root of this mental transformation. are two simple biological traits – the visual  and the social –  that primitive humans leveraged into power.

Our early ancestors were descended from primates who thrived for millions in a treetop environment, and who in the process had evolved one of the most remarkable visual systems in nature.

To move quickly and efficiently in such a world, they developed extremely sophisticated eye and muscle coordination. Their eyes slowly evolved into full frontal position on the face, giving them binocular stereoscopic vision.  

This system provides the brain a highly accurate three-dimensional and detailed perspective, but it is rather narrow. Animals that possess such vision – as opposed to eyes on the side or half side  – are generally efficient predators like owls or cats.

When our earliest ancestors left the trees and moved to the open grasslands of the savanna, they adopted an upright stance. Possessing already this powerful visual system they could see far into the distance.

In the treetops this powerful vision was built for speed – seeing and reacting quickly. On the open grassland, it was the opposite. Safety and finding food relied on slow, patient observation of the environment, on the ability to pick out details and focus on what they might mean.  

Keys To Mastery

A  man should learn to detect and watch the gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the filament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to haunt us with a certain alienated majesty. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If all of us were born with essentially a similar brain, with more or less the same configuration and potential for mastery, why is it then in history only a limited number of people seem to truly excel and realise this potential power? Certainly in a practical sense, this is the most important question for us to answer.

The common explanation for a Mozart or a Leonardo da Vinci revolve around natural talent and brilliance. How else to account for their uncanny achievements than to put it down to something they are born with?

Yet, thousands and thousands of children are born with exceptional talent and display skill in abundance in some field yet they sometimes never amount to very much. While those who are less brilliant in their youth can often attain much more.

Natural talent or high IQ cannot explain their future achievement.

A classic example, compare the lives of Sir Francis Galton and his older cousin, Charles Darwin.

By all accounts Galton was a super-genius , with an exceptionally high IQ, quite a bit higher than Darwin's (these are of course, estimates done years after the invention of the measurement). Galton was a boy wonder who went onto having an illustrious Scientific  career, but he never quite mastered any of the fields he went into. He was notoriously restless, as is often the case with child prodigies.

Darwin, by contrast, is rightly celebrated as the superior Scientist, one of the few who has forever changed our view of life. As Darwin himself admitted, he was "a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect ..I have no great quickness of apprehension … My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited." Darwin however, must have possessed something Dalton lacked.  

Darwin's father a doctor enrolled him at the University of Edinburgh as a medical student. Darwin did not take to the subject and was a mediocre student.

His father despairing that his son would never amount to anything, chose for him a career at the church. While Darwin was preparing for this, a former professor told him the HMS Beagle was to leave port soon to sail around the world, and that it needed a ship's biologist to accompany the crew in order to collect specimens that could be sent back to England. Despite his Father vehemently protesting, Darwin took the job. Something in him was drawn to the voyage.

Suddenly his passion for collecting. In South America he could collect the most astounding array of specimens. He could connect his interest in the variety of life on the planet with something much larger – major questions about the origins of species. After five years at sea pouring all his energy into this enterprise, accumulating so many specimens that a theory took place in his mind. He returned to England and devoted the rest of  his life to  the single task of elaborating his theory of evolution. In the process he had to endure extreme drudgery for instance spending eight whole years studying barnacles alone.

What sustained him was his devotion to the subject.

The  basic elements of this story are repeated in the lives of all the great masters in history: a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus.

They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn from the deep connection they feel to their field of study.  And at the core of this intensity of effort is in fact a quality that is genetic and inborn – not talent or brilliance, which is something that must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject.

This inclination is a reflection of a person's uniqueness. This uniqueness is not something merely poetic or philosophical – it is a scientific fact that, genetically every one of us is unique; our exact genetic makeup has never happened before and will never be repeated.

This uniqueness is revealed to us through the preferences we innately feel or the particular activities or subjects of study. Such inclinations can be towards music or mathematics, certain sports or games, solving puzzle like equations or problems, tinkering and building, or writing and playing with words.

With those who later stand out by their patience, perseverance, delayed gratification, they experience this inclination more deeply and clearly than others. They experience it as an inner calling. It tends to dominate their thoughts and dreams. They find their way, by accident or sheer effort, to a career path in which their inclination can flourish. This intense connection and desire allows them to withstand the pain of the process – the self doubts, the tedious hours of practice and study, the inevitable setbacks, the endless barbs from the naysayers. They develop a confidence and a  resiliency that others lack.        

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