The human brain is three times larger than it was two million years ago. But almost all that growth took place in just three parts of the brain, those that control:
- The hand
- The tongue
Which allows us to build, to talk and to imagine our future far more than any other animal.
In addition, our minds are very plastic: most animals are wired to act just in certain ways, humans are not. We depend on knowledge, not reflex. That means a long childhood. And, even after we are grown, we must think and prepare before we act, we must balance short-term and long-term, our needs and those of others. That in turn leads to ideas of justice, of right and wrong.
Most civilizations, like those of China, India and even the Europe in the Middle Ages, as great as they were, limited the imagination of the young, of those with talent. The son did what the father did what the grandfather did and on and on. Only the talent of a few is ever used, the rest is wasted. The West does not do this.
One way is through a democracy of the intellect: its thought and knowledge is built by scientists and thinkers not by kings and priests. The lives of Erasmus and John von Neumann show this.
Erasmus was a monk in the 1500s. Against orders he read the Greek and Roman classics. It opened up the world to him. He became friends with Sir Thomas More, who, like him, cared more for truth than for power and authority – so much so that the king had More put to death.
John von Neumann, who came up with game theory in the 1950s and did important work in understanding computers, took the other road. Towards the end of his life he worked for companies and governments, drawn to the centres of power. Science for the sake of power and money, not for the sake of truth. He wasted his great talent.
Likewise the West is in danger of throwing away its great promise:
I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into – into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery. They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it: an understanding of man himself. We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.
- Jacob Bronowski: Generation upon Generation – part 12
- Jacob Bronowski: Lower Than the Angels
- Jacob Bronowski: The Starry Messenger
- Jacob Bronowski: Knowledge or Certainty
- Jacob Bronowski: The Drive for Power
- The West