My wife and I just finished watching Alan Alda's PBS thing on the "human spark." He's a smart guy and funny but what was he thinking when he endorsed the notion that there is a "human spark?" And what were these Harvard and Oxford and other scientists thinking?
I have had some experience with media sorts and they are very fond of "hooks" that one can use to snag an audience and keep it. The hook this time is the notion of a "human spark" -- something we have but that chimps and no other species (on this planet) have. This is a terrible metaphor. We know that it takes a spark to ignite gasoline fumes in an automobile cylinder and that this is the most proximate cause of the piston's moving downward thereby assisting the engine in its effort to ... I don't want to get into automobile stuff. I would be way out of my depth. However, I am inclined to think that the evolution of those human qualities that distinguish us from chimps and other life forms might be just a bit more complicated than this metaphor makes it out to be.
The terrible thing about this metaphor is that it works better for "sophisticated" intelligent design people than for Darwinists. If intelligent design people are willing to concede that we and the chimps have a common origin, they need only then say, "Aha, Alda is with us. We are the life forms god sparked into humanhood by causing us to be capable of forming complex intentions, recognizing complex intentions in others, and imagining future actions." Unsophisticated intelligent design people need only say that God dropped us on the planet pre-sparked.
The show actually admitted that chimps are capable of forming intentions and recognizing intentions in others (but not as well as we do). About the future, they don't seem to think too much but to suppose they can't think about the immediate future is absurd. Indeed the show proved otherwise as when it was argued that alpha males may choose to share with females based on attempting to curry favor with them. Back in the day when I followed research on chimp linguistic development, I formed the view that the researchers who did this work were not always the sharpest academic tacks. In my view, they tended to be so empathetic with their research subjects that they were willing to think things that just might not be true.
In the show, the human spark seemed to be whatever "sparked" the conjoint abilities to "read other's minds and travel in time," as Alda put it. Let me show you a picture they showed of the areas of the brain that light up when these two abilities are activated. Notice that these two parts of the brain are not adjacent. Two questions arise in my mind: how did a single spark ignite abilities requiring two different parts of the brain to be be realized and how is it that so much of one part of the brain manage to be recruited for this realization.
Perhaps I am being a bit too simplistic here but I am not at all sure that these two abilities are so different. If a crucial feature of humans, one shared by chimps, is our socialization then thinking about the future -- making plans for the future -- must crucially have involved making plans in connection with others. And making plans in connection with others would seem to require an ability to form views as to others' intentions. A Harvard professor did note that both abilities involve escaping one's present point of view. I can imagine that being able to escape one's present point of view could have been a precursor to the gradual evolving of these abilities over a very long time.