Scholars have referred to Homo sapiens’ game-changing capacity to transform the biological evolutionary process into an intellectual exercise–or what I refer to as super-adaptability–in a variety of ways. Karl Popper distinguishes between biological and cognitive problem solving. In so doing, Popper emphasizes that for most organisms the one and only means of resolving survival problems is via Darwinian evolution: nature’s creations either evolve random genetic solutions to survival problems, or they go extinct. However, Popper adds that humans have developed a unique capacity to resolve survival problems intellectually. As a result, humans have succeeded in concocting and deploying efficacious solutions to survival problems at the speed of thought.
For his part, Stephen Jay Gould argues that human cognitive ingenuity has succeeded in transforming human evolution from a Darwinian to a Lamarckian process:
Biologists believe that genetic change is primarily Darwinian–that is, it occurs via natural selection operating upon undirected variation. Human cultural evolution is Lamarckian–the useful discoveries of one generation are passed directly to offspring by writing, teaching and so forth (Gould, 1987, p. 70).
Similarly, Mark Pagel argues that, as social learners, humans have literally rewritten the rules of evolution:
…there are no real shape-shifters in nature…Being limited to what their collections of genes evolved to do, no one species can do everything. That was, of course, until humans came along and rewrote all the rules that had held for billions of years of biological evolution…Where all those species that had gone before us were confined to the particular genetic corner their genes adapted them to, humans had acquired the ability to transform the environment to suit them, by making shelters, or clothing, and working out how to exploit its resources (Pagel, 2012, p. 46).
In turn, Matt Ridley describes the extraordinary capacity that humans have developed to innovate via social and intellectual collaboration as “ideas…having sex” (Ridley, 2010, p. 352).
In sum, humans are the first “super-adaptable” organism to evolve on earth; rather than being deterministically restricted by the constraints of Darwinian biology, humans are the only terrestrial species that is graced with the capacity to “redefine reality.” Via a reality-modifying cognitive process (i.e., agency), humans modify otherwise deterministic environmental conditions in order to accommodate their goals and interests–even to the point of transcending gravity and the limits of the life-giving biosphere in a quest to conquer the lifeless void of outer space.
There are multiple advantages of deploying cognitive solutions to environmental problems. First cognitive solutions offer the advantage of enabling humans to invent, test, and deploy solutions to survival challenges much more rapidly than is possible via the biological evolutionary process. It requires far less time to sharpen a stick than it does to evolve long claws for digging, or saber teeth for killing prey. In the struggle for survival, the speed with which a species can develop effective solutions to transforming environmental challenges can often mean the difference between survival and extinction. Being equipped with the ability to develop solutions at the speed of thought has enabled humans to transform the ongoing quest for survival into an increasingly rapid-fire intellectual exercise.