The ability of chimpanzees to track their relative status and standing with other members of the chimpanzee tribes, and to act upon it in various ways, including deception, deceit, collusion and war has been called [machiavellian intelligence][a].
It seems likely that our protohuman ancestor also had this trait. Let’s further assume that some band of already bipedal protohumans developed some kind of mutation that resulted in hypercephaly – either by too-long brain growth, or by an abbreviated body development. It has been demonstrated that [hypercephaly can be induced by a point mutation][b] in mice.
This new, expanded brain still tries to stuff into a more-or less normal monkey skull, and so becomes highly convoluted, and most of the excess growth occurs in late developing portions of the brain – the cortex.
So now you’ve got a monkey with a very expensive brain, with scads more neurons than have a direct function. Even older neuronal clusters, particularly those aspects of the brain responsible for keeping track of who has done what to whom and for how many cookies, are all convoluted and folded in upon themselves, making connections they’d not made previously.
Into this rich bed of neurons began to sink the first, and in some ways only, meme: language. Big brained women preferentially fucked boys with silver tongues, and a race was on; some [preexisting cerebral asymmetries][c] become the welcoming scaffold in which our [system of communication could evolve][d].
This process, which is largely about protohumans developing ever more elaborate methods of interpersonal relation, helped fuel and was fueled by the increasing sophistication of the machiavellian intelligence in protohumans. The behavioural signposts of machiavellian intelligence are actions that depend on an understanding of the other; deceiving someone requires some sort of model about what they are and are not aware of; knowing who your friend is requires that you have a mental simalcrum of them. In simians and in our presumed protohumans, this ability extends only to their fellows.
In a linguistically developing protohuman, words presumably revolved around this sort of ability. Being able to talk about who did what to whom was one of language’s most valuable assets. Although conversations past have left no fossils, even today, social conversation occupies the majority of human speech.
Language also was used to talk about the environment, and it is here that the first break came; in talking about each other, we came to be able to access our person-models through the conduit of language. With this power we even began to be able to discuss people who weren’t there, and from there to discuss people we had never encountered before. These people-models were abstracted people; they link into our people-modeling only through language. As soon as we’re able to make that link, the subsequent ability to think of our environment like a person is natural; it’s precisely the same mechanism used to think about people-we’ve-never-met.
Closely on the heels of this come spirits and gods; words used to link to people that are qualities of the environment. Through paintings, carvings, and eventually through the rise of the written word, markings and objects aquired the ability to be personified. Over thousands of years, a process of cultural evolution allowed these personas to become less and less human-like, and those with the talent to think in this way to have their effects amplified; initially as shamans and seers, eventually as priests using symbols and instruments to measure the heavens and judge the fortuitous times for crop planting and obeisances to the gods whose measure they took.
Even today, the most highly trained abstract thinkers [cannot help but anthropomorphise][e]; and while this tendency is derided by the same, it seems somehow fitting that our loftiest, most ‘pure’ reason comes to us from the millenia-long drive to understand each other better.