That first spark


I drove home with the family this weekend to spend time with the in-laws. I absolutely love my in-laws so it was a trip I was very much looking forward to. Most everyone I interact with back home are all believers and still attend church. I still seem to be the exception to that rule. Nonetheless, I had a very good conversation with my father-in-law that was quite interesting to me. My wife’s family are all progressive Christians and in fact have schooled me time and again on some science issues (including facts surrounding evolution) and even on skepticism (they are fans of Shermer and the Skeptic Society and oddly still cling to their religious beliefs).

We had built a fire and were sitting outside having a couple beers when we began talking about science. Human beings have been on the planet in a form we might recognize for at least 200,000 years. In that time, as far as we know, no other creature has evolved to the point of being able to think about thinking – known as metacognition. In our current form (yes, we are a transitional species) the last evolution occurred roughly around 10,000 years ago where we began to utilize more of our cognition and less reliance upon our physical prowess.


Metacognition merely means “cognition about cognition” or having the ability to think about thinking, being aware of our ability to think. Following that further it is the ability to reason and then consider what other humans or creatures might be reasoning. That goes into strategy and empathy. The earliest writings on metacognition (though it wasn’t termed that until the 20th century) go back as far as Greek Philosophers. There are other instances where it is referenced by philosophers and scientists throughout the ages and how that is what separates us from the other animals on the planet.

  • Aristotle was the first recorded person in history to reference this in 8 of his writings.
  • Descartes is another who was famed for coining the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” or Cogito Ergo Sum as it is in latin
  • The term was coined by American psychologist John Flavell in 1976.

Most of the studies of metacognition centered around children and how they adapt to be aware of their own thinking, memories, etc. Young children still do have a metacognitive awareness but it is not very strong. As they grow older there metacognitive awareness grows and they are able to reason and think through things more clearly on their own. This, of course, is why I am strongly against child indoctrination of religion. Children do not have the ability to distinguish between what is real and fantasy, especially if the fantasy is being supported by adults who themselves are reinforcing that same doctrine they were fed as a child. But that’s not the point of this post.


I am not a scientist, nor pretending to present scientific theory. This is just a musing.

The conversation I had with my father-in-law had to do with what caused the first spark. What was the catalyst that caused the homo sapiens to evolve with the ability to think about thinking? I had no idea. I’ve never really considered what the catalyst could have been. I know something happened, but I’ve never taken the time to investigate, as I’m not an authoritative scientist nor do I even have a hypothesis. As far as I know…it just happened.

In my research I’ve heard a few hypotheses from the scientific community thrown around but none of them have ever made sense to me (in the mechanism that aroused metacognition – not evolution as a whole).

  1. Climate change is a variable I could believe that would have helped with adapting for survival, but I don’t see how it would have been a causation for cognitive improvement or even the awareness of our own cognition.
  2. Plate Tectonics is another variable I’ve heard mentioned. With the change in the landscape – also causing a climate change – I can see how it caused the early homo species variants to evolve and adapt for survival but nothing as recent as within the last 15,000 years to cause us to …. think about thinking.

After the end of the last ice age, between 10-20,ooo years ago, homo sapiens erupted on the scene with startling force and have not stopped dominating every other species on the planet ever since (including the other homo species that have all been wiped out). That is the last time we had a major evolutionary shift in our species. I still for the life of me have never come to a conclusion about what could have caused this last jump through natural selection.

So when my father-in-law asked me I just shrugged my shoulders. I’ve got no idea. So I asked him why he thought that was the case. His answer: Fire.

My father-in-law is very big into science, history, skepticism (theist tho he may be), and the workings of the natural world. So I asked him what scientific study he gleaned that information from.


Among all the other edifices of his life, he is also a chef. And….apparently in the chef community the widespread belief is that because human beings were able to master fire and begin cooking their food – not only changing our diet, but allowing us more time throughout the day – it gave us a spark. A cognitive spark to be aware of ourselves, our ability to think. Needless to say I was pretty impressed. Chefs kinda kick ass!

So I came home and began to do some research myself.


So I came home with that in mind and found that whatever these chefs were honing in on has started to be tackled by the scientific community. I found a few different articles referring to the studies on how fire may have caused the evolution of our brains. The oldest one I found was a Smithsonian article I will link here. For those of you that don’t click my links I’ll just give a brief synopsis of some of the major points.

So the use of fire not only gave warmth and kept predators away, it also increased the number of hours human beings were awake throughout the day. They could stare at the fire and contemplate on puzzles, figuring things out that happened during the day. The rest of the world’s creatures would be fast asleep, or, were they nocturnal, hunting or foraging throughout the night. This meant that mankind had a giant advantage over the rest of the creatures. He could stay awake and let his mind wander.

Additionally, even sleeping next to the fire was a great advantage. When humans slept next to the fire, which probably kept other predators at bay, they could enter their deep REM sleep cycles. During deep REM cycles the body becomes near catatonic and it’s much harder to wake – very dangerous if there are predators around. It is also the time when the mind is working overtime, working on getting rest and repair. Humans spent a longer time than other creatures sleeping in an REM cycle, which could have propagated the ability to multi-task and accomplish harder tasks.

It is all quite a bit more complicated than I have laid out but that is the general gist of what the studies show, however.


I’m just quite amazed at the different ways people come to these startling conclusions. I learned about this process and the reasoning behind it from a chef, because that is the general consensus in the chef community – and has been for many many years. And now science in the last 2 or 3 years has begun to investigate that. I just think that’s quite amazing.

About Paul Loebe
  • dagobarbz

    Ehm, you are talking about something we don’t know about. No, not religion. Do animals think as we know it? We don’t know, so let’s make a big thing out of it anyway. What do you think cats are doing when they freeze and stare at a place for ten minutes? Thinking? YA THINK MAYBE?

    People…humans…lol. Y’all are so insistent about your special cognitive powers and just assume everything else on the planet runs on instinct. It’s cute when you try to make yourselves specialer than everything else on the planet. You can’t see magnetic lines. Pelicans can. They’re special too.

    • Paul Loebe

      Scientists have conducted studies on metacognition on other animals and there have been three possible exceptions, but as a whole they all come back negative.

      Those three could have even been false positives.

      • dagobarbz

        Then again, they might not have been. Again, here we are, still not knowing, yet still speculating.

        • Paul Loebe

          That’s science. Eventually, the scientific method will figure it out. It’s self-checking. I like that.

    • Paul Loebe

      Again I don’t think we are any more special than other creatures. I was just curious as to what sparked the ability to think in the way we do. I’d love to see another species begin to evolve like that. I think it would be amazing. I think some might already be, but they don’t have the ability to communicate it so…how are we to know?

  • David

    Ok, so a few things from a fellow atheist;

    First off; evolution isn’t some direct path to intelligence, nor does it always lead to intelligence. Intelligence was the path we ended up on. Why? Because for our situation, greater intelligence led to better survival and procreation. This might not have been as beneficial to other animals. Or, perhaps they just did not ever have a random series of mutations needed to stimulate that process. We don’t know at this point.

    Second, other creatures have evolved with cognitive abilities. Did you forget about Neanderthals? They were not the only ones either.

    Thirdly, things like empathy and higher intelligence are shown by a number of animals, such as elephants and dolphins.

    You are talking about things you do not know, which is great, but I would suggest that you do some more research before drawing conclusions.

  • Robert Voss

    The history you mentioned regarding ancient Greeks such as Socrates holds the most popular explanation for the origin of metacognition. This historical explanation says that the origin of such thinking was due to societal changes that happened in the third or fourth century BCE. Rather than any physiological changes in humans, it was simply that for the first time, a society existed which supported a leisure class. Some of the members of this leisure class spent money on educating their children. Some of these educated children began contemplating the nature of knowledge. And so it began.

    I do not say this to undermine the importance of fire in humans’ progress towards metacognition. The usage of fire was a big step indeed. So was agriculture, the invention of writing, and of course, beer.

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  • S.A.G. 415

    This is an interesting subject and an even more interesting blog.

  • KeithCollyer

    The question isn’t what caused the evolution of the ability to think about thinking, the question is why did this become possible and even advantageous? Or, almost equivalently, why did it become not disadvantageous? The answer that it needs a society with leisure time might be the right one. That society also has to have sufficient culture to record thoughts – though this can be through oral tradition, more complex thoughts are harder to retain without some external mechanism, such as writing.