Scientists talk about the origins of language as if it were a recent evolutionary development. They say language evolved 600,000 years ago, and the FOXP2 gene evolved to make human speech possible. This is silly. The ape version of FOXP2 differs from ours by only 2 amino acids. Other genes like microcephalin and ASPM are responsible for a doubling in human brain size, it's true, but these genes also differ minimally from apes.
We humans share 98.5% of our DNA with chimps. This doesn't allow for much de novo evolution. A few dials have been turned in the genetic code, that's all. This leads to my first theory, that evolution is parameterized. If evolutionary circumstances require a bigger brain, only a small genetic change is needed to turn the dial.
My second theory is that all human capacities evolved long ago, perhaps hundreds of millions of years ago. Language. Emotions. Consciousness. The ability to plan ahead and cooperate with others. The ability to see things from another's perspective. The ability to learn and transmit new knowledge. The ability to design new things. These abilities probably predate the dinosaurs. They are the basic elements that differentiate animals from plants.
The earliest language probably evolved at the level of individual neurons (see my earlier blog post). The first memory storage may have as well, perhaps recording the patterns of neural impulses to RNA tape (and from there, perhaps, important memories were transported to central DNA for sexual transmission to the next generation).
Planning, cooperation, ability to anticipate the future, even self-awareness (at some level)... these strike me as core capabilities that all animals need. Futhermore, an evolutionary design function may well have existed hundreds of millions of years ago as well. We humans can design new things (even new species), but I doubt humans are the first designers.
Perhaps we're looking at evolution all wrong... perhaps de novo evolution ended hundreds of millions of years ago, and since then evolution simply turns the dials when new species are needed to fill environmental niches.