I’ve been listening to an audio book titled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, and it’s been a real eye-opener. Having always had a thirst for knowing the origin of things, whether its the origin of languages or of physical matter or of psychological disorders, I jumped on the opportunity to hear a little bit about the origin of our biological species, Homo sapiens.
Since this is chiefly a section about etymology, I’ll start with what “human” means. It comes directly from the Latin word homo meaning man, which later evolved into the Latin word humanus, meaning human. The related word, humane, meaning to show compassion or benevolence, also comes from this idea that we are somehow unlike the animals from which we have descended. This superiority complex is developed from mankind’s own immodesty when it comes to our lineage, believing that we have been set apart from our distant cousins in “nature,” that mankind has achieved a more complete state of awareness. In a sense, we have, having developed such remarkable advancements as language, law, morality, and fiction. What other animal can engage in mythology as naturally as humans can? And yet, to engage in this stroking of the ego is to risk undermining the point of understanding our humble limitations.
In some ways, the book appears to present the argument that we have gained the awareness now to realize that we have evolved far too rapidly such that our genetics have not been able to keep up with the development that our culture and technology has provided us. One such development is language itself. With the growing minds and more fine-tuned vocal chords that the great apes stumbled into, language itself in the form of warnings and mating calls began to take shape, but those were single, solitary calls. The truest advancement in language happened in mankind when we were able to string together words into complete sentences, capable of expressing extremely complex thoughts and instructions with a small, efficient vocabulary. It’s one thing for a monkey to cry that there is a lion approaching, but a completely separate thing for a hunter-gatherer to declare that a lion was seen by the river at daybreak.
Another possibility arose as to the need for more advanced language, and that is the growing necessity for social structures. Neanderthals, our brothers and sisters on the evolutionary tree, did not hunt in packs or establish very complex societies, preferring instead to live peacefully and simply. Homo sapiens on the other hand were starting to undergo different evolutionary pressures. As our heads increased in size due to the need for more powerful brains, and an upright posture for running and balancing our gross, swollen heads, and narrower hips for improved running, childbirth became increasingly dangerous. Thus, children with softer, smaller heads, more underdeveloped coming out of the womb were selected for, meaning mothers were pre-occupied caring for their young, requiring the need for a tribe to assist in raising children.
On top of this, there was a need to know who could be trusted since one’s social circle was going to extend beyond family and into members of the tribe who may be less familiar or have less extensive contact. The primary driver of language development may have been gossip. People are so predisposed to gossip that it seems to be something we need to become consciously aware of doing else we’ll never stop doing it. Just now, when speaking with a colleague, I found myself immediately discussing the whereabouts of different colleagues not a part of the conversation whatsoever. It’s practically a genetic impulse.
And on another more interesting note is the primary means by which early Homo sapiens overcame his competitor human species like the Neanderthals, and that is with greater organization and cultural adaptation. An animal’s behavior is beholden to it’s genes, with the environment only slightly affecting the details. A human’s behavior is beholden to his or her culture, a difference that affects everything in adaptability. A human tribe that suffers defeat from a Neanderthal tribe need only change its culture or mythology, reorganize, and in time, over perhaps a few generations, the more adapted culture would triumph over the more slowly evolving Neanderthals. A woman born in 1900 eastern Germany and living for 100 years would have gone through 5 different political systems: the monarchy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Weimar Republic of post-war Germany, the Third Reich of Nazi Germany, the communist bloc of East Germany, and finally the democratic Federal Republic of Germany of the modern day. That is all within one lifetime, and the sheer difference in behavior between all five systems far surpass the adaptability of any other animal on Earth.
Now, to discuss everything the book covers would be overwhelming and most certainly an exercise in futility, so I’ll end with this. As a member of the human race and a member of the human species, and a member of the human culture, there is something deeply unsettling and yet comforting about recognizing our place in nature, how we are an aberration and yet no such deformity at all. There is no true distinction between the way we operate back then and now, save for this difference in culture. We still laugh, love, hate, fight, make peace, trade, and create. We still pick flowers to share with the person we love, touch hands to show affection, speak about and with others to pass the time, dream of the unsearchable at night, and eat together. So long as we have this connection to our ancestors, this shared set of behaviors built into us, we’ll still be human. Perhaps its in losing this that we lose our humanity.