Our gene-fueled planetary conquest

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harari) has a great of putting the conquest of Earth by Homo sapiens into context:

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish. … Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.

The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.

most scientists agree that by 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens that looked just like us.

What if we hadn’t wiped out our genetic cousins?

Whichever way it happened, the Neanderthals (and the other human species) pose one of history’s great what ifs. Imagine how things might have turned out had the Neanderthals or Denisovans survived alongside Homo sapiens. What kind of cultures, societies and political structures would have emerged in a world where several different human species coexisted? How, for example, would religious faiths have unfolded? Would the book of Genesis have declared that Neanderthals descend from Adam and Eve, would Jesus have died for the sins of the Denisovans, and would the Qur’an have reserved seats in heaven for all righteous humans, whatever their species? Would Neanderthals have been able to serve in the Roman legions, or in the sprawling bureaucracy of imperial China? Would the American Declaration of Independence hold as a self-evident truth that all members of the genus Homo are created equal? Would Karl Marx have urged workers of all species to unite?

Over the past 10,000 years, Homo sapiens has grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of brothers and sisters makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. When Charles Darwin indicated that Homo sapiens was just another kind of animal, people were outraged. Even today many refuse to believe it. Had the Neanderthals survived, would we still imagine ourselves to be a creature apart? Perhaps this is exactly why our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals. They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.

Our success is making us progressively dumber:

Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximise the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal. They needed to know which foods were nourishing, which made you sick, and how to use others as cures. They needed to know the progress of the seasons and what warning signs preceded a thunderstorm or a dry spell. They studied every stream, every walnut tree, every bear cave, and every flint-stone deposit in their vicinity. Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites or hungry lions. Mastery of each of these many skills required years of apprenticeship and practice. The average ancient forager could turn a flint stone into a spear point within minutes. When we try to imitate this feat, we usually fail miserably. Most of us lack expert knowledge of the flaking properties of flint and basalt and the fine motor skills needed to work them precisely. In other words, the average forager had wider, deeper and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants. Today, most people in industrial societies don’t need to know much about the natural world in order to survive. What do you really need to know in order to get by as a computer engineer, an insurance agent, a history teacher or a factory worker? You need to know a lot about your own tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life’s necessities you rely blindly on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise. The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skilful people in history. There is some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging. Survival in that era required superb mental abilities from everyone. When agriculture and industry came along people could increasingly rely on the skills of others for survival, and new ‘niches for imbeciles’ were opened up. You could survive and pass your unremarkable genes to the next generation by working as a water carrier or an assembly-line worker.

The book inadvertently shows the bounds of acceptable discourse in modern academia. The author is a professor of history in Israel. The book contains one example after another of genetics determining behavior, sometimes to the point that an entire species went extinct due to uncompetitive abilities. Yet there is one outcome that the author says cannot possibly be influenced by genes:

But the hierarchy of rich and poor – which mandates that rich people live in separate and more luxurious neighbourhoods, study in separate and more prestigious schools, and receive medical treatment in separate and better-equipped facilities – seems perfectly sensible to many Americans and Europeans. Yet it’s a proven fact that most rich people are rich for the simple reason that they were born into a rich family, while most poor people will remain poor throughout their lives simply because they were born into a poor family. … Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time. Money comes to money, and poverty to poverty. Education comes to education, and ignorance to ignorance. … And those whom history has privileged are more likely to be privileged again.

The work of Gregory Clark, ultimately published as The Son Also Rises, which suggests that there is a genetic component to success, is not referenced. Nor is the fact that intelligence is as heritable as any other characteristic and our modern economy values intelligent workers. Essentially an author who had fully accepted the dogma of modern genetics subscribes to Lamarckism when it is time to explain why some of us are more financially successful than others. (The economist Clark, in  The Son Also Rises shows that it can’t be as simple as “rich people inherited money from their parents” because the generation-to-generation correlation isn’t strongly affected by the number of children (i.e., the number of ways in which an inheritance must be divided).)

More: Read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

7 thoughts on “Our gene-fueled planetary conquest

  1. Clark’s is pseudoscience and I remember easily debunking his claim that the number of children does not affect intergenerational wealth (he did not adjust for the increase in the size of economy nor for the familiar links) when you reviewed his book.

    The main fallacy in the ‘the rich are only rich because…’ is that it assumes that the current day rich are a bunch of morons who do nothing to stay rich. The British Royal family consistently ships its offspring off to military training and war, so I presume they are far from the stupid dolls they are normally described as, but they are possibly bona fide stone cold killers who happen not to use so much profanity in their day to day language to be confused for normal plebeians.

  2. This was an extraordinary book. Full of big ideas and context of human history on earth. Recommended.

  3. Would say humans are still diverging into 2 species. The top 1% are moving on. The bottom 99% are destined to go extinct. Long ago, all of us were the top 1%. Too bad hair is 1 of the genes going extinct.

  4. @Jack Crossfire: your 1% humans vs. 99% humans divergence theory ending in extinction of the latter is a fallacy. The reason is simple: somebody will have to buy retail what the 1%-er financiers/ manufacturers put out. Not to mention tend the lawns of, etc. So, no, the low wage working classes get no reprieve even by going extinct.

  5. Current best seller “Hillbilly Elegy” describes one subculture where the path to prosperity is almost non-existent, and apparently there are several of these subcultures. Being rich from birth is not the only path, but other routes require much more awareness and effort by the protagonist and his/her supporters.

  6. “Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.”

    This seems like a variation on Mitochondrial Eve, but from what I recall the results do not support such a sharp delineation.

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