Friday, 25 November 2016

How We Became Human

by Edith Critchley

Cartoon presenting Charles Darwin as an ape (1871)


Long gone is the belief that humans were chosen by God to be the stewards of the earth, and that we began our time on this planet fully formed and with minds capable of speech and abstract thought. This was disproved by the likes of Charles Darwin and Jean Baptiste Lamarck in the nineteenth century, establishing the theory of evolution. But when at the exact point did we stop becoming apes and start becoming humans?

This depends on the definition of "human", which in itself is a whole other topic. Is it our anatomy, our bone structure and ability to run, climb, swim, and hunt? Or something less tangible, like our ability to process and communicate ideas, emotions and events that have not yet occurred? 

The way humans have managed to fully populate and control the earth, is down to a quality that we have not seen in any other species. We are able to work independently and socially, meaning we can communicate and build big social connections,in large groups but are independent enough to think by ourselves. Unlike bees for example who can't function without a whole hive supporting them, or snow leopards who only gather to mate and find others a threat. This serves as a huge advantage in times of low food supply.

"If you could interview a chimpanzee about the differences between humans and apes . . . , I think it might say, “You humans are very odd; when you get food, instead of eating it promptly like
any sensible ape, you haul it off and share it with others.”
– “Glynn Isaac (1937-1985). 

Reconstruction of Homo Habilis
This quality has meant rapid growth and sustainability. Alice Roberts, a palaeopathologist and professor at the University of Birmingham, recently traveled around Africa for her television show, 'The Human Journey’, where she investigates the early origins of mankind. She claims that we can try to estimate the time at which we began to gain abstract thought. We can do this by looking at the size of early skulls, and therefore the size of our ancestors' brains, I don't mean early Homo Sapiens, nor do I mean Neanderthals, as we do not directly relate to them (even though in-breeding would have occurred). I'm referring to species such as Homo Habilis, which existed around 1.5 and 2 million years ago, and Homo Floresiensis from around 100,000 - 60,000 years ago, who began making tools. The early species of human that began the making of stone tools have considerably smaller skulls than the modern Homo Sapiens, but they must have had the ability to have a need for something, and come up with a way to fix it. This in itself is pretty amazing. Abstract thought is the greatest asset of mankind; without it we would not have an idea of morals, thinking about things that don't exist, finding ways to fix problems and advanced communication of things that have not yet happened.


China Meevile's science fiction book (which I thoroughly recommend) featured a race of extraterrestrials who cannot lie, as their language is only readable between them if it comes from a genuine source. Without the connection of word and meaning like we have in all human languages, they are unable to think of something that hasn't happened. Which got me thinking: without communication can we really think something different, untrue, new? Does this mean that even though there is no writing or record of these languages we can assume that early communication was present at these times almost 200,000 years ago?

We very kindly bestowed upon ourselves the name Homo Sapiens, meaning wise man, but have we lived up to this label, used our impressive brain to keep the world we have lived in and taken for granted for so long fruitful and alive? W haven't. Not really. 

Only now do we realise that we are destroying our planet. Can we stop it before it's too late?



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