📖 Sapiens

6M years ago — Our last common grandmother

We are members of a large and noisy family called the great apes. 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our grandmother.

Biologists label organisms with a two-part Latin name, genus followed by species: families > genus > spices.

  • Spices: share same DNA pool and when they mate with each other they produce fertile offspring — i.e. bulldogs and spaniels.
  • Genus: species that evolved from a common ancestor are bunched together under the heading 'genus' (plural genera). They show little sexual interest in each other and their offspring will be infertile. Hence their DNA will always move along through separate evolutionary paths — i.e. horses and donkeys produce mules, which are sterile.
  • Families: trace their lineage back to a founding patriarch.

For example, lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars are different species within the genus Panthera.

2.5M years ago — The genus Homo

The genus Homo evolved from an earlier genus of Apes called Australopithecus. However, prehistoric humans were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.

Humans had extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Modern Homo sapiens sport a brain averaging 80 cubic inches, but Neanderthal's brains were even bigger and also more muscular — which disproves that natural selection favored intelligence.

It did, though, favor earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely. Raising children required constant help from other members. Evolution thus also favored those capable of forming strong social ties.

  • 2.5M years ago, animals much like modern humans first appeared, but for countless generations, they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms that populated the planet.
  • 400K years ago, we start hunting large game.
  • 300K years ago, generalized use of fire.
  • 200K years ago, Homo sapiens that looked just like us first evolve in East Africa.
  • 100K years ago, humans quickly jumped from the middle to the top of the food chain.
  • 70K years ago, Homo sapiens from East Africa spread into the Arabian peninsula, and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. For some reason, our dominance as the only human species starts here.
  • 10K years ago, Homo sapiens remains mostly the exclusive human species around.

From about 2.5M years ago until around 10K years ago, the world was home to several human species. Very much like today, there are many species of bears: brown bears, black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears.

We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, but there were up to 6 different Homos for a long time — all of them human.

The question is: why? There are two competing theories:

  • Replacement Theory: a story about genocide and different mating habits between species; implies that all living Homo sapiens have roughly the same genetic baggage, and racial distinctions among them are negligible.
  • Interbreeding Theory: a story about attraction and sex, implies that there might well be genetic differences between Africans, Europeans, and Asians that go back hundreds of thousands of years. This is political dynamite, which could provide material for explosive racial theories.

It turns out we share a small percentage of genetic code with Neanderthals and Denisovans, which suggests that both theories could be right. 50k years ago, Sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans were almost the same species. We were not completely different species, like horses and donkeys; but also, not just different populations of the same species, like bulldogs and spaniels.

❓ "The" question: what would have happened — from a societal point of view — if other human species were still around?

70K years ago — The Cognitive Revolution

The sum of cultures becomes history and brings along new ways of thinking and communicating.

History declares its independence from biology.

It's not just our biology that brought us where we are today: the ability to rapidly change behavior opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution — transmitting new behaviors without any need of genetic or environmental change.

The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70K years ago to 30K years ago constitutes the Cognitive Revolution, and witnessed:

  • Invention of boats, oil lamps, bows and arrows, and needles.
  • Evidence for religion, art, commerce, and social stratification.
  • Fiction, gossip, cooperate together in common myths.
    • Ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all.
    • Gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands up to 150.

Language evolved as a way of gossiping. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist. This has made us the masters of creation.

There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

The secret to cross the 150 mark was the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths — such as stories about gods, nations, or LLCs. Since then, Homo sapiens have been living in a dual reality.

Our brains and minds are adapted to a life of hunting and gathering. Many of our present-day social and psychological characteristics were shaped during this long pre-agricultural era. Post-industrial environments gives us more material resources and longer lives, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

  • 45K years ago, appearance of the firsts permanent fishing villages.
    • We colonized Australia. No other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly using the same genes.
  • 15K years ago we domesticated the firsts dogs.
    • The human population was smaller than that of today's Cairo.

The size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging: the human collective now knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.

Today, most people in industrial societies don't need to know much about the natural world in order to survive. You need to know a lot about your own tiny field of expertise, but for the vast majority of life's necessities you rely on the help of other experts, whose own knowledge is also limited to a tiny field of expertise.

They were also more fit: varied and constant use of their bodies made them as fit as marathon runners. They had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve.

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.

Foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed. The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.

In most places and at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition. That is hardly surprising – this had been the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, and the human body was well adapted to it. A varied diet protected them from starvation and malnutrition.

The wholesome and varied diet, the relatively short working week, and the rarity of infectious diseases have led many experts to define pre-agricultural forager societies as 'the original affluent societies'.


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