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How We Came To Be Human [Preview]

The acquisition of language and the capacity for symbolic art may lie at the very heart of the extraordinary cognitive abilities that set us apart from the rest of creation

When we contemplate the extraordinary abilities and accomplishments of Homo sapiens, it is certainly hard to avoid a first impression that there must somehow have been an element of inevitability in the process by which we came to be what we are. The product, its easy to conclude, is so magnificent that it must stand as the ultimate expression of a lengthy and gradual process of amelioration and enhancement. How could we have got this way by accident? If we arrived at our exalted state through evolution, then evolution must have worked long and hard at burnishing and improving the breed, must it not? Yet that seems not to be how evolution works; for natural selection is not--it cannot be--in itself a creative process. Natural selection can only work to promote or eliminate novelties that are presented to it by the random genetic changes (influenced, of course, by what was there before) that lie behind all biological innovations. Evolution is best described as opportunistic, simply exploiting or rejecting possibilities as and when they arise, and in turn, the same possibility may be favorable or unfavorable, depending on environmental circumstances (in the broadest definition) at any given moment. There is nothing inherently directional or inevitable about this process, which can smartly reverse itself any time the fickle environment changes.

Indeed, as well see a little later, perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from what we know of our own origins involves the significance of what has in recent years increasingly been termed exaptation. This is a useful name for characteristics that arise in one context before being exploited in another, or for the process by which such novelties are adopted in populations. The classic example of exaptation becoming adaptation is birds feathers. These structures are essential nowadays to bird flight, but for millions of years before flight came along they were apparently used simply as insulators (and maybe for nothing much at all before that). For a long time, then, feathers were highly useful adaptations for maintaining body temperatures. As adjuncts to flight, on the other hand, they were simply exaptations until, much later, they began to assume an adaptive role in this new function, too. There are many other similar examples, enough that we cant ignore the possibility that maybe our vaunted cognitive capacities originated rather as feathers did: as a very much humbler feature than they became, perhaps only marginally useful, or even as a by-product of something else.

Lets look at this possibility a little more closely by starting at the beginning. When the first Cro-Magnons arrived in Europe some 40,000 years (kyr) ago, they evidently brought with them more or less the entire panoply of behaviors that distinguishes modern humans from every other species that has ever existed. Sculpture, engraving, painting, body ornamentation, music, notation, subtle understanding of diverse materials, elaborate burial of the dead, painstaking decoration of utilitarian objects--all these and more were an integral part of the day-to-day experience of early Homo sapiens, and all are dramatically documented at European sites more than 30 kyr old.

What these behavioral accomplishments most clearly have in common is that all were evidently underwritten by the acquisition of symbolic cognitive processes. There can be little doubt that it was this generalized acquisition, rather than the invention of any one of the specific behaviors Ive just listed--or any other--that lay behind the introduction of modern behavior patterns into our lineages repertoire. This new capacity, whats more, stands in the starkest possible contrast to the more modest achievements of the Neandertals whom the Cro-Magnons so rapidly displaced from their homeland in Europe and western Asia. Indeed, Cro-Magnon behaviors--just like our own--evidently differed totally from those of any other kind of human that had ever previously existed. It is no denigration at all of the Neandertals and of other now extinct human species--whose attainments were entirely admirable in their own ways--to say that with the arrival on Earth of symbol-centered, behaviorally modern Homo sapiens, an entirely new order of being had materialized on the scene. And explaining just how this extraordinary new phenomenon came about is at the same time both the most intriguing question and the most baffling one in all of biology.

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