Exploring the Human Story
A great deal is known about our long history as a species. Our ancestors have a complex past filled with many surprising plot twists and turns. Now is the time to weave the different sciences together to render the product of these investigations more rigorous.
Humans are a deeply and profoundly social creature. We share rich social qualities with many other species -- forming families as chimpanzees and bonobos do, cooperating at large scales in ways that are similar to ants and bees, behaving altruistically or competitively like water gliding spiders, and much more. Where we seem to differ is in our ability to build upon cultural information in a cumulative manner.
Studies in tool use show that humans have distinct abilities to think metaphorically, seek out and learn from the most skilled craftspeople, and produce innovations in technologies that are themselves evolutionary in nature. Research exploring early childhood development shows that we are avid social learners who "over imitate" the actions of adult mentors, picking up functionally unnecessary choreographed behaviors and repeating them so that we behave like our instructors. We also engage in complex ritual practices that need not have any obvious beneficial purpose as a way to form group identities and deepen emotional bonds with others in our communities.
Our evolutionary history is one of gradually building up the capacity for symbolic language until, sometime 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, our ancestors gained the abilities to create representational art in jewelry and figurines, ornamentation on weapons, and paintings on cave walls. There is now clear evidence that languages themselves evolve as well.
The human story is one of being a social animal whose life is shaped profoundly by an ancient tradeoff between large brains and standing upright on two legs. The limiting factor here was of course the pelvis of mothers who must successfully pass large-headed infants through the birth canal with both parent and child surviving the ordeal.
Our earliest ancestors come from a large swath of eastern Africa where they left footprints in volcanic ash, cast their tools (and a few skeletons) into the bogs to be preserved, and a variety of relatives who each in their own way can be called an early human. Yet something that is not yet clearly known is what gave rise to homo sapiens as a distinctive ancestral line with rich conceptual abilities, arts and language, and sophisticated tools that enabled them to find cultural adaptations in environments where biology alone would limit their survival.
Some of these ancestors have blue eyes since roughly 10,000 years ago when they lived at high enough latitudes that the change in hue increased absorption of vitamin D. Others domesticated cattle and gradually came to be made up of populations of people who still digest lactose in milk as adults, giving them distinct survival advantages when other food supplies were scarce.
Most dramatically, we humans have grown in numbers to more than 7 billion living beings today who live in every niche imaginable where technology and culture provide adaptations that enable us to thrive in these places. There are special genes for oxygen absorption among populations who live at high altitudes. Similarly there are special cultural traits for passing owned property from father to son (or mother to daughter) in social institutions that are well suited to their landscapes and unique ecological needs. Particularly importantly (given our current environmental crisis) we have, under some conditions, developed institutions for sustainably managing our natural resources, despite flagrantly exhausting their potential under other conditions. Similarly our ethnocentric biases appear to be quite variable, a facultative response that is relevant to tackling the epidemic of parochialism and intercommunity conflicts in recent times.
The human story is richly diverse and deeply inspiring. Join us in the community we have gathered to explore and learn more, conduct studies of your own to improve collective knowledge, and increase the accumulation of cultural (scientific) knowledge about what it means to be human.