Blog 81. What makes humans human?

I’ve been observing how our practice of religion, and our practice of political beliefs, are often more of a social nature than developed from an evaluated philosophy.  In other terms, beliefs are often expressed (or even chosen) more by whom we run with than by the literal content of the dogma or political platform.  We’re social creatures, and it feels good—feels best—to be with others of a like mind.  That’s safety and comfort, safety in numbers and comfort in the affirmation that we’re right and others are (by implication) wrong.

Is there any evidence for this assertion?  The feature article* of the 8/2015 Scientific American tells why modern humans (doing business as Homo sapiens) are the most invasive species of all time.  The author, Professor Curtis Marean, reports that the first anatomical humans (about 200,000 years ago) initially stayed within Africa.  Those who moved into the middle East about 100,000 years ago weren’t successful.  However, those who moved out into Eurasia about 70,000 years ago encountered other humans—including Neandertals in western Europe and Denisovan humans in Asia.  After the modern humans invaded, all the other humans (Homo something elses) became extinct.  As the newcomers spread to Asia, Siberia, Australia, and the Americas, many of the large animals also became extinct—including the giant sloths and mastodons.  In short, it seems that H. sapiens generated a mass extinction wherever they went.  And are still doing well a the job.  Today, we are engaged in one of the world’s greatest mass extinctions.

What’s so special about the sapiens team?  Other than being the sole surviving species of the genus Homo?

Well, the professor says, it was (and still is) teamwork.  These people cooperated with each other, and neither the other humans (humanoids?) nor the beasts could compete.  Furthermore, the sapiens developed weapons that act at a distance.  Spears.  And arrows.

We have, the professor says, a genetic predisposition toward extreme cooperation.  Although he doesn’t say it, I note we also have a predisposition toward communication—language, drawings, smoke signals—means to make that cooperation work across distances.

The professor says the fate of the Neandertals helps to explain why horrific acts of genocide and xenocide appear in the world today.  We’re hardwired to hang with our “in” crowd, to classify non-members as “other” and to react to scarcity horrifically.  But, concludes the professor, we don’t have to turn on each other instinctively.  We can develop culture to override cruel biological instincts.

Culture.  I claim that’s the rules and beliefs that make a society from what would otherwise be a bunch of disassociated individual naked apes.  The result is the Anthropocene epoch, when human activities override even geologic processes.  The professor didn’t say it, but I can:  The world now turns on beliefs.

Examine your beliefs, examine how those beliefs lead you into active groups, and take responsibility for the beliefs.  And for what happens.
* Scientific American, August 2015, pp.33-39.

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