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July 26, 2012

Excerpts from What Does It Mean To Be Human? By Richard Potts and Christopher Sloan
Published by the National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 2010
Companion book to the Hall of Human Origins exhibit at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum

The primary center of our “humanness” is in our evolved brain with its intricate wiring and especially with the development of the frontal lobes which play such a significant role in emotional responses, memory, and motor skills, including the ability to control small, complex movements of the hands, fingers, and facial muscles. Moreover, a well-defined area is associated with expressive language, and, in addition , the frontal lobes are associated with awareness of our surroundings and the ability to plan.
Much of what we consider the core of our individuality – our self-consciousness, our memories, our ability to interact with others, even our ability to get a joke – depends on the functioning of our brain. Indeed the whole universe of human cultural phenomena – our belief and value systems, our complex social lives, the myriad complex calculations in the economic and scientific realms, the flourishing of creativity in the realm of art and imagination, all astonishing and uniquely human characteristics – would not exist were it not for the brain. [p. 102 – 103]

Chimpanzees and other great apes pass on learned traditions across generations, leading to behaviors unique to particular social groups – sometimes called great ape cultures. Humans, however, are by far the most reliant on cultural inheritance which rapidly generates and communicates existing and new ideas and behaviors, all mediated by the brain. Our cultural abilities are often contrasted to our genetic inheritance, but the two are closely intertwined. Genetic inheritance acts on the storehouse of biological variation, of which only a small subset can be coded in the DNA inherited by any one individual. Since this kind of inheritance can be passed on only from parent to offspring, genetic responses to survival challenges usually require many generations to catch hold.
During human evolution, though, our genetic inheritance has encoded the capacity to grow a large, adaptable, rapidly working brain that can instantly spawn new behavioral and mental possibilities. Our genetic inheritance includes the capacity for language, which is itself a complex code for generating almost limitless communications at short notice compared with the timetable of genes.
Opportunities for meeting the world in new and diverse ways grew exponentially when these two forms of inheritance, genetic and cultural, joined forces. The human brain became intensely social. The activities and thoughts of one brain became unavoidably entangled with many others. The brain is thus much more that a structure contained inside the skull. Our brains belong to the people around us as much as to ourselves. [pp. 110 – 111]

The persistence over time of early human ways of life and technologies is mind-boggling when compared with pace of change today. The evolution of our capacity to accumulate innovations laid the groundwork for building technologies far beyond a basic toolkit, and for diversifying the possibilities for our species beyond the habits of handaxe makers.
Two basic patterns of toolmaking – the Oldowan and Acheulean traditions – endured from 2.6 million to 500,000 years ago, with hardly anything new added, except for handaxes and other large cutting tools around 1.6 million years ago. These technologies were defined by elementary procedures of flaking stone, which served our hominin ancestors well for a very long time. Then, intriguingly, variety and innovation began to blossom, with a particularly rapid expansion in creativity within the past 100,000 years.
As the handaxe tradition met its demise, technology started to become defined by careful preparation of stone, a wider variety of raw materials, and a smaller and more diverse toolkit. Specialized implements and equipment allowed human ancestors to prepare pigments, process wild grains, store food, and capture fast and dangerous prey. The pace of innovations multiplied exponentially. Rather than lasting for a million years, newer technologies endured for tens of thousands and then thousands of years. Today rapid obsolescence is assumed. We have become entirely dependent on technology for survival, whether we are getting our energy from nuclear reactors or a campfire. Human innovation and reliance on technology are hallmarks of being human. [p. 117]

When anthropologists talk about modern human behavior and its origins, they are concerned with four dimensions: technological, social, ecological, and cognitive. Regarding technology, modern human behavior involves innovation and the ability to respond to the surroundings in a variety of ways, which are responsible for the diversity of cultures, technologies, and styles of making things. Socially, it involves the ability to form networks of individuals and groups that can exchange information, ideas, and resources. Ecologically, modern human behavior refers to the capacity to use and alter the immediate surroundings, enabling people to disburse to new regions and to use and alter a wider swath of habitats. Each of these dimensions also implies a cognitive acuity that is greater in degree, if not kind, than that of earlier ancestors. [p. 118]

It is one thing to be inventive; it is another for the novelty to spread and to persist for any length of time. There are several factors necessary for such spread. Population density must be large enough and a strong network of social contacts is essential. But environmental change can also affect the momentum for change. About 360,000 years ago in East Africa began a long period of about 300,000 years of strong variations between dry and wet climate affecting landscapes and resources. It was during these times of stress that the early indications of human innovation were first expressed. The unchanging all-purpose handaxe was supplanted by a smaller more mobile technology. Wider social networks and group exchange occurred on occasion, and we see the expression of complex symbolic behavior. Mobility, planning, new types of tools, and contact between groups could help reduce risks and heighten the chances of survival in the most difficult times. [p. 124]
But repeated droughts in Africa between about 140,000 and 70,000 years ago may even have reduced population density below a threshold required for the spread of innovations, and prior innovations may even had disappeared. But when the northern ice sheets grew to their greatest extent, beginning around 33,000 years ago, migrating groups of our own species had already become so competent at surviving difficult times that the population didn’t crash. Instead, these early colonists crowded into the most favorable foraging grounds, as reflected by a great number of archeological sites. As population density rose, ideal conditions were created for the spread and accumulation of innovations. And a “creative explosion” in Europe [e.g, cave paintings, adornment practices, and burial rituals] was indicative of the dual factors of environment and population that helped fuel the accumulation of innovations.
Eventually, the basic toolkit of ancient hominins gave way to the myriad toolkits and cultural variety of H. sapiens as it spread into new environments. Dependence on technology was but one part of a package that made human beings so successful at this time. Yet no element was more important than our imagination, which gave us the ability to contemplate our role in the universe and to plan for the future. [p. 125]

Symbols, the stuff of art, music, language, and ritual, are so integral to our lives that it is hard to imagine life without them. Daily routines like selecting clothing and jewelry to wear, reading the newspaper, chatting with friends, and going to school or work would not exist in a world without symbols. It is with symbols that we communicate complex ideas and with symbols that we know what is happening beyond the range of our own vision or hearing.
The most powerful symbols of all are those of language. Every human group uses arbitrary symbols and a language for transmitting information and learned behaviors among individuals and across generations. Language enables humans to think about the past and the future, to imagine distant places, and to describe things, such as ideas, that we cannot see. Language is the essential medium through which we share vision, knowledge, meaning, and identity.
With symbolic language in place, our ancestors were able to communicate in new ways. Not only could they now reach across time and space but they could also share the secrets of their minds – their hopes, dreams, and memories. They could also delve into abstractions, such as efforts to explain the ways of the world and their very existence. Symbolic communication lies at the root of imagination. [pp. 126 -128]

Language and symbolic behavior added an entirely new dimension to our ancestors existence. Symbolic thought allowed us to harness the power of consciousness – one of humanity’s most prominent defining qualities. Language provides a way of processing mental images and assigning meaning to objects, events, and abstractions that need not be visible. An amazing aspect of language is its ability to process sensations about the mind itself and to locate mental activity where it actually occurs, inside each one of us. We can symbolically identify and distinguish our own mental life and personal experiences from those of others. We can imagine and talk about “my mind” and “your thoughts.” We can think about thinking and our own identities. Thinking, emotions, and the whole spectrum of mental experiences can be understood and used as tools that serve our own concerns and those of others, conferring an immense survival benefit. [p. 131]

The music we play, the language we use, and the art we make, now as then, are all symbolic behaviors that help establish group identity. Using symbols to communicate social status and group identity was probably one of the original purposes of personal adornment. Without saying a word, one can communicate simple ideas such as “I’m already married,” “I’m the chief,” or “We’re a team.”
In contrast to the first major dispersal of Homo, typically ascribed to Homo erectus, symbolic behavior was critical to the success of the dispersal of Homo sapiens within and beyond Africa. The ability of people to create and reinforce group identity permitted humans to diversify culturally and to adapt their ways of life – and their identities – to the new conditions they encountered. Humans had developed a means of creating a cultural, symbolic universe that reflected survival conditions in the immediate present but was also full of other possibilities. We are a species ready to apply its gifts for imagining and innovating, which united us in the human condition and allowed our dispersal to all corners of the planet. [p. 137]

Loren Bullock
May 10, 2011

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