Anthropoloco31 October 2013
Homo sapiens: they wash your car, repair your iPods and designed your Myki. Heck, if you’re reading this, I’m supposing that you’re not a rare, literate goanna—you’re probably a homo sapiens too! Is it not a remarkable thing to be a member of a truly puzzling and, in many ways, unique species within Earth’s biosphere? Personally, I’ve always marveled that without homo sapiens, the Aero chocolate bar would never have existed anywhere in the universe. Certainly those are my two cents of species pride, though I’m sure others will have their own.
Proud as many are to be sapiens, it is worth appreciating that much of this pride has its origins simply in a misplaced ‘only-child syndrome’. Where once our species was just one member of a widespread, messy family of humans, among them homo erectus, homo denisova and homo neanderthalensis, natural selection, interbreeding or perhaps just pot luck have left homo sapiens the last man standing. So without any older siblings to keep us in check and give us evolutionary wedgies, it’s been all relatively easy for our species to put up its feet, whack a fish on the fire and comfortably entertain the thought of sapien exceptionalism.
But if we’re going to browse through the sapiens photo album, we must eventually confront some of our awkward baby photos. A snapshot of our early ancient lifestyle reveals an insignificant, marginalised genus that would be lucky to get the scraps off a lion’s dinner. Teeth marks on fossils of primitive humans suggest that our ancient predecessors some 200,000 years ago were often the hunted, rather than the hunter; they would be snagged as a delicious, hominid treat by hyenas, alligators and birds.
Perhaps most startling of all is that this human mediocrity occurred at a time when those oh-so-large human brains were already far bigger than those of competitors. Today we love and grope our succulent brains like awestruck zombies, but they simply didn’t help us terribly much for a long period in our ancient past. For one thing, our large brain siphoned a massive chunk of our energy budget, and forced us to hunt more hours to keep the pink, squishy overlord supped and happy. Further, this big brain made childbearing more difficult, put a burden on locomotion and didn’t give us much physical strength in return. To wit; it’s no good beating a chimp in a game of chess if it promptly responds by lifting you up and throwing you off a cliff.
But our cumbersome brains also began to shape us in strange ways. If human brains were to keep growing juicer and chunkier, we simply could not emerge from the womb fully formed—childbirth would become tantamount to suicide. So ol’ natural selection decided to shorten our time in the womb and spit us out compact and underdeveloped. Here the social revolution of homo sapiens began to bubble like the delicious Aero bars of our modernity.
As baby humans were now waddling out of the womb relatively undercooked, they now required far more care from adults in their infancy, and from a greater number of adults too. Suddenly, a human child needed not just a mother or parents, but an entire community of fellow humans to raise it up from the level of tabula rasa to successful organism. Without a strong social network, homos erectus, neanderthalensis and sapiens would have seen infant mortality surge. So social arrangements and co-operation became paramount, and social psychology quickly evolved to match these needs.
But thanks to a big vocabulary and a loose tongue, we sapiens did it best. Surprising though it may sound, some scholars believe that one of the chief adaptations that allowed us to outmaneuver and outhunt our Neanderthal cousins some 70,000 years ago, was gossip. The ability to distinguish between friends and enemies, the loyal and the untrustworthy, is crucial to the social cohesion of most primates. But whereas chimpanzees, say, can only recall the details of those select few in their most intimate social environment, homo sapiens possessed the linguistic dexterity to gossip incessantly about hundreds of strangers and even distant clans.
This enabled us to manage far greater amounts of social relationships and networks and therefore co-operate in much larger, more powerful groups without forfeiting social stability. In particular, psychological evolution in sapiens made us interested in gossip that was transgressive—stuff that broke social norms. That way, if any other sapiens started sleeping around with partners he shouldn’t, or using fire where the tribe had forbidden it, gossip would circulate through the clan and his unproductive individuality would quickly see him corrected or perhaps ostracised. Still works today of course: how many of the James Hird haters have formed an opinion based on anything more than juicy news gossip?
And so with our increasing networking capacity and powerful imaginations, we have long since surpassed our Neanderthal and erectus brothers and sisters to now stand alone among the genus homo. Being the only-child in the human family for some 30,000 years now has made us rather big-headed, one can see. But while we sapiens pillage this world and munch proudly on our Aero bars, we should take care to recall how we were once but humble, dorky hominids, jumping through evolution’s hoops and lucking out for something better on the other side.