Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lessons from the dead

The true nature of the evolution of humankind


Homo Naledi no doubt had many wondering what all the fuss was about. On the other hand there must have been as many, if not more, who wondered why not much more fuss was made of it. At the very least, very few would have missed the discovery of ancient hominid fossils in a cave some 50 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg, described by National Geographic as “one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century”.

In revealing the discovery, lead scientist Lee Berger described it as a new species that contributed to the pool of genes that eventually made us what we are as humans today. In the process he prompted inevitable detractions from a handful of his peers and emotional protests from those who have firm beliefs about the origins of humankind. But in the end the significance of unlocking the mysteries of our prehistoric past has to be more than academic or even simply revealing how we adapted as a species. It is has to tell us something about the evolution of our behaviour, more specifically how we behave towards each other.

Indeed, this is the ultimate measure we all use to distinguish ourselves as a species: our much greater ability than other creatures to forge social cohesion as the ultimate determinant of our survival. It is that distinction which marks our evolution; that sets us apart from other creatures and accounts for our dominance on the planet. It is also that distinction that leads to a rejection of the idea that the level of social empathy which humans have, could have come from an evolutionary process and be anything else but externally inspired.

So when a team of scientists discovers that this trait may have been present in “non-human” yet prehistoric ancestral creatures dating back possibly a million years or more, its significance cannot be underplayed. It is true that Berger and his team reached this very tentative and speculative conclusion on circumstantial evidence only and by eliminating all other possibilities. This was that the fossils got there by some form of ritual burial. As National Geographic put it: “Disposal of the dead brings closure for the living, confers respect on the departed, or abets their transition to the next life. Such sentiments are a hallmark of humanity”.

It is self-evident that such a display of respect for the dead can only be the outcome of a similar regard for the living and a very high level of caring for each other. If confirmed, it would be a highly significant finding. Previously the earliest display of such behaviour was concluded from the discovery of a 200,000 year old jawbone which told the story of an elderly woman who was kept alive thanks to the kindness of her companions.

Evolution then is much more than how we have adapted physically and intellectually to our environment. The most important criteria is about how we behave towards each other. Which poses the obvious question: have we really evolved fully as a species? Are we much more advanced than Homo-Naledi? Some would argue not, although I’m not one of them.

There is overwhelming evidence of our ability to care for each other, of empathy, as an instinctive and not purely cognitive, cultural, religious or taught behaviour. This exists on a personal anecdotal level in the way we feel when we see someone in pain or distress; on a neurological level through monitoring human brain responses to the predicament of fellow creatures (or even others such as Rhino and Cecil the lion); and now increasingly through palaeoanthropology. It is also reflected in most of us recognising universal values such as honesty, integrity, justice, fairness, and empathy.

It is true that for centuries we appear to have been on an evolutionary trajectory that favours the immediate self-interest driver; that excuses acts of blatant meanness on the understanding that it is based on a natural instinct of survival. We have even come to expect this behaviour as an essential ingredient of success, and have constructed a variety of measures on an individual, country and company level that not only encourages but ultimately drives it.

Our understanding of business is that it exists primarily for the self-gain of the owners which can even be at the expense of the other, limited only by competition and laws. But in essence the opposite is true. Trade and human transaction were giant leaps in the behavioural evolution of mankind. Their very core is based on an ability to identify and respond to the needs and wants of others. To argue that this is inspired exclusively or even primarily by individual material self-gain is presumptuous at best.

Yet it was somewhat ironic to have the Homo-Naledi news headlines mostly displaced by the plight of millions of migrants and refugees. In dealing with this humanitarian crisis, how would the receiving countries and indeed humanity as a whole be ranked on the behavioural evolutionary chart?

Our evolvement as a species physically and intellectually may be at the extreme right of this chart. But our behaviour may still be on the far left.

Now that would be a far more telling measure than any other we have followed.

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