Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How We Got This Way

Two possibilities:

We are a very young species. At about 100,000 to 150,000 years old, maybe less, we have just flickered into an existence that could go on — if we are an average species — for 8-10m years. We are not yet out of our nappies. Without going into the details, there are only two ways we could have amassed the genetic differences we have while still in this toddlerhood. One is that different races have been good at keeping to themselves since we spread around the world after walking out of Africa 70,000 years ago. Physical separation would have allowed many random differences to accumulate between groups. But this could only have occurred if inter-group migration were very low. It could also reflect active avoidance, something suggested by the growing sense among anthropologists that human history can best be understood as constant attempts by different group to annihilate each other.

The second way humanity could have achieved its genetic variation would be if natural selection has acted strongly on human populations, promoting different traits in different groups. I say "strongly" because the differences have been produced in a short time, and natural selection has had to work against the homogenising influences of migration and interbreeding. This is why we can be sure that when we see so-called "adaptive" differences, they tell us we are staring at people who have been selected to be very good at some challenge their environment throws at them, be it conserving heat, protecting the eyes from wind-blown sand, fighting off malaria or being able to digest milk proteins. These are not accidental differences.

Moreover, even after the ravages brought by the waves of expanding agriculturalists beginning about 10,000 years ago, followed more recently by the great imperial conquests of the last 800 to 900 years, humans still speak about 7,000 distinct languages. You don't get that by hanging out with each other.

The last is so obvious one wonders how it is so often overlooked. Humpback whales, so far as I know, don't "sing" differently in different oceans.

The answers converge, of course. And point to a trait. You can't say we're all racists, or clan-bound by nature, but you can't treat people who are that way as some sort of freakish abomination on the species. It seems to me the way to get past our past is to 1. realize it's a burden and we don't need it anymore, and 2. acknowledge it happened like that for so long for a reason. It's not original sin -- original sin being a notion remarkably adaptable to secular worldviews, it seems.

Saying "this is how recent evolutionary ripples have shaped our behavior tendencies" is not to say "we are locked in to these patterns, and they are justified." That is the accusing response I usually hear from anti-sociobiologists. We happen to have a lot of instincts that don't suit us anymore, just as we have too many teeth for the smaller jaws we now have, which no longer need to gnaw mastodon tendons raw off the bone in the Long Cold.

If cooking fires and goat-herding come, can orthodontia be far behind?