Warning: This post is the first in a series, and won’t resolve itself for at least two or three posts. In other words, it won’t be readily apparent why exactly I’m writing about this for a little while, but hopefully the story keeps you reading. Trust me, I will bring it back around to advertising, memes and the art of storytelling. Eventually.
Since I was very young, I often thought about what we have in common with animals, and what are our key differences. It’s a way of asking the question, “What makes us human?” As well as “Why are we the way we are?” Is it learned? Is it innate?
Here’s the brutally simplified, Coles notes versions of a few of the questions I sorted through, and am still sorting through:
Question: Is language what makes us unique?
Answer: No, many animal species, such as honey bees, use language in some form.
Question: Is it the capacity to love?
Answer: Clearly, depending on one’s definition, many different species of animals seem to demonstrate the capacity to love. Your family dog is a good example.
Question: Is it the use of tools?
Answer: While we’re obviously quite good at using tools and developing technology, we are not the only species that can devise tools.
And so on. But more recently, a thinker has come along who turned my notions of what makes us unique as a species – right on its head. A brilliant professor from the University of Jerusalem and author of the the modestly titled “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind”, Dr. Yuval Harari is one of the most agile interpreters of history and human evolution writing today. He’s also an outstanding writer and cogent speaker. Nearly 100K people have signed up for his online video course, “A Brief History of Mankind”. Including yours truly.
In his incredibly readable book, Dr. Harari talks about a theory that has been gaining currency as of late in academic circles. While I’m no academic, I do like to peer into certain disciplines to see how thinking has evolved since we were in grade school being taught “the truth” about where we came from. The question Dr. Harari poses is this: 70,000 years ago there were at least 6 species of humans (from our ancestors to Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis, etc.), just as, say, there are multiple species of bears or eagles. It is the norm in the animal kingdom to have multiple species per genus, which only makes sense given the diversity of conditions on this planet that would stimulate a variety of adaptations. We were neither the swiftest nor strongest nor even likely the best hunters. The much maligned Neanderthals had us beat in all those departments. And they too used tools and had fire.
So what happened to those other species of humans and how was it that between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, all human species disappeared except for ours, while simultaneously our ancestors spread rapidly across the planet? What happened to our non “Sapiens” brethren? Were we responsible for their disappearance? And if so, what did we do? Just as intriguing: Was there some ability that we acquired or developed that gave us the decisive advantage over them?
Yes, you guessed it: In next week’s instalment I’ll reveal what Dr. Harari has to say about the above. If you can’t wait, then of course you can order his book from Amazon. Which is something I highly recommend you do. Or you can gather around the campfire next week and read the next segment in this story…