How humans became human

tags: Science, science relevant to history, evolutionary anthropology

Avi Tuschman is an evolutionary anthropologist and the author of “Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us.”

Yuval Noah Harari is an emerging rock-star lecturer at the nexus of history and science. In a recent talk at Google on “Silicon Prophets,” he stunned the audience by convincing them that the most interesting place in the world today in religious terms is Silicon Valley and that “techno-religions” will replace liberalism’s cult of the individual as big data overwhelmingly surpasses the predictive power of our feelings and intuitions. 

Harari’s thinking is amplified in his new book, which has quickly become an international bestseller. “Sapiens” takes readers on a sweeping tour of the history of our species. The author structures this ambitious journey around three momentous events that have irrevocably shaped the destiny of humankind: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution and the Scientific Revolution.

The Cognitive Revolution arose from the evolution of the massive human brain. Harari ponders the considerable energy cost of maintaining such an expensive thinking organ and the concomitant atrophy of our physical strength compared with other primates’. He correctly points out that it’s not entirely obvious what first spurred the development of our species’s extraordinary intelligence. 

On the origins of language, however, Harari is more certain: It evolved as a way for social animals to gossip about other people’s reputations. In addition, language allows people to communicate about abstract concepts such as religion. And religion, in turn, bonds people together and permits cooperation among much larger populations than chimpanzee troops can sustain.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not always cooperative, though. Harari stays well-balanced by citing the high level of violence among prehistoric populations and present-day foragers such as the Aché of Paraguay. He also admonishes readers not to take the romanticized view that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature, because we have been, since our earliest days, “the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” Within only 2,000 years of humanity’s arrival in the New World, indigenous peoples drove to extinction 84 of the Americas’ 107 genera of large mammals — all before the invention of the wheel, writing or iron tools. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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