My many emotionally-stirred detractors at N24 will be thrilled to learn that I am currently studying a course on human origins through the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I suspect that this news will make them feel rather 'knowing' and even smug as I admit that the experience is teaching me a vast amount about religion, why it emerged, and the part it has played in human development.
Yes; it is true… This semester, old Meme’s head is being topped up in the HolyLand.
I pause a moment for those possessed of ‘the spirit’ to bask in this in this revelation….
And then I proceed; imparting some fascinating aspects I’ve just learned of our human development:
Over the past 2.5 million years, various hominid (human-like) apes evolved in Africa, some migrating, at different points in our deep past, onto the Eurasian continent. The best known being Homo Erectus across Asia, who existed as a species from about 1,8-million years ago until just 150,000 years ago. Another is the large brained Neanderthal, with brains larger than modern human brains. Neanderthal’s tenure across Europe lasted from 600,000 years until 30,000 years ago. Although those of European descent can show up to 5% Neanderthal genes in their genome – the original Neanderthals (Erectus and other hominids) are not our direct ancestors, but our cousins.
Then, in Africa, around 150,000 years ago – Sapiens evolved – Sapiens are our direct linage and species. Ancient Sapiens are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable in morphology, brain size and appearance from modern humans, like you and I.
But there is one remarkable difference that I will come to presently:
Our Sapiens ancestors of 150,000, 100,000 or even 70,000 years ago lived a life not very far removed from any of our other Great Ape cousins. They were mainly prey animals and scavengers; and, although they and their hominid cousins used elementary stone tools to mitigate their puny physical attributes for defense or attack, nothing marked out this one species of ape/proto-human as potential masters of the earth and its other species.
Indeed – at around this time (70,000 years ago), Mount Toba in Indonesia blew its stack in a super-volcano eruption that put the earth into a nuclear winter. This pushed the species Sapiens to near-extinction – our numbers dwindling to around 5,000 individuals; we teetered on the very edge of oblivion. The evidence for the volcano is found in sediments globally, and the population bottleneck it caused coincides precisely on the same timeline, written into our genes – it is clear that everyone alive today carries in them genes that come from the 5,000 individuals who survived the catastrophe, 70,000 years ago.
But then, something extraordinary occurred with Sapiens; we discovered how to master and then make fire.
Fire allowed us to burn whole forests. A puny single individual could reduce a forest and it’s living contents to ash in a matter of hours – allowing for scavenging the remains of animals caught in the blaze. Effectively, cooking was invented; and cooking is an ally to digestion – allowing us to eat a more omnivorous diet and acquire more nutrients with less effort and digestive cost. Fire swung the balance against predators that preyed on our ancestors, it kept us warm in colder climates, and it provided light in order that we could extend our day, our communications and strengthen our kinship. The invention of the needle allowed our ancestors to fashion garments that gave them even more range into colder climes than the much more robust Neanderthal could handle.
And then another extraordinary thing happened. Language evolved from elementary to complex. Ours was not the first language – even insects use complex chemistry to communicate; all animals are able to provide levels of warning, encouragement and direction to their fellows using visual cues or chirps; and ours was not the most complex language either – birds and marine mammals (dolphins and whales) have immensely complex songs and clicks – by some measures, more complex than our own.
But human language hit upon deriving complex meanings from relatively few sounds strung together in countless combinations. It was a breakthrough echoed much later again when writing finally developed; when the less flexible pictogram hieroglyphs of later human history gave way to alphabets that, rather than using pictures of words to capture ideas, devised an infinitely more flexible system that strung letters together to make vastly more words than mere pictures could convey.
To show what effect complex articulate language provided to us, let us consider our closest surviving Great Ape cousins, the Chimpanzees. Like humans, Chimps are social animals; relying on group dynamics and cooperation to survive. But, in this, chimps have a problem. In order to cooperate and avoid conflict, each chimp needs to keep track of all the relationships within their group; how each other member ranks in hierarchy, and what alliances are at play at any one time.
Mathematical models show that in a group of 50 individuals, there are 1,250 potential relationships. And, because chimp language can only communicate elementary information, each chimp must personally see what has occurred between other members with his or her own eyes; the chimp that is absent for a short time during which, say, the leader is ousted, cannot know how or why it occurred or who was involved in the coup – so that the potential for group instability or ostracization (of the absent-returning member in this case) is rife.
For this reason; chimp groups (and, presumably, those of our non-talking hominid ancestors or cousins) rarely grow more populous than 50 members. Above 50 members, the group becomes unstable and fractures into 2 new groups.
But complex language introduced a new group dynamic – gossip.
To this day, our human existence is dogged by gossip. But the need for gossip in ancient times gave us the first of many pushes up the mountain from which we now dominate our environment. Gossip is, generally, negative story sharing of the deeds of others. It is the policeman in an age where no police exist. Gossip can destroy reputations; it can warn everyone as to who in the group is unreliable, dishonest, or otherwise dangerous. Gossip undermines reputation – and, especially in small groups adrift in the wilds, a loss of reputation can be a death sentence; in this regard, gossip can be viewed as a force or tool of natural selection!
But, gossip too has its limits. Mathematical models and correlating or corroborating observational anthropological evidence puts that limit at around 150 individuals.
Even today we see it in our own organizations; a small family business can grow unhindered until it approaches 150 staff – at which time, a crisis occurs: There is simply not enough time and human attention available to rely on chatter to keep tabs of the various hierarchies and necessary flow of relationship information.
Either the group must fracture or something else must give.
In the military, we see an amplified version of what that ‘something’ might be: authoritative structure and ranking hierarchy. Layers of structure: Squads, platoons, companies and battalions – each level of individuals within its number and its superiors who report up a chain to the next level comprising no more than a few dozen individuals; who can easily keep track of and interact with one another within their close-knit group.
So – we see groups of our ancestors from 70,000 or so years ago increasing in size as their ability to manage and organize themselves internally improved through more competent and complex communication language.
When we get to around 30,000 years ago – a date that tantalizingly coincides with the obliteration of the last Neanderthals – we see the evidence that language has reached a level of competence and nuance that includes ‘fictious language’.
‘Fictious’ language refers to language capable of describing and conjuring fictitious stories.
The simple grunts and other communication devices of, say, Chimps (and, evidently, our extinct hominid cousins) simply cannot do more than warn of real-world material needs or circumstances: hunger, food, danger, etc.
But fictious language allowed us to tell stories. To not just communicate the gossip of tensions between clan members, feats of bravery or cowardice on the hunt; but invoke the imagination of things that are not real but only an idea: Gods were born, nations were forged – and much else in time too.
Thunder, earthquakes, volcanoes, rivers, oceans and sky were all personified and given benevolent or malevolent temperaments.
The concept we now call ‘memetics’ was about to seize us. Very rapidly it evolved to rival genetics as a means to steer mankind’s path: Memes (pronounced meem) are cultural analogues to genes; infectious ideas that self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective social pressures: A meme is "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person"; it is the unit that carries cultural ideas, symbols or practices, transmitted from mind to mind through writing, speech, gestures, or rituals."
We see the results that fictious language (and memes) has built – cultures and nations with all their members founded in and aligned to the story of their common heritage or purpose. Confident religions or economic/political doctrines, criminal gangs and sports fans, that each cling to the story of their origins lost in time, imagined and embroidered-upon, steeped in glorious or lofty illusions of special purpose or destiny.
These things do not really exist outside of the mind of those who buy into them; a currency represents a fraction of an economy that is trusted or not trusted, and is valued accordingly. Tens of thousands of religions ascribe to thousands of improbable gods dispensing impossible deeds; but any member of the same sect can and will instantly cooperate with any other stranger of his or her sect; it is the notion of the sect that binds them together and dictates their cooperation. A billion and more Chinese identify with a common history and will risk life and limb in war to ‘uphold’ nothing more than the idea that they have a bond.
One cannot explain to a chimp that it is in the same criminal gang as another chimp it has never met – it is human fictious language and the concept of fictitious reality that gives us this unique gift (to cooperate according to the prescripts of a fiction we have invented out of thin air!). Two stranger chimps cannot come together as attorneys to protect the rights of or defend a third chimp in the face of charges of contravening some behaviour standard; and it is only the common fictious language of our law that allows us to seal a proclamation of squiggles on a sheaf of paper with a signature that, for instance, proclaims a “legal person” in the form of a Limited Liability Company (PTY) into or out of existence. That company is not its products, it is not its workers, it is not its executives or factories – all of these things are replaceable: The company is simply a fiction that we all agree upon once the shaman who is the legal authority sanctioning its existence, has performed the necessary ritual to make it real.
And now it is that the real world; the world of resources, of nature, of rivers, habitats and oceans; survive or are obliterated by the fictious and memetic notions of our species. It is only the notion that a conservation area should be maintained within the boundaries of some line drawn on a map that provides it a level of safety from plunder. It is the fiction that another race or religious doctrine of our own kind is detestable to the point of the euphemistically termed “ethnic cleansing” that a madness might seize a whole other group who go about a grisly murder.
Seventy thousand years ago, predicting our species’ path; from mastering fire, through elementary communication, fictious speech and memetic notions; would have been impossible.
As we move further into the 21st Century, we have no hint of what the next mega-development might be; the one that shapes us into the next 70,000 years; that is, of course, if we manage to survive ourselves for a more modest 70 years!
We can speculate and say that our demise or our success might be the Internet – which mixes our cultures and distills our ideas. It may be our old friend, the microbe, who mounts a counter-offensive by evolving around our best antibiotics and then pruning our numbers and obliterating our economies back to a pre-industrial revolution state. Or, so long as so many among us suffer the neurological disorder of wanting to bring about an Armageddon, we cannot guarantee that the weapons of mass destruction in our hands won’t bring about the self-fulfilling prophesy of prophesy. And finally, the earth and its climate is creaking under the weight of our boom in population; and there is no evidence to suggest that help will or could come from anywhere else.
But then, as a counterpoise, we have vast breakthroughs in genetic manipulation – but the jury is out on whether these will be our cure or our undoing.
We simply cannot precisely predict or know; the evolution of the body, mind or outcome is not a predictive science.
The only thing that is certain is that communication set this all off – and more effective communication will be central to it’s ongoing theme.
We can speculate – and I certainly will in the coming weeks.
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