What Does it Mean to be Human?
The future depends on our understanding who we are, and how the past has made us so: what is unchanging about Human Nature, and what we can and must change to face a world that is far different from our ancestors’ world.
Where and when did humanity begin? Follow a long line of early ancestors, a line that is constantly updated by new findings. Then discover the new characteristics that around 100,000 – 75,000 years ago began to define our early ancestors as “human”. We cannot be precise about where or when since the evidence is scattered throughout the world, but the evidence is clear.
If we don’t know our history, social, psychological and biological, we can’t adapt fully to a world that we made.
Where humanity once was a straggling ragtag bunch, we are now in danger of becoming a monster capable of devouring all life.
What to do? First we need to know what the human journey was and to understand the paths we took and why.
Even before the first modern humans (homo sapiens) evolved, their ancestors reached what is now Georgia. Then, about 100,000 years ago, modern humans appeared in East Africa and the Middle East. Research in fields such as genetics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and linguistics helps us follow the major routes taken by modern humans in their expansion from these areas to the present day.
Moving beyond our inheritance; who we are and what we might become
The process has been the evolution of perception under different circumstances. 75 percent of the human brain develops after birth, so the different “worlds” we inhabit—family, language, culture—actually complete the brain’s development. As a result, people from different “worlds” are wired up differently because our brains have been exposed to different influences. That is one reason why individuals in different cultures have such difficulty understanding each other: even their visual systems are not the same.
A vivid example, that helps to keep this phenomena in mind, comes from the late cultural anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s wonderful book about living among the African Mbuti Pygmies:
Kenge looked over the plain and down to a herd of buffalo some miles away. He asked me what kind of insects they were, and I told him buffalo, twice as big as the forest buffalo known to him. He laughed loudly and told me not to tell him such stupid stories. ... We got into the car and drove down to where the animals were grazing. He watched them getting larger and larger, and though he was as courageous as any pygmy, he moved over and sat close to me and muttered that it was witchcraft. … When he realized they were real buffalo he was no longer afraid, but what puzzled him was why that had been so small, and whether they had really been small and suddenly grown larger or whether it had been some kinds of trickery. (Colin Turnbull, The Forest People, 1961).
As our contact with other cultures increases, it’s vital to understand differences in human development to appreciate better what we share and can learn from each other. We need to evolve more accurate views of our world and ourselves from which we can develop a more complete understanding of who and what we are, and what we might become, individually and humanity as a whole. We human beings inherit much, and the most important thing we inherit is the ability to go beyond our inheritance.
TRAVEL THE HUMAN JOURNEY
Follow those who left
Stages of the human journey:
Navigate through these stages to see what adaptations/choices were required/selected in various circumstances, how these and adaptations to various environments lead to specific changes in culture, diet, world view, perception, social organization, language, math, and forms of communication.
As human beings, we not only adapt, we make choices.
What are the real goals, stated or unstated, driving these choices? What, in the perception of the community or its leaders, were the reasons why something needed to happen? What were the perceived problems and their possible solutions?
See which solutions were selected in different communities and why. How did these solutions affect the community and change people's perceptions of themselves and their world? See how the accumulation of such creative adaptations makes our cultures and us so different from each other.
Explore how we are all the same. What are the “Human Universals,” the things we all have in common with which we began the journey and which continue to unite us as human beings?
Key Questions About Mankind
Along the way, confront some of the most basic questions about mankind.
Who are we, really?
What is the basic “package”?
Why do we always form groups?
Problem-solving and specialization
How did dealing with expanded territory and community contribute to specialization? Did specialization contribute to an emphasis of some views and skills over others?
How accurate is our view of ourselves now?
Once we begin to answer these questions, like a master chess player, we can better predict outcomes and make moves to ensure a better future.