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Human evolution in modern times -- Where are we, and what lies ahead?

M.C. Whitfield Web Site Home Page

A Godless Philosophy - Contents

Preface  (What's this all about?)

The Story of Evolution

14,000,000,000 y.a. -- The Big Bang
Evolution begins

4,600,000,000 y.a. -- Our Sun and Earth
Stars evolve, producing the complex elements of organic life

2,500,000,000 y.a. -- First life forms on Earth
A bacteria reproduces itself, and the race is on

220,000,000 y.a. -- First mammals
A tiny shrew survives among the dinosaurs

30,000,000 y.a. -- The great apes of Africa
Chimps achieve sociability, planned combat, and use of natural objects as tools

5,000,000 y.a. -- Earliest human ancestors
It looks like a chimp but walks upright

3,000,000 y.a. -- Earliest toolmakers
Still chimp-like, this larger-brained ape makes the first stone tools

1,800,000 y.a. -- Later pre-humans
More human-looking without fur, this naked ape conquers fire and reaches Eurasia   

300,000 y.a. -- Neanderthals
Evolved in Europe's Ice Age, they hunt and kill 7-ton mammoths

50,000 y.a. -- Modern humans (Homo sapiens)
Fully human now, we narrowly escape extinction to follow our destiny

45,000 y.a. -- Spread of modern humans throughout Eurasia
Out of Africa, we encounter the pre-humans and fight our way north

30,000 y.a. -- Extinction of the last pre-humans
Neanderthals, the tough guys, hold out the longest

15,000 y.a. -- First settlements, city-states and empires
It takes us 35,000 years to create the first small city

600 y.a. -- Racial differences and European conquests
Guns, germs and steel

Now -- Human evolution in modern times
Where are we, and what lies ahead?

Theory or Science?  Sources and References

Evolution's Implications  (Summary)

Miscellaneous Musings

I perhaps should have called this page "Marsh's Summary and Conclusions." The observations which follow are mine, and while I believe they derive directly from the scientific findings described above, I do not attribute any of them to my sources, except as noted.

For eons, humans evolved without understanding evolution -- as if bound to a journey wearing blinders, without awareness of origin, direction, or duration. Then, in 1859, Charles Darwin removed our blinders. It was a priceless gift of perspective and insight.

Now, thanks to Darwin and the scientists who followed him, we can grasp the enormity of our evolutionary journey. As we look back down the long corridors of time, we know that part-human beings lived for millions of years. We can relate to them, literally; they were our ancestors.

Their journey was horrendous. I am filled with relief to be living today.

Life today isn't just better than before the industrial revolution or the Dark Ages. Much earlier, our fully human forebears endured 1,700 generations as hunter-gatherers in the wilderness. There were times of triumph for the men in battle or in the hunt, and for the women, moments of felicity in the birth of a child. But by and large, these were harsh lives, lived without horizon or hope or any concept of change. Often they ended in horrific deaths, being eaten alive by a bear or tortured to death by an enemy tribe.

And prior to that? A quarter-million generations of pre-human lives, lived mostly as animals but without the innocent simplicity of an animal's mind. Synapse by synapse, proto-human thoughts were beginning to connect in our ancestors' brains. Questions about life and death must have formed briefly, tauntingly, before slipping away. Those millions of lives were little more than disposable grist for evolution's implacable mill. I weep for the unknowing dead.

But thanks to them, here we are, and life is good. On the surface, we have become quite rational creatures, rightfully proud of our accomplishments -- from music and art to moon landings. While admitting to some imperfections, we prefer a self-congratulatory image of ourselves.

That image, evolution teaches us, is a dangerous half-truth. We are still animals. Intelligent animals, to be sure, but inhabited by powerful, ancient instincts which influence and often overwhelm our rational minds. Understanding this will not banish the animal part of us, but it can help us overcome it.

Consider aggression. Despite all our education and progress, we remain deeply tribal -- innately suspicious of those who look or talk differently. We retain our chimpanzee instincts to treat strangers as enemies and for males to fight.

Civilization has given us lots of practice in working cooperatively and controlling this urge. Archaeologist Lawrence H. Keeley estimates that 65% of primitive human societies were at war continuously, and 87% fought more than once a year. A typical tribal society lost about 0.5% of its population in combat each year.

Had the human population of the twentieth century suffered the same casualty rate, our war deaths would have totaled two billion. Instead, our deaths from wars plus genocide were "only" about 1/10 of that.

Obviously, we have evolved during our 15,000 years of civilization, but this deep, murderous instinct is far from extinct.

Actually, it's everywhere you look. In every culture on earth, young men love to fight, and women, by and large, love warriors. The world's two largest religions still support war. Each returning soldier is a "hero" no matter what he or she did in the service. American culture preaches peace but glorifies warfare. In fact, patriotism is measured by the willingness to fight -- suicidally if necessary, like so many Medal of Honor recipients have done -- for God and Country.

I have this recurring mental image... Remember the three chimps going out on a killing mission, as I described earlier? In my image, they keep morphing into three Special Forces soldiers, moving silently and warily through the same woodland. Only the camo outfits and weapons have changed.

Of course, the world is filled with other humans driven by the same aggressive instincts (frequently incited by religious extremism), so we need national defense. Our communities contain lawbreakers and dangerous people, so we need police.

But we can strive to continue civilization's progress. We can stop being in denial about our aggressive instincts and recognize that political leaders as well as voters have a deep unconscious bias toward military action. We can look for leaders able to rise above that bias and seek non-military solutions to global problems. Women, being less influenced by aggressive instincts, may be better leaders in this regard.

We can do a better job of educating our children about mankind's common humanity. We can stop teaching our kids that violence is acceptable, by reducing their exposure to blood-drenched movies and ultra-violent video games. We can reduce the cowboy mentality of the next generation by teaching truth: that "The West was Won" mostly by genocide, and that the real heroes of of the 21st century will not be gun-totin' rugged individualists but dedicated teachers, doctors and researchers.

And every young woman should remember that fighting among young men is instinctive. There is no rationality to it. A fight can start over nothing and turn deadly in an instant, with a head smashing into a curb or a broken bottle thrust into a face.

Even men who try to avoid confrontation can find themselves drawn into a fight as if caught in an undertow. Especially if a woman is involved. Women should never rely on their date or mate, however smart he is, to think clearly when a fight looms. Often, only the woman can prevent the fight.

In my youth, I was saved from likely injury not once but twice in one summer by a clear-headed girlfriend. In two dangerous, outnumbered situations I should have been smart enough to avoid, she was smart enough to grab my arm and hiss "Walk. Away." at the right moment. Thank you, Susan, wherever you are.

Speaking of dates and mates brings us to another problematic male instinct: promiscuity. Again, the trouble-makers are the males. What can I say?

With all creatures, the instinct to reproduce is almost as strong as the survival instinct -- in some cases, vying with survival itself.

The genetic makeup of a species is determined by those who produce the most offspring. In our ancestral lineage, the most sexually active males produced the most offspring. This locked sexual aggressiveness into our genetic code. By several hundred million years ago, long before the shrews, there was no such thing as a sexually polite male.

But several hundred thousand years ago, scientists have recently discovered, this open promiscuity gradually gave way to "pair bonding" in later pre-humans -- a precursor to marriage.

With that change, new instincts evolved in human females. Instead of passive receptivity to all the tribe's males, the better reproductive strategy was to obtain and hold on to a mate, for the protection of herself and their offspring. (Always, and still today, with a preference for a dominant male). "Privatization of sex" soon followed.

Unfortunately, males remained captives of their far more ancient instinct to copulate with as many females as possible. They would "pair bond" with a particular female, but they would also cheat. I imagine that one of the first things modern humans gossiped about, when they finally achieved language 50,000 years ago, was so-and-so's infidelity, and the ensuing arguments in that corner of the cave.

So all those years of pair bonding, plus 15,000 years of civilization and formal marriage, have hardly made a dent in the age-old male instinct for promiscuity.

Many women just don't want to hear about this. They dream of a future picture-perfect marriage and they don't want a cloud in the sky. Or they've already been betrayed and hurt by a mate's faithlessness and don't want to listen to what sounds like an excuse. Evolution offers neither promises nor excuses, but it does offer useful perspective and insights.

First, male infidelity has been common in all human societies throughout history, and polygamous societies exist around the world. Studies of extramarital sex in the U.S. show that unfaithful husbands often include men of good reputation who are honest in all their other dealings. It's probably safest for a woman to assume that her mate will not be exempt from this troublesome instinct once their relationship gets beyond the "in love" phase.

Second, being beautiful and desirable is no protection. Contrary to all the "How To Keep Your Man Happy" advice, a man's infidelity usually has nothing to do with his mate. In almost all cases, promiscuity is neither a rebuke or a judgment, nor is it a matter of seeking someone with better qualities. The instinct is blind, and in a very real sense, so is the man when he is being unfaithful. As far as the instinct is concerned, there is "nothing personal" involved. His mate, of course, would beg to differ.

Specifically, when a man perceives a woman as being possibly available, he becomes "reproductively focused," in the words of psychologist Dr. George Fieldman. That's a shrink's way of saying that lust tends to bypass or short-circuit normal brain function (as reflected in countless jokes).

While the evolution of male promiscuity was based on reproduction, the instinct itself boils down to a simplistic, immediate urge to copulate with the targeted woman. Certainly a future child was nowhere in the thoughts of Presidential candidate John Edwards when Rielle Hunter told him, "You are so hot."

In fact, when any man is "reproductively focused," his thoughts are embarrassingly limited. They typically don't extend much beyond "what's the fastest way to seduce this woman?" and "what will be my excuse for coming back two hours late from lunch?"

The bottom line on male promiscuity is this: wedding vows and cultural and religious pressure manage to keep some men monogamous. But it's unwise for a woman to blindly trust those restraints. Nor is constant suspicion an answer. What can help is a simple, straightforward awareness of this troublesome instinct. Men know if their partner is keeping an eye on them.

Taking awareness a step further, some women serve notice of their intended vigilance by telling their mate "Of course I trust you; I just don't trust your animal instincts and all those other women out there."

And women have a final defense: the threat, implied or expressed, of retaliatory infidelity. Men are instinctively paranoid about their mate being impregnated by another male ("her baby, his maybe"). The male possessive instinct, like all instincts, is blind; it kicks in even in these days of birth control. So this tactic uses one powerful instinct to counter another, like fighting fire with fire.

Retaliatory infidelity, of course, should be considered the relationship equivalent of global nuclear war, but the threat of it usually works unless the wandering mate or husband is actually looking for a divorce or open marriage.

Every woman will have to work out her own defense against the male promiscuity instinct, but its objective will be the same: to keep her mate from thinking she'd never suspect. When the inevitable happens, and he's staring at a seductive woman's cleavage, the undertow is pulling him, and his rational mind is starting to close down, she wants his first and last thought to be "Stop! It's not worth the risk!" or "Nah. I'd never get away with it."

Somewhere, an old greybeard chimp is laughing.

Evolution has left us with other troublesome instincts. After 4 million years as hunter-gatherers, independent and free, we retain a deep resistance to being governed. Our instinct to reproduce, to have as many babies as possible, has brought world population to seven billion, tracking toward nine billion in 2050.

But these and other vestiges of evolution are self-evident from the history covered in the prior pages; I'll leave it to you to connect a few more dots.

At this point, we make a leap. We leave what science has proven and jump to what science suggests to me: "Evolution's Implications" and "Miscellaneous Musings," which follow. To help you look before you leap, here are a few questions to mull over.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of our intelligence is grasping evolution. Finally, we understand it. Or do we? Perhaps we should step back and take a wider look.

The early universe started evolving from its inception. The stars then evolved, and biological life evolved. Evolution appears to animate life in the universe. Could evolution be the life force of the universe? If so, could it be our link to eternity?

Jump to Evolution's Implications

Copyright © 2011 Marshall C. Whitfield