Why we still need an evolutionary account of Homo sapiens

We need one because we do not yet have one, or even the attempt at one.

This is our present situation.  Animals behave and behaviour, as Richard Dawkins says, is “rapid muscular movement”.  This seems strange at first.  Surely we behave in ways that do not involve rapid muscular movement?  Surely thinking is behaviour?  Not so, if we account behaviour only as that which is perceivable by another human being.  Your closest other can behave, from your point of view, only if you can perceive them behaving.  The only way that thought can be expressed is through rapid muscular movement (I think Dawkins put in the ‘rapid’ to distinguish it from, say, gut peristalsis.  The beating of the heart of another is perceivable behaviour, the muscular contraction of the viscera not so much.)  That thinking can only be expressed through muscular contraction is even more of a surprise than that behaviour can.  It means that thinking can only be expressed by behaviour.  But think of Steven Hawking.  He can only communicate via a tiny muscle in his cheek.  Contracting it activates an electrical sensor.  If that muscle goes, he can no longer behave in any way, and that includes communicating his thoughts.

So humans behave, just as do all other animals.  And the evolutionarily earliest kind of behaviour which differentiates us from other animals is not speech.  Speech is a derivative of the other, earlier big thing in hominin behaviour, fabrication; manu, literally, facture.  That is, all that we, as a genus, made and used, until the age of machines, by muscle contraction.

The word hominin is used because what we naturally refer to as human beings is our species, Homo sapiens, and a lot of the evolution of our ancestors, including the evolution of our material culture, took place before we were around.  Hominin includes for instance the Acheulian handaxe makers, a different species with a smaller brain and probably more hair, Homo erectus.  And the earliest worked stones go way back beyond erectus, possibly to Australopithecines about three point two million years ago.

If all human behaviour is rapid muscle contraction, what has this muscle contraction produced?  Well, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, the Benin bronzes, the coffee mug and the boomerang — the first locus of applied aerodynamics.  Also, Don Quixote, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Goldberg Variations and the Mona Lisa.  Also the Large Hadron Collider.  But the LHC is of course a bit different.  The ultimate agent in its construction was invariably the human central nervous system (CNS) and human rapid muscular movement, but the proximate agents were almost invariably electronic and mechanical machinery which can now do things previously only doable by the human organism.

Everything that has been produced since maybe 3.2 million years ago, and still persists today, the possibly earliest worked stones at Lomekwi 3 and that possibly hubristic city of Dubai, together with 60 billion tons of concrete, all the mining and processing waste that comes from our half a billion tons of aluminium, and half a billion tons of plastic per year.  (I am sceptical of these figures, but they seem to be all we have).  All in all this product of the human CNS and muscle contraction adds up to, at a round figure, 30 trillion tons.  It does not take a huge effort to arrive at the conclusion that we as a species are dependent on our survival on this 30 trillion tons of matter, I don’t mean long term but from day to day, and anywhere that it’s winter and cold or desert and hot, hour to hour, even minute to minute.  If everything which has emerged on earth from human muscle contraction (or in the last three hundred or so years from its machine surrogates) were to disappear on the instant (this includes language, of course) the only groups likely to survive are hunter gathers who are so totally educated in their own environment and ecology that they could pre-linguistically fabricate much of their material culture from the nature around them from the registrations in their CNSs.  Me, I’d be gone after one starlit frosty night, if not before.

This thirty trillion tons of matter on which our species is wholly dependent has been labelled, by a worldwide group of researchers led by the Leicester University palaeogeologist Jan Zalasiewicz, the technosphere; the signature of the age of the geologically perceptible presence of human beings, the Anthropocene.

These incontrovertible facts are hugely alien to almost all human beings.  We are not psychologically attuned to them.  We like to forget this mass of matter as a sine qua non of our existence and regard all that we do as the output of pure thought.  Steven Pinker is an example of this tendency, and an example of how even the most intelligent of human beings can entertain vacuous notions.

Unfortunately it is not the sudden absence, physically impossible, of the technosphere which is likely to give our species the chop, but the opposite.  The life support systems of our planet are already falling apart as the result of the technosphere, and at an accelerating rate.  The true horror of this situation for me is as I look straight out of the window onto the solar panels that at this moment, midday and sunny in mid-February and slightly hazy, have generated 4.25 kilowatt hours of electricity.  If we release so much carbon (my diesel car and wood-burning stove) and other pollutants into the atmosphere that the sun cannot penetrate the murk, these solar panels, which are meant to be a carbon substitute, will stop working.  And what else will stop working is that on which all eukaryotic life (cells with a nucleus) fundamentally depend, photosynthesis.  The  rapid result would be a great extinction which, if it runs its course, would have been perceived as inevitable by any thought-experiment extra-terrestrial intelligence that might be watching us.  (I see The Long Read in yesterday’s Guardian is To the ends of the Earth: why Silicone Valley’s tech billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand).

So, among other things, like getting rid of a neoliberal polity and Silicone Valley’s tech billionaires, what is immediately necessary is both decelerating the growth of the technosphere, and converting it from fossil to direct solar (and hopefully hydrogen and geothermal) energy, while ceasing to strip the earth of multitudinous mutualistic eco-systems for very short term gain (industrial agriculture, biofuels).  These steps are crucial to our persistence as a species.  That much is formally obvious to all people on earth except neoliberals, who can see no further than their exponentially accumulating wealth; and their attendant workers and agents.

So why is the practice so opposed to the logic?  To put it at its most simple, because of what we are.  I now move into the central themes of the book, and put them in a nutshell from which they need careful extraction, expansion and analysis.

We humans have, from the very earliest creation myths, regarded ourselves as created beings.  “The Salmon People went to their King and said ‘we look to the land and we see the Wolf People and the Eagle People have already become human beings, and we would like to as well.’ And the Salmon King gave his permission, under certain strict conditions.”  That’s the general kind of thing.  And the Salmon People kept up their covenant with the Salmon King until the arrival of the first NGOs, the Christian missionaries.

During the Eurasian Enlightenment, which became a thing in the 17thC, the creation myth peddled by the Christian NGOs became the creation myth of the Rational Soul, under the icon of Descartes, and the rational soul was transmuted into god-like (Descartes said as much) human intelligence, which created the technosphere out of pure thought, ideas generated wholly in the brain; here the icon is Steven Pinker again.  That view, well ensconced in the academic discipline of Cognitive Psychology is, two nutshells here, bollocks.  It entirely discounts the evolution of the technosphere, which is a massive repository of information.  In this way.  How in a Pharaoh’s time did an apprentice learn to make bricks?  By going on a course where they were sequestered in a windowless room while a lecturer explained to them over hours and days what a brick was, the process of their manufacture and use ad nauseam?  We who have taught in a Cumbrian technical college know to what degree of utter rubbish this tends.  The Pharaonic apprentice would be dispatched by their mother with a packed lunch and an excess of good advice to their first morning at the brick field.  “Okay, you’re puddling clay.  Now get fucking on with it.”  And over the days and months and years they would learn to make bricks.  They learnt this largely from the brickfield itself and its processes, with just a bit of natural pedagogy, “Nah, nah, nah, not like that, yer great mollox, like this.”

We learn what dogs are from living examples of dogs, not from humans, except for the word dog.  Likewise cups, fences, apples.  Without the technosphere, we could know nothing, and would have no language.

So, in a nutshell, human beings evolved from pre-apes, and the technosphere evolved alongside us, step by minute step, the brain increasing in mass in order to incorporate the initially minute but evolving technosphere, the technosphere evolving in a way, and only in a way, that could supply the growing, relatively enormous energy needs of the brain.  At a certain point, around 300,000 – 200,000 years ago, the brain stopped getting bigger and since then has got a little smaller.  It presumably stopped at the time it could accommodate the technosphere (accommodating the technosphere needed massive expansion).  At that point of sufficiency, any excess brain mass would be selected against because of higher energy demand, and it is possible that our smaller brains are a result of the evolving  technosphere being increasingly efficient at supplying us with usable energy, to the eventual detriment of course of our nutrition and health, which decline began with agriculture, sedentary living (in the locale sense, not lounging in armchairs) and the domus. [Laland’s extended cognition may have a place here, that we need slightly smaller brains because so much information has been farmed out to the technosphere.]

The drive which this mutualism between our organisms and our material culture, our organisms and the technosphere, our organisms and what Dawkins calls our extended phenotype and so do I, is straightforward.  It is the selection criterion of success, first to reproduce and, just as significant, to accumulate as much of our extended phenotype as possible.  At the moment I’m reading the scraps of Theoginis.  It was certainly so in his day two and a half thousand years ago, and it’s a safe assumption that it was so with our Acheulian handaxe making forebears a million years ago.  Neoliberalism is but the latest guise of that basic function.

So the imperative for our continuance in our present condition as species is not a matter of ‘us’ taming the technosphere, because the technosphere is half of us.  Take it away, not just central heating, Mycenae and Stonehenge, but every last atom of it, and we are naked apes with huge brains, nothing in them, and no natural survival skills.  I am particularly aware of this because outside the double glazing, beyond the snow-blanked solar panels, is a blizzard, engendered by the collapse of the circumpolar vortex.  Where, naked, would I walk to in this pre-human wilderness?

So ‘us’ isn’t the naked organism, nor our material culture, our extended phenotype, the technosphere.  It is a symbiosis of the two, absolutely interdependent; an obligate symbiosis.  And it is a symbiosis of two things, one of which, the organism, is the environment in which the other, a god-made shield for Achilles, concrete, CO2, replicate.  It follows that a constraint on manufacturing and extraction is not ‘us’ acting against ‘it’, it is a matter of obligate symbionts, human beings, which have evolved as a mutual entanglement with our material culture over millions of years — and evolution is a process without a purpose, it’s not teleological, not anthropomorphic like ‘God’ — and are continuing to so evolve, at an increasing rate, with now the material culture taking the upper hand, artificial intelligence, robotics, evolving with accelerating rapidity.

Now the symbiont has somehow to take control of its own evolutionary path.  This is not impossible.  It is about as difficult as say a brain surgeon operating on their own brain, which I suppose with state of the art robotics and vision technology is theoretically possible.

So that’s why I think this hypothesis, or model, and it is not more than that, of the evolution of human beings is important.


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