The Godly Algorithm (73: A great shift to culture)

The great shift

Cultural evolution, this third phase, is many things. In the universe’s long evolution and life’s fast evolution, this emergent great shift to cultural evolution features a rising continuum of consciousness superimposed on the other rising continua of complexity, intelligence, and instinct. It also features rising understanding, though in measure sorely deficient to the need—and it should feature rising wisdom and a sense of purpose, though, in these fundaments, human societies in every quarter of the globe are grievously deficient. We mostly don’t know what we’re here to do, so very few are doing it.


Cultural evolution’s great shift also embodies cause and effect. Its cause is the great shift from instinct to choice—i.e., from the genes fate gives all animal species at their conception, to the good mind we highest-humans are given by our DNA—minds we are responsible to develop and use to good purpose. Having passed the threshold that enables us to constantly choose, as other creatures cannot, we have crossed other meaningful un-animal-like thresholds during our unfolding human history such as empathetic perception—feeling inside ourselves what we see another person feeling—and the ability to recognize immaterial things, or to conceive and envision them as the case may be.


Its effect is social adaptation, for if H. sapiens is anything it is social—whether hunter-gatherer or New York socialite. Cultural evolution, if we f-l-o-w with its modern iteration as almost the entire world population does, enables adaptation in many forms such as:

  • the earth—human ability to adapt, transform and exploit differing earth environments to advantage for oneself, and perhaps others; and the obverse…
  • …oneself—ability to adapt one’s behavior and habits advantageously to quite different environments;
  • free will—conscious perception of personal purpose and free choice to pursue it, or not;
  • ethics—choice for cooperation over competition, in common purpose for the common good, and in one’s behavior toward others.


Keeping this context in mind, let us now turn to human events that have actually taken place, within all this context, during Homo sapiens quite brief time upon the stage.


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Significant Periods in Human Cultural Evolution


Developments in early human pre-history (300,000 to 50,000 years ago)

Though humankind made its appearance as a separate and distinct species somewhere between 300,000 and 260,000 years ago, our tale here arbitrarily begins 170,000 years ago for the simple reason that archeological evidence shows people were wearing clothes by then, not fig leaves. If they had clothing, we may infer that they also had adapted animal sinews and plant fibers to hold the pieces together, and had or would soon invent needles to pull them with. The only sewing needle actually found so far, a mere 50,000 years old, was made and used by the Denisovan people. But our logical inference—how very human—lends confidence that needles had to have been invented long before that. It’s merely a matter of time until older needles will turn up in the archeological haystack.


Remember, these early Homo sapiens people—the beginnings of ourselves on his planet some 300 millennia ago—were just like us. It’s easy to forget that, in our easy reversion to silly cave-man stereotypes. These people had our big brain to think with, they looked just like we do, indeed they were like us. They were us, with the sole exception that they had not yet accumulated our culturally acquired and transmitted store of knowledge—the store of knowledge we alone as a species must attain and pass on culturally because we were born with relatively little animal instinct remaining in our genes. These early Homo sapiens ancestors had emerged, up to a higher plane, in evolution’s long, long sweep.


We are the first species in the history of life on this planet to embody the extremely significant transition from primarily instinct-based behavior to cultural choice-based behavior. This big difference means that our early ancestors, just like us today, were faced with the need every day and year of their lives to constantly choose among the multiple options they were able to perceive—an evolutionarily-emergent perception that none of our little animal brothers and sisters had or has yet attained. Several other species have begun their own elementary versions of choice, but millions of generations yet lie between them and the level of choice-making ability we humans are naturally born with.


So let’s get on with recounting the long slow process whereby our unique species uniquely accumulated its exclusively human store of knowledge. At this late point in accumulating human history, our accumulation of knowledge so far is quite impressive—so impressive in fact that only a few polymaths can any longer hope to become expert in more than a single topic, if that, and there’s no longer any hope of keeping up with our massively accumulating species knowledge. We can only fall further and further behind as the knowledge piles up daily. How simple life must have been way back when just about everybody knew almost all of the collectively accumulated human knowledge.


By 150,000 years ago human populations had moved into most regions of Africa, including the Sahara which 120,000 years ago was green and fertile. The oldest known human-made structures in the world, built about 100,000 years ago in what would become southern Egypt, were “tent rings” consisting of oval depressions lined with flat sandstone slabs. They originally supported dome-like shelters of hides or brush, serving as semi-permanent habitations that, sensibly, could be easily disassembled and moved.


Perforated seashell beads made in Morocco 82,000 years ago are the world’s earliest known evidence of jewelry for personal adornment. Representing symbolic thinking that Homo sapiens demonstrated from the start, they would soon be followed by archeological evidence in the form of threaded ivory, ostrich shells and teeth, use of red ochre for ceremonial and decorative purposes, tools made of stone, bone, antlers and ivory for cutting, scraping and pounding, and improved hunting technology such as spear throwers.


Around 74,000 years ago the sustained eruption of a supervolcano at Lake Toba in Sumatra set off a global winter that lasted up to ten years and was followed by cooler temperatures that affected humans badly for up to a millennium. One of earth’s largest-ever eruptions, its massive ash and smoke discharge into the atmosphere were so extreme that widespread vegetation and animal species die-offs resulted. Human population may have been reduced to as few as fifteen thousand survivors worldwide, though scientists argue for and against this hypothesis. If true, it implies a second population bottleneck, with great narrowing of variety and diversity in the human gene pool more recent and more significant than that of the Mitochondrial Eve bottleneck (156-120,000 years ago).


Beginning roughly 70,000 years ago in what is called the “recent African origin paradigm,” modern humans migrated from east Africa northward into Eurasia, thence spreading eastward across southern Asia to reach Oceania and Australia by around 50,000 years ago. By 40,000 years ago the numbers who had veered northwestward into Europe were significant. These early-arrivers are often called “Cro-Magnons” after the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in southwestern France where their remains were found. It took another 15-20,000 years to establish significant populations across Europe and central Asia, by which time trade networks had become fairly well developed. Humans trade. Migrations into northern Europe and Asia were delayed until the last of the great ice sheets of the Last Glacial Maximum finally melted away around 10,000 years ago.


These migrations are to be distinguished from earlier out-of-Africa movements in which H. sapiens may have reached the Levant and Europe in waves at, respectively, 185,000, 130,000 and 115,000 years ago—also China (and possibly North America) around 125,000 years ago. None of these led to significant, lasting colonization but, like the subsequent migrations, they are of interest as to the environmental conditions and cultural motivations attending them. Cyclic wobble of Earth’s axis naturally produces wetter and dryer cycles at long intervals, but whether these caused migrations is unclear.


Developments in middle human pre-history (50,000 to 11,000 years ago)

As the evolving continued, human cultural evolution gradually accelerated all unnoticed. By 50,000 years ago modern humans had greatly refined the making of clothes, and were widely burying their dead with ceremonial ritual including clothes and valued objects. They also had become proficient in using clever, more complex hunting techniques, such as pit traps and cooperative group game drives to surround game or force it over a cliff.


Having reached and settled the coasts of east and southeast Asia, humans of our kind paused only long enough to develop seaworthy boats, or perhaps seaworthy rafts complete with huts and rails—we really don’t know. We do know that with little more than unwritten empirical understanding of celestial navigation to estimate location and direction, they set forth over the great Pacific Ocean, eventually reaching and colonizing Australia and thousands of Oceania’s far-scattered islands. That some of those brave old sailors survived to find such far-flung specks of land separated by thousand of miles, islands they had no way to know even existed—and that they did so carrying food, water and both sexes to ensure future procreation—strains the term miracle. Yet these ancestors’ brave accomplishments were no miracles, they were solid practical deeds. Human migration out over the vast Pacific was truly a great leap forward.


Early in the past fifty thousand years our human ancestors developed their nascent art, another aspect of non-material mind that distinguishes them from the rest of the animal kingdom they had so long ago surpassed in mental potential. Spectacular drawings and murals created by stone age artisans in caves such as Chauvet (ca. 30,000 years old) and Lascaux (ca. 20,000 years old) in France intrigue the modern imagination. Nearly 600 drawings, mostly of animals, adorn the walls at Lascaux, and cave art in France’s famous Dordogne region dates variously between 35,000 and 12,000 years ago. Early human art even older than that in France is found worldwide in locations as distant as Blombos Cave in South Africa, Lubang Saleh Cave in Borneo, and widely scattered locations in Australia. Recently discovered figures painted in the Leang Bulu’ Siong 4 cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi date to between 35,100 and 43,900 years ago, and may be the world’s oldest pictorial record of human storytelling and supernatural thinking.


Coincidentally, at some point during this artistic flowering, the last surviving member of our old ancestor species Homo erectus—the first who walked fully upright and strode boldly—died somewhere in Asia, carrying that grandparent branch of the human family into extinction. Another near-ancestor Homo Neanderthalensis, although evolved into being after H. erectus, had preceded erectus into extinction by perhaps 10,000 years—dead and gone around 32,000 years ago at a long-occupied home called Gorhams Cave overlooking the placid Mediterranean Sea at Gibraltar. Many times those robust old Neanderthal humans, our close cousins, had happily interbred with the more gracile H. sapiens, but to this day there are strong lingering suspicions it was H. sapiens what done ‘em in, as they say. But not before a few hybrid offspring wandered back to Africa.


We cannot leave the subject of extinctions without mentioning Homo Floresiensis, an odd little offshoot of the well speciated human family that once inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores. Standing perhaps three and a half feet tall, these archaic pygmy humans—nicknamed Hobbits—were discovered only in 2003. With receding foreheads fronting small chimpanzee-size brains, receding chins and large teeth for their size, they walked upright on short legs with over-large feet. Despite small brains and stature they nevertheless made and used advanced tools, hunted local pygmy elephants and large rodents, coped with predators such as Komodo dragons, and may have used fire.


Notwithstanding their odd details, H. Floresiensis resides squarely within the Homo family of human species, though their origin and evolution remain a mystery. Their diminutive size was probably a result of “island dwarfing,” whereby creatures confined to isolated habitats, and unthreatened by serious predators, tend to grow smaller over time. Evidence is mixed on whether this isolated human species originated as an offshoot of H. sapiens or the considerably older H. erectus, but they clearly died out around 50,000 years ago. Their apparent degeneration in both stature and brain size exemplifies those cases where random zig-zag evolution zags downward from its overall upward trend.


As to who or what done in the hobbits of Flores, the only apparent evidence is circumstantial. Wherever modern humans have ever gone there seems to have been apparent correlation with extinctions of the larger resident species—mammoths, dodos, Hobbits, whatever. You will of course have deduced that H. sapiens arrived in East Asia’s Flores region just about 50,000 years ago.


Tasmania presents a similar interesting example of evolution’s chance occurrences of retrogression—going down, not up, submerging versus emerging. Humans had crossed a temporary land bridge from Australia by 40,000 years ago, and became isolated when sea levels rose about 16,000 years later. By the time Europeans began colonizing the island in the early 1800s, Tasmanians no longer possessed bone tools, fishhooks, hafted tools, spears or spear throwers—technologies still well advanced on the mainland. Lacking fishhooks they had lost their taste for fish. Lacking bone tools they no longer knew how to sew clothes, and smeared themselves with sea mammal fat to retain warmth. Perhaps they were started on the same path the Flores hobbits had taken.


Lest we sophisticated moderns think these things irredeemably primitive, ask yourself how effective you would be at repairing your cellphone if it quit. Or how you might recharge its battery if a power outage called upon your skills for restoring electricity in a failed power transmission grid. For that matter, do you know how to make a needle or a fishhook in case you need to? Specialization of knowledge and skills, an inevitable result of evolving modern culture, have rendered us as utterly dependent on our highly complex modern systems as the Tasmanians were on that land bridge—indeed, more so. We are at extreme risk if just a few of our most vital modern systems happen to shut down—the electric power grid, the internet, our internet-dependent banking system, the diesel fuel distribution system that keeps our millions of trucks delivering stuff…  What else?…

 – to be continued in one week –


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