Saturday, January 9, 2021

Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time I

In order to take a break from Bertrand Russell, I decided to read this short book by Gaia Vince, who is a science journalist. I have been avoiding books by Yuval Noah Harari, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Tomorrow, because, according to reviews I've read, they contain errors. Harari is a historian, and apparently he has delved into areas in which he has no particular expertise. Vince, on the other hand, is a science writer, and she seems to have a good grasp of the relevant research. I've so far read three of the five sections and find them to be informative and well-written. This is one of my favorite subjects, and I am always surprised to see how little people are interested in it, because it explains both how we came into existence and who we are now. There is no way to acquire a good understanding of human nature without familiarizing yourself with this research, yet many people seem to prefer living in ignorance. 

The first section, "Genesis," briefly describes the physics of the formation of the solar system, the atoms and molecules that were present, and the early evolution of the planet. It becomes apparent that a series of chance events, such as the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, were necessary for us to reach our current position in the world. The next section, "Fire," discusses the emergence of the first hominid species on the savannas of Africa and the complex interplay between the environment, genetic mutations and culture. The most important change then was the movement from a primarily vegetarian diet to a mixed diet that included meat. This was first made possible by wildfires on the savannas, which killed animals and made them available to eat. When cooking was invented, plant foods were broadened, providing, with meat, greater nutrition from the environment. Some plants that had been inedible became edible through cooking. Improved nutrition is what precipitated hominid divergence from other primates. For most mammals, brain size is limited by nutrition, because large brains like ours require more energy than most animals can afford, given the amount of energy necessary to find and digest food, escape predators, etc. 

Once the diet of our ancestors changed with cooking, other characteristics of modern humans began to emerge. Our brains continued to increase in size, making it necessary to walk upright in order to balance them. Childbirth and childrearing became increasingly problematic, with babies whose heads were too large to fit through their mothers' birth canals and birth at a period far from maturity. In many species, babies are born almost mature, and their mothers soon become unnecessary for their survival, but human children take years to become independent. The difficulties associated with childbirth probably made women instinctively cooperative with other women, because it became necessary for their survival and the survival of their children. Alloparenting became the norm for humans.

The section, "Language," describes how the size of the brain continued to increase when language came into existence. Vince says that hunter-gatherers were multilingual and would change languages according to the territory they were in. Language itself causes increases in brain size, and the more languages you know the larger your brain has to be. The use of language made it easier to expand knowledge, and stories became the medium for storing that knowledge. Our early ancestors were awake far longer each day than other mammals, and they used the extra time to tell stories around a fire in the evening.

As with many books that I read, I like to compare the ideas with actual experiences that I've had in my life. I have noticed that women are more innately cooperative than men. Whereas men tend to be solitary and engage other men in competitive activities such as business or sports, women tend to be more practical and are constantly trying to expand their networks of female friends, which they instinctively know they may need at some point. At this stage in my life, I find that all of my male friendships have been superficial and transitory. In old age, all of the men I know have limited social lives, except for the ones presented to them by women. Women continue to establish social networks with other women throughout their lives. This situation actually mimics other eusocial species, in which the role of males is minute and colonies are controlled by females. It isn't hard to see that males often rise to power through aggression alone and frequently have very little to offer to society as a whole. In a political context, you can see just how incompetent male leaders such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nicolás Maduro and Rodrigo Duterte compare to competent female leaders such as Angela Merkel, or, in the U.S., Gretchen Whitmer. To be sure, some men are effective leaders and some women aren't, but I think that an incompetent leader is more likely to be male than female.

I've also been thinking about language as it applies to me. I am not much of a linguist, and my attempts in school to learn French, Spanish and Homeric Greek met with limited success. I feel that it took me a long time to become proficient in English. Rather than being multilingual, I even disliked learning American English when I moved here from England. My family continued so speak with English accents at home, and I always experienced cognitive dissonance when I used English pronunciations rather than American pronunciations. According to Vince, multilingualism stresses the brain, and those who know multiple languages have to actively suppress other languages when speaking in one. I think that it would have been easier for me to learn other languages if I had grown up hearing them, but I didn't.

There are two more sections left in the book, and I should finish up on my next post.

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