Johan Fourie's blog

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Sapiens and Naledi

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Naledi

I finally read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a provocative book, one that challenges many of our long-held beliefs. Religion, for example, is one topic that will upset many – one of the ‘myths’ or ‘fictions’ humans have, says Harari, like money or empire. But it is the discussion of how we have domesticated plants and animals and its implications for today – ‘We did not domesticate food. It domesticated us.’ – that is revealing, if sometimes leaning towards the sensationalist – ‘modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history’.

The book sets out to explain the three most important revolutions in human history, the Cognitive Revolution (around 70 000 BCE), the Neolithic Revolution (around 10 000 BCE) and the Scientific Revolution (around 1500 CE). It is much better at the first and second than at the third. In fact, as with one of my favourite books, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Harari unsuccessfully attempts to make the post-1500 and particularly the post-1800 period fit into the simple framework of the two earlier epochs. (For example: he attributes the Industrial Revolution to only two things – imperialism and science. If this was true, then China should have had an Industrial Revolution in the 15th century, when they were the most advanced scientifically and were discovering the world with their giant fleets. But they didn’t.) Read the book for the first half, not for the last.

The topic of humans and their evolution is a fascinating, and also fast-changing one. The October 2015 edition of National Geographic tells the tale of Lee Berger’s discoveries of Homo Naledi in a cave near Johannesburg. Homo Naledi fits somewhere between the apelike australopithecines like Lucy, a skeleton discovered in Ehtiopia in 1974, and Homo Habilis, the ‘first’ known human ancestor of us, Homo Sapiens, which was classified in Kenya in the 1970s. This evolution occurred maybe two to three million years ago. Homo Habilis (or the myriad of other forms of proto-humans that existed but are still undiscovered) evolved into Homo Erectus, and then Homo Sapiens. These sapiens left Africa in two waves. Almost all human DNA derive from the second ‘Out-of-Africa migration’ around 75 000 BCE. (The Neanderthals derive from the first out-migration, and new evidence suggests may have left a tiny DNA footprint in some modern Europeans.) The Cognitive Revolution, when we begin to see evidence of art and burials and other cultural traits, begin around 70 000. Homo sapiens – modern humans in all respects similar to us today – reached South Asia around 50 000 years ago, Australia around 46 000 years ago, 43 000 years ago, North America around 15 000 years ago, the Pacific islands around 1300 BCE and New Zealand only around 1280, about the same time as University College in Oxford was founded.

The cave Berger and his large team of archaeologists uncovered was a remarkable find, a possible link between our apelike ancestors and modern humans. It has also shifted attention back to South Africa and our rich archaeological history. This is one area of science where we clearly have a comparative advantage, and more can be done to promote this field of research.

But why care about the evolution of humans, you may ask. In Sapiens we find the answer: according to Harari, we are about to be replaced by a superior human. After the Scientific Revolution came the Information Revolution of the twentieth century. And now we are at the cusp of the Biotechnological Revolution. Soon we will be able to engineer humans to become amortal (not immortal, because we would still be able to die in car crashes and terrorist attacks). And these humans might be smarter, quicker, better than us. And once artificial intelligence reaches the singularity, who knows what they will do to humans, to us.

I am less pessimistic that we will soon be replaced by Homo Mechanica. Biotechnology, instead of replicating human brains, might allow us to fully exploit our extraordinary creativity. Much like love, it might help us to become better versions of ourselves, a new and improved Homo Sapiens.

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