It is probably not much of a stretch for humans to think of ourselves as pretty wonderful creatures, by and large at least. After all, look at everything we have accomplished, not only in the present era, but in all of the history of the race. We have moved rapidly from tiny groups of hunter-gatherers scratching out a living, to highly organized groups of farmers and city dwellers with multiple hierarchies of job specialization, from users of rocks to break open the bones of hunted animals to creators of machines that fly and, very nearly, ones that think, as well. And these enormous leaps in both cognition and tool-making have taken place in an almost unbelievably short period of time.
As such, we often forget that the first animal that could accurately be associated with “anatomical human beings” emerged only something like 200,000 years ago. That’s astounding enough, but then imagine that it was only 60,000 years ago that what we might call “true humans” first claimed their place upon the planet. 60,000 years! That’s even less than the blink of an eye, shorter than the flash of lightning in the summer sky, compared to the 4.5 billion years of the planet’s existence, to say nothing of the 13.8 billion years the universe is known to exist. In other words, in spite of all the importance we grandly give to ourselves, we are the newest of newcomers.
So, the question remains, what exactly was it that distinguished us from our simian cousins, or from any other creature on the planet for that matter? And when did that “distinguishing something” emerge? We won’t even ask the question of how it happened, since no one appears to have the slightest clue when it comes to answering that inscrutable question. But the replies to the first two queries (i.e. when and what) are simpler to give. Most scientists agree, as mentioned above, that “true humans” emerged in Africa approximately 60,000 years ago, and then somewhere between that point and 50,000 years ago we began several successive waves of migration from that continent. Slowly, we drifted from place to place, populating one continent after another, and making homes for ourselves. In the process, we ran into some earlier cousins of ours, namely Neanderthals (homo Neanderthalensis), the last of whom probably died out about 20,000 years ago, probably as a result of direct interaction with homo Sapiens (that is, with us). So, what was it that “made us human,” and in the meantime what gave us such an edge over other creatures, including the bigger and stronger Neanderthals? The answer is simple, if the act of doing so and its consequences are not: humans were capable of symbolic thinking. We’ve seen this because we have the archeological record that dates back into the early ages of prehistory, and that shows that humans were able to make not only artifacts, but also art. We know, for example, that our ancestors created pictures (i.e. cave paintings) and they carved statues that, in a sense, “stood for” something else. No doubt, it was about this time, too, that language, as we think of it today, also first emerged, allowing and encouraging high levels of communication and organization. And after that, the poor Neanderthals, to say nothing of all the even more mute beasts of the wild world, never had a chance.
In the tiniest of nutshells, that is a very quick overview of the evolving history of humankind. We emerged from creatures who descended from trees and learned to live and thrive on the savannas and who organized themselves into coherent groupings of thinking, communicative, and self-referential beings, and in the process we have come to utterly dominate planet Earth. And all this with lightning speed, such that there are now well over 7 billion of us living in every part of the world, even the most inhospitable, which – through our technology – we have made hospitable. Our big brains have indeed served us well.
But if we are to continue to think highly of ourselves, we had better take a long, hard look at who we are and what we have become. In terms of evolutionary maturity, as a race, we human beings are probably at best in our rebellious adolescent phase. I want to emphasize that I am speaking of mass, or collective, consciousness here, not of individual examples of human beings. Naturally, there have always been, and always will be, some people who are more advanced in terms of consciousness than others. But again I am talking here about the pooled level of communal thinking that together shows our shared human consciousness. In these terms, we have to admit, it is hard to think of us as highly mature. If we were, why would we rely so continually and so insistently on violence as an obviously useless way of solving so many of our problems? How many decades, how many years, indeed how many weeks or even days pass by on this planet, when somehow, someplace there are not people who are shooting at each other, hurling bombs or missiles at each other, putting others in jail, torturing, mutilating, even killing one another, because they are thought not to belong to the proper race, religion, political party, or sexual identity etc.? How many of us consistently act with compassion when it comes to others, how many are quick to condemn but slow to forgive, how many dismiss and diminish those who look, sound, or act differently from themselves? Indeed, as a species we may be highly intelligent, but we have learned little wisdom.
But given all this, the question can be asked, should we expect any more from ourselves? We are after all, as we have already shown, very young in evolutionary terms. Perhaps even to claim that we have reached the adolescent phase may be something of a stretch. Remember how brief 60,000 years is in terms of planetary and cosmic history. And yet, if we are to survive, it is surely in our own best interest, to say nothing of the interest of the planet as a whole and of all things living upon it, for us to hurry along in this maturation process.
The only way I know of to do so is for each individual to work on herself and himself, to put the time and the energy that it takes into learning, and growing, and developing, first of all in our thinking, and then in our actions. In the end, there is no “deus ex machina,” no great hero to save us from ourselves. Or, put another way, each one must become the hero of the story. We have, in other words, no one to rely on but ourselves, and if we do not do the work, then we can be sure that it will not happen. You may think that it all sounds too ominous to say that time is running out, but the truth is that it is. Symbolic thinking is all fine, and it turns out we are quite good at it. But what is needed now is not so much symbol, as action. Run-away over population, pollution of the air, continued acidification of the oceans, warming of the globe, loss of biodiversity, extinction of whole species, diminishing land and water resources, growing scarcity of food, increasing disparity between the have and the have-nots, and threat of the use of nuclear weapons, are only some of the problems that come to mind.
But time has not yet run completely out. We can still make a difference. Let us honor our clever ancestors, but at the same time do whatever we can today for humanity and for the world we live in. We know that we have such great potential. It is the job of each of us to help maximize that potential, while at the same time minimizing the mistakes we have made in the past. We owe it to ourselves and to our children, and to all life forms on Earth. We have made a huge difference, and we will continue to do so. But let that difference not draw from what is lowest and most negative within our human nature, but from whatever is highest, most positive, and most life-affirming. We know we have the capacity; only now let us muster the energy and the will to make it happen.