The early morning mist blanketed the savanna. The rays from the morning sun gave the mist a ghostly glow and obscured the grass-covered land. But, the little creature was hungry and the wide expanse of the plains offered the best chance of scavaging for something to eat, so it slowly ventured into the open field.
Realizing that the openness offered little protection, the 2-foot tall hominid walked along the edge of the forest and the field. This provided the best protection in case a predator suddenly appeared.
High overhead, a large eagle drifted in the sky, its wide wings helping it glide on the wind currents. It’s sharp eyes caught movement along the edge of the forest and it could easily see the figure of an upright creature carefully moving along the edge of the trees. With a slight flip of its wings, the eagle circled around to get closer to the cautious biped. Once within range, the eagle folded its wings and dropped towards its target.
Only two days ago, the small primate had barely escaped death when a lion leaped from the grass. However, the cat misjudged the distance and missing its target, gave the little creature time to run back into the trees and climb away to safety. Because of this, the primate focus was on watching for any signs of danger on the ground. This was a mistake that would end its life.
This scenario, based on what we are able to glean from the fossil evidence we have highlighted the dangers that our early ancestors faced. The Taung Child, a member of the Australopithecus branch of our evolutionary tree, shows evidence that it was attacked, carried off and eaten by a large species of eagle that patrolled the area during that time period.
Eagles were not the only dangers our ancestors faced. Large cats, wolves, hyenas, and even snakes were a constant threat that probably ended many lives. Even our recent history suggests that humans have evolved, in part, due to the constant struggle of being a physically weak creature, and if it wasn’t for our ability to develop technology and form large protective groups, we as a species might not have made the impact that it has and became the apex predator of the Earth.
When I started to learn about human evolution, I realized that without my glasses, I wouldn’t have been able to see the dangers that lurked around the world that I lived in. And this danger wasn’t something that was a problem a million or even a thousand years ago. Instead, my severe nearsightedness would have been a liability only a few hundred years ago. Without glasses or the eye surgery I had later, I could only see a few feet at best. Without corrected eyesight, I’m easy prey.
With this realization, I came to understand that much of the power human have is based on our ability to develop technology to offset our weak physical abilities. Without our technology, we would easily find ourselves on the bottom of the food chain, instead of the apex predators that we are.
I think that the knowledge that our strength lies with our technology, is what fuels the many dystopian and apocalyptic tales that are so popular today. It would really be a frightening situation to lose our technological edge and once again find ourselves being the hunted.
But for whatever reason, our evolutionary history’s path is one where we optimized the mental capabilities that gave us the ability to directly modify and the alter the physical world that we live in. Even if it was at the expense of our physical strength in comparison to other primates.
One of the marked results of our physical evolution is that to capitalize on our mental abilities, our bodies had to lose much of the physical strength that other primates have. Modern man doesn’t even come close to the physical strength of the greater apes. If a single modern individual squared off against a gorilla or a chimp, the human would be torn apart by its adversary. Without our tools, we wouldn’t even stand a chance.
The reason for this difference in strength is due to our bodies redirecting physiological resources from our muscles and related systems so that it would free up energy for our nervous system, most notably our brains. The average human’s brain takes around 20 percent of the calories we consume. It takes that much energy to keep our brains running. Considering that the brain makes up only 2% of our weight, this 3-pound organ is very energetically expensive. But, that the price we made to move from being prey to becoming the apex predator on Earth.
Scientists are not sure of when our minds evolved to be the thinking marvel that it is today, but most think that our current neural system was fully developed when our species arrived on the scene about 250,000 years ago. However, since we are not able to make direct correlations between brain function and cognitive abilities yet, and since brain matter doesn’t fossilize, this is only our best estimate we have.
The paradox of being human
The cold winter winds howled at the entrance of the cave, as the group huddled deep inside trying to stay warm by the fire they have made. The children hearing the sounds started to become frightened and to ask if it was a wolf pinning them in.
An elderly man, covered with scars and with one arm missing, tried to quiet the children’s worries by pointing towards the images on the cave wall. With the light from the fire dancing across its surface, the images of animals and humans seem to come to life. He began to give a tale of how his people, once victimized by the world outside, came to understand how to fashion tools that give them a better chance at survival.
He talked about making weapons from stones that were sharper than the claws and teeth of the wolves and big cats in the area. And he talked about how they learned to take these stones and fasten them on to poles so that they could defend themselves from a safe distance.
He then slapped the stump where his arm used to be, and talked about how their animal adversaries just leave their sick and injured to die.
“We,” he said, “have learned how to be better.”
I personally find it humbling to think that I have the same nervous system as the early people who painted the cave paintings that we find in France and Spain. And that when I look out at the world, I am seeing the world the same way that early humans, hundred thousands of years ago, saw the world. And, that we probably thought much the same way, and shared the same creative abilities as I do today. At the same time, when I read about how in the past, my ancestors would sacrifice other humans to their deities, and they seemed to have little problem with slaughter, raping and pillaging after their conquests, I find it even more humbling that as wise and creative as we are, we can easily slip back into that way of being. Our current history with mass-murders and the purging of populations tells us that our shadow still walks with us.
But, as Steve Pinker has pointed out in The Better Angels of our Nature, our history suggests that we tend to be on a path towards being more gentle, compassionate and striving to be good people. Even though we as a species still tackle with our shadow, we nonetheless have slowly increased our general welfare, reduced human suffering, and worked towards eradicating disease, slavery, and poverty. We still have a long way to go, but life in the 21st century is better than our ancestors. Or in the words of the elder in the cave, “ We have learned how to be better.”
Our technology is a double edge sword. On the one hand, it has given us the ability to completely destroy the world with a push of a button but also has given us a living standard far removed from our ancestors huddled in a gave thousands of years ago. Even though our technology has increased to mind-numbing proportions, we still have the same brains and mental processes that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. We still have the same instinctive fears that kept our ancestors alive, but we don’t have the actual dangers that they had. As a result, we are prone to focus on what is negative in our world, keeping a watchful eye out for a potentially deadly attack. But the attacks rarely happen. Not at the rate that our ancestors faced.
There is still are part of our being that is shared with the young small primate that stood at the edge of the savanna millions of years ago, weary of the constant danger that it faced. And we share even more with our recent ancestors whose technology was starting to give them the edge needed to become the predators we are today. But it was still a world where the line between prey and predator was blurred.
It is important for us to realize that our technology hasn’t erased our evolutionary history. At best, it has increased our abilities to act on the same behaviors that are part of our legacy. Instead of worrying about eagles and wolves, we worry about other people who live in far distant lands. We use technology to provide us with entertainment that activates our ancient drives through fantasy. And, these behaviors are manipulated by social organizations and other people so we will do their bidding.
There is a part within each of us that recognizes our physical weakness. It is something that we still have imprinted into our neurological makeup and still influences on much of our behavior. To a large extent, we are still the scrawny ape, who now has some powerful tools.
Want to know more about our evolution?
After writing this post. PBS Eons posted this video that gives more details about our history of being prey during our evolutionary past.