I just read a really intriguing article entitled 8 Billion People: How Different the World Would Look if Neanderthals Had Prevailed. And just like that, down the internet rabbit hole I went. The next article I read was Future evolution: from looks to brains and personality, how will humans change in the next 10,000 years? And that article, in turn, led me to Would we still see ourselves as ‘human’ if other hominin species hadn’t gone extinct?
These articles have my mind reeling. Of course, just by reading the titles, it is quite obvious that the information that they contain is based on a heaping helping of conjecture. But each one provides very logical arguments as to why they have reached their conclusions, so it’s hard not to buy into their theories.
I’m going to cherry pick these articles to reveal the speculations that made me blink the most. (I tend to blink when my mind is blown. It’s my way of blocking out the blinding light of the epiphany in question long enough to mull it over at my own pace.)
I was drawn to the first article because I am fascinated by archeology and all things Neanderthal. I love the fact that so many of us have Neanderthal DNA. I have often wondered what the world would be like if Neanderthals still existed.
This article explains that even at their height, there were only about 10,000 Neanderthals living at any one time, so the odds of us Homo Sapiens coming across one would have been very remote. And yet it did happen. DNA doesn’t lie.
Neanderthals were much more wary of outsiders than we were. They tended to hang out in small family groups. This made it hard for them to achieve the genetic diversity that we had. We know this because their skeletons reveal more deformities, on average, than homo sapiens had during that same era. So, if they had prevailed over us, it’s likely that the planet would be a lot less densely populated. They wouldn’t have been inclined toward building large cities or communities. But then again, their isolation would also mean their communities would be less apt to be wiped out by infectious diseases as ours tend to be.
What really astounded me was that this article compared our skulls to Neanderthals, and then compared domesticated animals to their wild counterparts, and they drew some interesting conclusions. For example, cows tolerate being crowded in with other cows more than their wild ancestors did, and we handle crowds better than any Neanderthal would. Our brain case is more bulbous than a Neanderthal, and a dog’s brain case is more bulbous than a wolf’s. Domesticated animals tend to have thinner jaws because of the things they eat, and we have thinner jaws than Neanderthals. We share the smaller tooth size of the domesticates as well, and our nose is less projected, too.
We are more genetically inclined to be friendly than the Neanderthals were, and this means we were more willing to cooperate with one another to survive. We shared tools and survival skills and resources. We had more emotional connection to other animals, so we domesticated those animals. Neanderthals did not do that. Those animals helped us survive. Homo Sapiens survived extreme weather changes because we could depend on wider networks when there was a crisis.
Another little tidbit that article provided was the idea that if the Neanderthals ruled the world, mammoths would probably still exist, because there would be fewer people to hunt them to extinction. If Homo Sapiens didn’t survive to exploit and destroy this planet, it wouldn’t be in as much danger as it is today. Things could have been so different.
The second article asks the question, what will humans be like in 10,000 years? Based on past evolutionary trends, if we don’t manage to destroy ourselves between now and then, it is likely that we’ll be taller, our bones will be less dense, and we’ll live longer. Our brains will shrink. We’ll be more agreeable and cooperative in order to survive our increased population. The article says, “A bit like a golden retriever, we’ll be friendly and jolly, but maybe not that interesting.”
That thought makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of humans moving more and more toward conformity. It’s the nonconformists who are the innovators, the creators, and the leaders.
And throw that whole “survival of the fittest” thing out the window. We’re less apt to be killed by predators than we once were. Despite sensationalist news to the contrary, our world is becoming increasingly less violent. Our evolution is now much more about sexual selection than anything else. If we are, in fact, domesticated, we’ve done it to ourselves.
When mere survival doesn’t consume your day-to-day existence, you feel less pressure to have offspring, so you can take your time maturing. If other creatures are any indication, this means that our lifespans will get longer, and our fertile years will be extended as well.
With our improved nutrition, medicine and hygiene, we are less apt to die young. With our desire to spend more time training for specialized jobs, we are increasingly inclined to put off childbearing. We’ve done these things to ourselves. And these trends also impact our genes. Our increased height stems from both better nutrition and our genes, as women tend to prefer and select taller men.
Since we use tools more than brute force to survive these days, and since we can make a living by being sedentary, our bones have become less dense. That trend is likely to persist. We no longer need to be strong, so our muscles are shrinking. Our jaws and teeth have shrunk because we now eat more cooked meats than fibrous raw vegetables. We’re losing our wisdom teeth for that reason.
As we spread across the planet, different groups became isolated from one another, and these groups had very different standards of beauty, so the members of these different groups looked less and less alike. But now, we are travelers. We are no longer isolated. Chances are (and I’ve always wondered about this) we will eventually become rather generic, with one skin tone, and one hair color. But this article also posits that gender differences will become even more pronounced as we select for more masculine looking men and more feminine looking women.
It seems that our brains grew over the millennia, but they started shrinking right around the time we invented farming. (And that is not a poke at the flyover states, just so we’re clear.) One theory is that life became less demanding, so our bodies stopped allocating as many calories to brain production. We also started specializing our skills rather than having to be good at everything to survive. That also came about as we built civilizations and could rely on others to do various things.
For what it’s worth, domesticated animals also evolved smaller brains. Have we bred into ourselves the tendency toward compliance and thinking less? That’s a scary thought.
We no longer have to be aggressive to survive. That trait, in fact, does not mesh well with living in a society. It wouldn’t be surprising if we bred ourselves away from aggression. Living in densely populated areas means that more outgoing and tolerant people will thrive. I’m all for increased tolerance, but I weep for the fate of us introverts in this scenario.
The wildest theory, though, is that as we become more politically divided, we could eventually develop into two separate species. I know that I, for one, would never mate with a MAGA Republican. And they probably feel the same way about me. That could have some fascinating repercussions in the distant future. This is not beyond the realm of imagination. For example, religion and lifestyles have created genetically distinct groups such as (this is their example, not mine) Jewish and Gypsy populations. Food for thought.
It may be, though, that we will have an increasingly more conscious role in our evolution moving forward. For example, if you won’t marry unless you get your parent’s approval, aren’t your parents, in essence, selectively breeding you? Also, if you’d be shunned by your community for marrying someone of a different faith, your odds of doing so drastically decrease.
Another weird selection concept has to do with computers and their algorithms. If you’re going to meet someone online, your computer will most likely have ruled out a whole host of other people that don’t match what it considers to be your “type”. Yes, you get to “swipe right”, but it’s these algorithms that decide which faces are presented to you to accept or reject in the first place. That’s kind of scary. You only breed with people you meet, so in essence, computers will impact the way we evolve as a species. Not just computers, but the corporations behind them. Shiver.
After all those blinks, you’d think I’d have been hesitant to read the third article, but no. Curiosity is my driving force, it seems. This article had more to do with what makes us human in the first place.
We are different from other animals in that we can articulate complex ideas. We create extravagant forms of art. We can imagine how we want things to be and then work toward making that a reality. We have complex social networks, and some of us, at least, feel responsible for one another.
Don’t get me wrong. Many animals communicate, use tools, create things, and mourn their dead and care for their young. In essence, the only thing that makes it seem like there’s such a wide gulf between ourselves and other primates is the 20 or so other human species that no longer exist to bridge that gap. Our species didn’t emerge fully formed and utterly different. It took eons to get where we are. It took a million years to learn to walk upright, and another million to devise tools. As our brains grew, our technology became more sophisticated. That technology freed up the time for us to become creative.
In case we get too proud of ourselves, though, remember this: Neanderthals were sophisticated hunters. We know they made tools, jewelry, and cave art. The shape of their ears meant they could hear subtleties of speech. They also buried their dead and took care of their living.
Since their DNA is still in our species, we bred with them. It would be easy to think that this was due to violence, that some poor unsuspecting homo sapien female was kidnapped and raped, but this third article brings up an excellent point: for their genes to still be with us, they had to also successfully raise these children, who then grew up to be treated as humans and accepted by groups, which allowed them to have and raise their own children, and so on. That makes voluntary inter-mating a lot more likely.
Who knows. Maybe the Neanderthals sang and danced and laughed with friends, and gazed at the stars in wonder, and worshiped gods. Maybe they told stories and gossiped and passed on information and loved and taught their children. That sounds pretty darned human to me. And lest we forget, it took homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years to replace Neanderthals. So these people weren’t grunting pushovers.
One last mind-blowing concept. Our skulls are bulbous, unlike adult Neandertals, but very similar to Neanderthal babies. Domesticated animals, too, have skulls similar to the babies of their wild ancestors. Baby wolves, for example, are more playful, less aggressive, and more willing to meet new creatures. They also have more curiosity. These are traits that dogs also have compared to wolves, and they’re traits that Homo Sapiens have compared to what we know of Neanderthals. Strange coincidence, no?
We like to think that we won out over other hominin species because we are somehow superior. But it may just have been dumb luck and the ability to cooperate through the randomly occurring catastrophes that did it. A slight difference in the world could have brought about Neanderthals trying to figure out all these weird Homo Sapien bones they keep stumbling upon, and writing articles like this one or the three above.
And, not for nothing, we share 50 percent of the same genes as a banana. Isn’t that sobering? We really should get over ourselves.
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