Why are we like this?

Nearly 200,000 years ago a woman lived in east Africa, probably in what is now Tanzania; not just any woman, but the (many times-great-grand)mother of every human being alive today. Eva, the Bible calls her. Her ancestors had broken with their closest cousins, the chimpanzees, a long time before and come down from the trees to walk on two feet. They learned to use simple tools, began to control fire, and then made the jump which makes us different from all the other animals.

They got that divine spark which makes us human. Chimpanzees use sticks and stones as weapons and tools, but they have never made a tool for a specific job. Dolphins have quite a developed language, but they never compose poetry or discuss philosophy. Even our green monkeys can count up to three, but simple geometry like Pythagoras’ theorem is beyond them.

Bees and ants live in very organised societies, but their oppressed workers have never in millions of years gone on strike or demonstrated for better conditions. Elephants have rituals to mourn their dead, but there is no evidence that they pray for them. Whales and many birds sing, but none ever composed more than two or three bars of a new tune. Becoming human was a big jump. Eva’s children took time to discover and develop the possibilities that were open to them. They didn’t survive by being bigger, stronger or quicker than other animals, but they were smarter and they developed their abilities to think, imagine and plan.

For half of human history or more, they all lived in Africa, but spread ino most parts of the continent, adapting to different environments and improving their skills in technology (making tools and controlling fire) and arts, such as painting and sculpture.

Some 70-50,000 years ago a group of about 100 people moved out of Africa. Their descendants spread slowly across the rest of the world, from Arabia to India, the east and to Europe. They adapted themselves to cold climates and hot, to living on small islands and in deserts. Their customs and even their appearance changed, but they were still the African diaspora.

They developed some different habits from their ancestors who had stayed at home in Africa. Modern people point to native Americans and the Australian aborigines as people who learned to live in harmony with nature, but that must mean they relearned something they had forgotten since they left Africa.

Within a measurable number of centuries of the arrival of humans in Australia and north America, all the biggest mammals they found there were extinct. Did humans kill them all? Or did they hunt the less aggressive ones for food, leaving very few for the predators, which then died out? We don’t know, but it does look as if the extinctions were caused by the newly arrived humans.

Curiously, many species of large wild animals have survived in our African home. Did our ancestors have a less aggressive attitude towards nature than their brothers and nephews who moved out? Does something of that difference remain?

Look at how humans have adapted to the environment of north America in the past 500 years, not necessarily for the better, while Africans were content to adapt themselves to their environment.

Look at how our European and Arab cousins have treated Africa in that time. Why did we let this happen? Yes, they had better weapons, but they were also ruthless enough to use them. When the era of independence came, did victory go to those who had, instead of learning how to be smarter than the aggressors, learned their most brutal habits?

The rest of us seem to divide into those who adapt ourselves to anything, however terrible, and the quarter or more of our people who moved out because they chose not to do that. We need to resist, but hitting out blindly like a hurt child hits all the wrong targets.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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