This is a short treatise on the origins (and the end) of Empathy, Solidarity and Sharing.
At the start of the year I wanted to summarize my recent understandings of the origins of mindfulness and grasp the essence of the ecological, happy and healthy human being. Eighteen months of research back up this article. I have ventured into the history of the arrival of humankind on Earth some 4 million years ago. It includes the identification of the greatest inventions of humanity: the bag, the needle and bureaucracy! The findings changed my perspectives on human development. I hope you will be as fascinated with the discovery of the content as I was.
At the start of this year I reflect on the history of the arrival of humankind on Earth some 4 million years ago. The story unfolds in an amazing way since 99% of our history is reconstructed with approximately 1,000 fragments of skulls and skeletons of humanoids gathered from around the world. Scientific research on these few bones permits scholars to draw up hypotheses and put forward interpretations which plausibly reconstruct the emergence of our bipedal species spanning millions of years.
Then, after millions of years covered by well-informed guessing, finally less than 100,000 years ago the first writing is on the wall when the first written documents emerged. These painted messages, fragments of rock carvings or tablets provide a first hand glimpse of the development of humanity based on writings by humanity. It is interesting that in this whole study we only see evolution upwards: humanity is the crown of these millions of years of development. We study the arrival and the expansion of human presence as if after us nothing of importance is going to happen.
From the day that we observe how humans started to walk on two feet we believe that we had lifted ourselves from primitive life, and that we are engaged in a perpetual war for survival. We are convinced that only after Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian Nobel Laureate in Medicine, who studied birds and animals gathered a very pessimistic view of man's nature. He saw an aggressive species that battles for territory, wages war and creates a lot of suffering for his fellow humans as well as most species in Nature. Therefore, Lorenz believed that Man was destined to be checked, controlled and balanced by a rigorous system that could be called culture or government. It seems that the role of Government, responsible for approximately 50% of the world economy, and the millions of laws that regulate daily life around the globe has confirmed his analysis.
Man, as an individual, and organized through Government or even Religion and under a rigorous control can do incredible evil. The genocides systematically pursued by colonizers against local tribes in Namibia and the Congo, by the Nazis against members of the Jewish Faith, or by rival racial tribes in Rwanda demonstrate unfortunately that even governments need international powers to secure a check and control like the United Nations and its organizations like its Peacekeeping force. Humans need time to evolve into a humane species.
The characteristics of the human species were confirmed over millions of years. One of these qualities is a unique flexibility to adapt to new environments. Humans have transformed throughout evolution thanks to this innate capability to evolve over a few generations into something that could not be imagine at the outset. Humankind has this desire to go beyond known frontiers, as the emigration from Africa to every corner of the world in the span of 40 to 50,000 years has demonstrated. Humans have this capacity to determine a pathway and persevere, as the construction of the cathedrals throughout Europe demonstrated. All those involved in the decision to build knew at the outset of this huge undertaking that they would never get a glimpse of the final result, and yet they decided to commit up to 15% of all revenues of the city for over a hundred years to see this through.
Unfortunately, it seems that in recent times humans have lost that flexibility and this process of grasping what we are doing has become more difficult than ever before. With a wealth of facts before us, describing, documenting and proving the devastation we are causing and the unsustainability of our way of living, we seem incapable to evolve our behavior to a better one. We hide behind the complexity of life, even when we used to navigate it with great certainty.
We observe this massive man-driven extinction of species, a pervasive negligence and inaction around the emission of greenhouse gases and climate change, the over-consumption of resources. Our consumption goes way beyond the means of our planet. The destructive pollution of modern civilization, combined with a dominant focus on the individual by that same individual renders humanity increasingly unable to adapt to the new conditions it has created.
There is nothing more rewarding in life than seeing and understanding what we did and where we are doing, what unintended effects we cause and - perhaps most important - to realize that we have been ignorant about our impact, or mis-oriented when we pursued selfish interests such as the blind accumulation of cash. This renewed understanding allows us to evolve, to adapt, and to do better. The concept of the paradigm shift as propagated by some is healthy and exciting, but only for a minute part of the world's population. The large majority aspires to emulate a lifestyle that leads to collapse.
That is why I would like to explore again the origins of how humans turned humane, and hope that we recover what we seem to have lost. Did Humanity expel itself from this Garden of Eden? If so, then we have the capacity to recreate it as well.
It Started in Africa
The main line of thought until the late 19th century was that humanity emerged from Asia. Charles Darwin was the first to point to our close relation with chimpanzees and gorillas. The association of humans with primates was why he concluded that our origins were to be found in the tropical parts of Africa. Only one hundred years ago no one would have believed it. Now it is generally accepted that we descended from African primates from whom we diverged approximately seven million years ago.
There is a geophysical reason: while Europe and Asia were subjected to the Ice Age, Africa contained over the span of a few million years up to 90% of habitable land. Therefore the first communities could only live comfortably in Africa, move from the center of the Continent to the sea, where humans discovered the riches of life. Five million years ago, Africa started to dry out and the great forests where the primates thrived shrank. This forced our ancestors to adapt to new living conditions that drove them to search for new settlements. In the process of this search, the first stone technology emerged approximately 2.5 million years ago and the use of fire one million years ago.
We learned to walk on two feet well before our brains grew in size. The greatest innovation of all times was perhaps the invention of the bag. The bag permitted the hunter gatherer to carry 15 times more food than he would ever need himself to survive the day. The bag helps to create a home base, to divide labor, to share food, and to guarantee supply over a longer period of time. In addition, the invention of the bag simplified life of a mother who can haul an infant while gathering food. The bag made us human and helped us create community since now no one consumes on their own, and all what is carried is to be shared. The bag started the sharing economy.
The experience to come home with a bag full of food triggered in the human brain an "emotional sandwich". One one side there is stress caused by the high risk taken to walk on two legs, instead of four. Two legs move slower and less stable than four, but frees the hands. A control over hands combined with this innovative pouch allowed the transport of nutrition over distance. The other side of the brain is the emotional reward for the risk: a warm welcome by a family eagerly awaiting the arrival of food, and the emerging of a caring community based on a pattern of food security.
Community based on Empathy
This emotional experience of risk and reward led to a community based on empathy. This triggered perhaps one of the most critical moments in our development as a human. First, this provided a strong impulse to our emotional part of the brain and started a long process of development of different parts of our central nervous system. The artistic expression found a permanent and deep space in our emerging brain. Second, this helped to stabilize settlements, humans started to sing and dance well before anyone could speak, food and water remained available over all seasons. Humans differentiated from primates by learning the value of community, and the importance of caring, especially for offsprings. When humans stopped the senseless murder of infants by the alpha males simply because these children were not his - this new family of living species started to behave humane.
About 300,000 years ago a second desertification affected human life styles in Africa more profoundly than before. Communities of early humans were forced south and west to be stopped by the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Here these new settlements lived on a rich diet of crustacea and fish, largely unknown. This new plate of nutrition fueled the physical growth of the human in general and the brain in particular. The greatest and most detailed discoveries to document these insights of early humankind were made in Southern Africa.
Humans possess innate possibilities and are the product of Nature and nurture. Humans are not pre-programmed machines. While we share 98.8% of our DNA sequence with primates, this does not mean that a minor difference in DNA makes us similar. Humans share 35% of genes with daffodils, and that does not make us one third daffodil. One of the major difference is speech, and the capacity to hear and understand language. But before we evolved the capacity to talk and listen, we already acquired the capacity for empathy millions of years before when our ancestors split from the primates. We learned to walk, care for each other, and created a culture of song and dance to strengthen empathy. The humans that emerged from this evolution lost the alpha male as the dominant figure in their community.
The Alpha Male and Monogamy
When we project man and society against its African primate origins, we quickly borrow the alpha male from the animal world to describe the importance and the dominance of the human male. However, it is not because we are closely related to primates that we behave like the alpha male, even though this particular role has been well publicized and received broad scientific attention.
The alpha male is part of the world of chimpanzees. He is aggressive, carnivorous, makes war and even turns into a cannibal. Chimpanzees eat fruits and therefore have to cover vast areas to find food all year around. The gorilla, also known for the male dominance, is sociable and a vegetarian. He mainly devours leaves that are within reach in a small area, limiting the need to travel, promoting the organization of small groups in tree branches. The bonobo on the other hand is peaceful, solves conflicts, has the same diet as the chimp, but has a completely different social organization in which females form coalitions to dominate males. Finally, there is the orangutan which lives like a recluse most of his life.
Scientific research points out that we share 99% of feelings and emotions with the chimps, ranging from jealousy, thirst for power, sexual attraction, fear, aggression. This is something we clearly do not share with fish. We also have a common moral system made out of punishment, reciprocity, distribution of food, reconciliation, empathy and sympathy, concern of welfare for the group. Still, there are fundamental differences and one is monogamy. Evolution has provided us with an instinct for faithfulness. When we switched from vegetables and fruits to meat, children needed a reliable and stable relationship between the hunter and the mother to improve survival.
The frequent walks upright to carry more food required an extremely extensive anatomical specialization which separates us from all other primates. To turn human, evolution had to reconstruct spine, thigh, knee and foot. No other mammal has undergone such an anatomical adaptation, except perhaps the whale that first roamed land as a dog-like animal, and then returned to the sea. The new anatomy improved the capacity to carry more food, made gathering more efficient, reduced the overall risk of speed and instability, and left the couple with much more time to be devoted to family and the community. This led to an increased sense of solidarity and hence a greater chance of survival. Mindfulness emerged as a core characteristic of human nature.
Another major difference between primates and the emerging human race is that young females started to leave their group reaching reproductive age looking for a life partner in another settlement. If both females and males were to remain with the original family group, then incest would lead to a degeneration of their offsprings. Evolution taught that young born to females who changed the group were stronger than the offsprings from those that had remained behind. This is the reason that females became endowed with this instinct to search for a partner outside the inner clan. This turned the female into a more flexible and naturally more adaptive being. Since the female could not return to her clan, the unity in the family required a powerful pair-bond which is unusual among mammals. However, this new life style allowed males and females to make a life-long investment in their descendants.
The metabolic rate of the brain is 22 times faster than that of major muscles. The brain accounts with the heart, liver, kidney and intestines 70% of the body's energy requirements. This was facilitated by a transformation of the human digestive system that could easily digest animal proteins complementing proteins from plants that made up the bulk of our predecessors' diet. A nursing mother requires the same number of calories per day as a runner preparing for a marathon. Time has come to stabilize relations and to trust each other.
Life Long investments and Reduced Risks
As a more powerful bond developed among our predecessors, ovulation became increasingly concealed. The female could copulate more frequently with the same male, which served to strengthen the bond and increases the probability that this individual is the father of her young. This
made it more profitable in genetic terms for the father to help the female and the young to get food. This in turn diminished the need for mother and child to look for food themselves which reduced risks. This emerging pattern of behavior markedly increased chances of survival. Within this new context, the female will choose a male inclined to help and protect her. She prefers a male with small canines who is dedicated to her and their children over a macho male which huge canines who is always ready to fight, and even kill her offsprings if he would be uncertain it were his as a means to establish and protect his supremacy.
Even though it was long believed that tools and language were the privilege of the human species, we have discovered that many animals are endowed with this capacity. The tool of language is not exclusive to humans. We do differentiate ourselves with our capacity to articulate consonants since many species can only make vowels. Our particularity is further demonstrated with genes that developed our hearing into language processing instruments. Improved insights through hearing, and the shift away from infanticide, stimulated early human society, based on the pair-bond, to consider internal tensions the most threatening. Life, and the very survival of the group depends on life-long cooperation. This cooperation is embedded in a collective memory and a learning process that is created and reinforced through storytelling, accompanied by song and dance.
As humans evolved over millions of years triggered by this emotional sandwich, the brain grew from 450cc to the 1,400cc of a modern human. In the process of growing our brain and crane, humans started losing canines. Whereas male primates possess these terrifying weapons to ensure respect and obedience, the humans apparently learned at a very early stage to manage anger and demonstrate dominance in other ways than showing off large teeth, threatening to fight and kill. Humans ultimately ended up with women's teeth!
This reduction of aggression and tension resulted in a greater likelihood for the young to survive. 37% of infant death among gorillas is murder by males. The additional benefit of the shift towards female logic is that the emerging homo in peaceful groups could concentrate all efforts to gather food and to protect the community collectively. The importance of cooking and eating together turns into a core characteristic of a human community. Acquiring and preparing food as an individual for oneself leads to an alienation of those individuals in society, undernourishment and early death.
Then, humans developed this exceptional capacity to breath at will, thanks to the ability to store a high level of haemoglobin in red blood cells. The control to close air passage at the base of the tongue, while inhaling air made more complex speech possible. Humans learned to communicate with one another like no other mammal has ever achieved. This enhanced the capacity to work together, and reinforces empathy. Humans subsequently learn to imagine how other people think and feel. This endowed us with the desire to do to others as we would be done by: evolution led to solidarity and strengthened our mindfulness.
Efficiency through Solidarity and Sharing
The efficiency of life reached an all time high when sharing became a tool of exchange. The early communities in and around the Kalahari Desert had a widely distributed knowledge amongst all members about food and nutrition. The clan lived on an extremely varied diet of +100 plants, 30 types of fruits, nuts and berries, 18 types of resins. Young women knew at least 300 different plants, how to prepare as food or as cure. One third of the diet is now meat, or approximately 100 kilos per person per year. During his lifetime as a hunter, early man would kill 100 animals. A single kudu of 400 kilos provides 600,000 kilo-calories, enough to feed a group of 30 individuals for ten days, equivalent to 50 days of gathering. Now the humans are gathering around a fire. This solidified and increased the sense of community.
The first humans in the Cape lived in a fynbos, one of the world's richest biotopes in botanical species. Here the humans could substitute the quantity of food with the quality of food, a variety of vegetarian and animal protein, enriched with crustaceans and shellfish. Seafood emerges as a key part of the diet which boosted the functioning of this energy intensive human brain over a short period. Although the brain is only 2% of bodyweight, it accounts for 20% of an adult body's energy. The oldest accurately dated finds of anatomically modern humans are found in conjunction with piles of seashells. This healthy and nutritious diet permitted the human species to develop an advanced sensory capacity. These first Africans carried out impressive works of art 77,000 years ago, twice as old as the oldest cave art in Europe.
These clans with fine arts had the ability to conceive the past, present and future. This capacity defines modernity in terms of intellectual capacity. Life in this relatively infertile Southern African environment, required only two to three hours of work to attain food security. This resulted in time for leisure, strengthening solidarity, building a resilient community, caring for the family, strengthening the will to stay together. Modernity emerged by chatting around the evening fire and having fun, being nice to each other, singing, dancing and learning different means to resolve conflicts.
The human dependence of the hunter-gatherer group was driven by their ability to share. This provides security over time and minimizes risk- taking with a powerful obligation to help one's neighbors. Social interaction was key, visitors were always welcome and extended contacts outside the nucleus of the group diminished the risk of inbreeding within the group.
Ownership and possession of the hunter-gatherer were very restricted in the course of his lifetime to approximately 10 kilos. That is all that could be easily carried when there was a need to move to a new camp. Life and culture of the hunter gatherer emerged over tens of thousands of years to minimize risk of violence within and amongst the groups. Those who managed best to ban conflict increased the chance of surviving to reproduce and so transfer their cooperative drive to future generations. Agreements were reached not by consensus, where everyone agrees, nor by majority plus one, but by reaching the point that no one had sufficiently strong opposition, leaving it to others to pursue what they considered important.
In a world where leadership is authoritative, rather than authoritarian, and where a cooperative spirit enjoys a high cultural status, life is geared towards conflict anxiety. Males and females were even physically comparable in size, which leads to an increased equality between sexes. So the harem gave way to a style of living together out of necessity. Since the brains of the babies were growing larger, meant that the children had to be looked after much longer. In a hunter gatherer society no mother would have succeeded without living together with the father, and the extended family.
Caring for each other was the best option in order to pass on the genes to the next generation. Here emerged self-confidence and self-esteem, an evolutionary drive to gain approval of the group and a caring for each other. This combines with a unique biological pecularity in our brain: perseverance, we simply do not give up and keep on trying. This drive for perfection is a unique human trait that is in strong contrast with the rest of the animal world. While we consider this a standard feature, the other primates must consider us mad. Nor would another ape get the preposterous idea of lying down and sleep next to someone one had just intercourse with. In the animal world, only mothers stick close to their babies, no one else.
While food from seas, lakes and rivers provided the energy, humans also developed language, which brought powerful tools such as devotion and guilt, creating deeper relationships while formalizing the daily contacts and develop maternal love, the most powerful and fundamental instinct in species. The group starts to provide proof of empathy. We are as human species unique in providing altruistic help to individuals outside our own group, even to strangers. However, empathy is the glue that binds socially complex communities together. We are born with a will to distinguish between good and bad, to do as we are done by. Our innate moral sense then went on to create religion. This was not only an environment that was good for Nature, it was also good for our souls.
These African communities started to travel and discover the world at a rate of 25 to 30 kilometers per generation. Around 10,000 years ago humans started keeping domestic animals, instead of hunting. We farmed land instead of gathering. This shift changed the way we lived (in one place) and what we ate (milk and cereals we barely consumed before). Our change in diet and our change in social organization made it possible to produce more food per hectare. However we do not seem to be aware that a diet based on large portions of grain and milk provided poorer nutrition then what the human race was accustomed to. The result is that we shrank in size as we learned from the comparison with the Neanderthals that lived in Germany. Not only did we physically shrink in size, even our brain started to contract again.
Left skull of modern human being, right skull of Neanderthal. The new agricultural communities provided a controlled, protected environment. The distributed organization of large numbers of people in different parts on Earth meant that humans gained power over the world around that no single animal ever attained. These sedentary communities displayed creative thinking, had the ability to reflect on mistakes and how to improve them with an ability to cooperate with different groups and invent forms of exchange with distant settlements. The networks of communities over large areas provided a form of life assurance in difficult times as help would be within reach at times of setbacks. These settlements built better dwellings and acquired the technologies to recreate the tropical conditions of origin thanks to solid housing, fire and woven clothing. The same technique of weaving produced nets for hunting and fishing approximately 30,000 years ago. Humans invented the needle and could sew clothing. That gave an advantage over any other skin protection.
Humans acquired long noses to allow hot air to cool, or cool air the warm up and moisturize it by a larger expanse of the mucus membrane. Tall people have it easier to radiate surplus body heat. Even our looks started to differ since a less frequent exposure to the sun acquired humans a lighter skin color that makes it easier for sunlight to penetrate the epidermis to help synthesize vitamin D which plays a key role in the production of calcium to reinforce the skeleton.
The diverse looks that evolved over millennia of migration to all corners of the world do not reflect the fact that genetically all humans are 99.9% alike. There are genetically speaking no races. The lack of genetic diversity among human beings is potentially a major problem. It makes us considerably more susceptible than any other species to viral and bacterial diseases, and to epidemics. That is why after a clear commitment to resolve conflict, humans accepted the duty to cure illnesses and to strengthen our immune system. The new role of healers emerged. At first, no one gained any special privileges, no matter how skilled one may have been. Healing originally equated to sharing spiritual gifts, and the cure emerged during dances where everyone is engaged in healing and strengthening everyone else, while strengthening solidarity. During these dances, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Humanity emerged in Africa singing, dancing and painting and it left to discover all continents keeping these traditions solidly in place wherever humans finally settled.
Throughout these new times for humanity art and religion assumed the responsibility to create metaphors. Common to all religions is that the lives of humans are ultimately governed and influenced by forces that cannot be analyzed using logic and science. At the same time humanity created a world of artifacts that are pure inventions and never existed before. We invent our world and change it through what we achieve together. No other species has ever achieved that.
Thousands year later, the advent of modern science assumed the responsibility to deconstruct metaphors and force a focus on what is real and what can be measured. For the Bushmen in Africa, shamanism and trance, as well as its expression in rock art was a responsibility shared by everyone. However, as populations emigrated to the far corners of the world, the European cave art and religious role of the shaman led to shift from an egalitarian to a hierarchical society. The first hierarchical societies were created where a few had power over many.
Dancing and singing strengthened the group. Language made it easier to resolve conflict, to cooperate, to reach agreement and to keep in touch over time. The idea that there are spirits we cannot see, but who influence our lives emerged as a powerful concept. Suddenly everything can be explained! Why the harvest is abundant, or why I am ill, how the children grow up healthy, and why there is rain when we need it. All subsequent civilizations evolved around the idea that these spirits must be kept happy. The emerging religious rites are performed in combination with rhythmic music that gives a powerful sense of well-being and continued coherence of the group. This becomes a fundamental part of us becoming human. The world that emerged now is fundamentally different from the one humans pursued for eons as hunter gatherers.
The End of the Garden Of Eden
The human settlements served early on as hosts for rites, and this permitted the ceremonial masters to acquire greater influence and thus emerged the first taste of power. The desire to transition from hunter gatherer to farmer perhaps had more to do with power than with food. As we learned, a new diet of grains and milk (gluten and lactose which only few could digest) reduced our size and even shrunk our brain by as much as 20%. So 8,000 years ago only a few hundreds of productive farming villages dotted the planet that were fundamentally hierarchical, organized power structures, with populations divided into social classes. After an estimated 2,000 years all humanity lived in this structured way.
Of course there was a clear necessity to get down to basics like storage and delivery. As a hunter gatherer, food was available all year following the rhythm of Nature. As a farmer, the entire yield needed to be guarded and consumption had to be carefully spread over the year. The granaries permitted the rise of guards who could demand part of the harvest, without ever having contributed to its production. That was a very new phenomena.
The transformation of a food chain of daily fresh supplies to year-long planning stimulated new ways of preparing (baking, boiling, brewing) and preserving food (pickle, sugar, salt). The power of wild yeast to preserve food, add taste, transform and release the unique nutrition embedded in produce and fruits led to the advent of wine, beer, yoghurt, bread, sauerkraut, tofu, kimchi, even coffee and tea, which are all the product of fermentation.
Soon walls were erected to protect the harvest and written language improved control and made it easier to exert power over a distance. This promoted more sophisticated arts and crafts and led to one of humanity's greatest revolutions: bureaucracy. Then the new form of life shifted the management of procreation. Nomadic civilization planned birth carefully in line with the carrying capacity of the land they roamed. The farmers perceived their capacity to feed as a freedom to procreate and this lead to a population explosion. However, the advent of agriculture and the strengthening of civilization created an environment that condoned and even promoted ego, selfishness and war.
We could conclude that this was the end of the first affluent society. Humans had evicted themselves from the Garden of Eden.
Life got violent and civilization turned out to be a lot more brutal than earlier phases of human existence. There was a need to defend the grain reserves which led to inventing cavalry and archery. This resulted in a new profession: the soldier who turned out very expensive, compared to the era of the hunter gatherer when every nomad was a warrior. But the waging of war and the cost of armies was not the only side-effect of civilization, the other was the rise of epidemics. The close proximity of animals, and the mutation of viruses unleashed entirely new plagues to which the human immune system had no defenses. The third impact of civilization was the destruction of the environment. A few centuries of irrigation (e.g. Mesopotamia) turned an entire fertile region into wasteland due to the accumulation of salt. Farming caused massive and uncontrolled soil erosion which led to the rise of the river beds which caused extensive flooding (e.g. Yellow River).
The advent of agriculture and civilization thus caused social conflict, environmental degradation and human suffering beyond anything experienced by humanity before peeling solidarity, reducing security and increasing risks to life ending the sense of community and belonging. Endless disputes often over trivial issues like access to resources and possessions blown up in importance by ego's that use their power to intimidate and to determine (armed) settlements.
This is a new world where The Commons were invaded, and human rights needed protection, since the core principles that had emerged and were embraced by all did not apply anymore. Individuals dominate, accumulate wealth beyond their capacity to consume in a lifetime, and often are prepared to squander everything, including the lives of others to satisfy their ego.
What a difference a couple thousand years make.
The aim of this blog is to present a fresh look at realities around us. Whereas I do not pretend to present the truth nor a definite position, I do wish to push the reader to think beyond the obvious. After all, time has come to dramatically improve the plight of millions, and that requires more than the predictable. Sometimes it forces us into spheres of discomfort.