Popular books about human evolution tell us why we are the way we are. A broad swath of the public looks to such books to translate the enormity of information from scientific research into accessible, and engaging narratives informing us about human nature.
When Albert Einstein cautioned us all to “look for what is, and not for what we think should be” he asked us to treat with care and skepticism reports that tell us assertively, “this is the way it is.” It’s easy to selectively tell a story that appeals but does not reflect scientific reality. Popular science about human evolution often does a great job of conveying interpretations and perspectives which are ideologically exciting. But often this offers the public incomplete, and at times toxic, portrayals of human evolution.
Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling book Sapiens tells us that humans experienced a genetic mutation and cognitive revolution of imagination and exceptionalism 70,000 years ago and became the dominant force on the planet by out-competing six other human-like species. Stephen Pinker’s epic tome The Better Angels of Our Nature tells us that our evolutionary past was filled with competition, violence, and murder, and it is only in recent times that the angels of our better nature, in the eventual form of Western liberal democracies, have figured out how to tame our inner demons. And Nicholas Wade’s highly problematic yet popular book, A Troublesome Inheritance, argues that genomics and the process and patterns of human evolution explain our political, economic, and racialized histories and support a racist doctrine of segregation.
They are all wrong.
Getting the science of human evolution right matters. Being ignorant of the diversity, complexity, data, and depth in the study in human evolution is not only problematic but downright dangerous. In a nutshell, here is the science that is missing from the three books I mentioned.
1. The evolution of Homo sapiens: The recent discoveries of Homo naledi, the re-dating of the earliest Homo sapiens, the earliest appearances of art and symbol, and the morphological and genetic data show that the accurate story of human evolution is not that of a single emergence of, or competitive edge to, Homo sapiens. There is no single cognition gene (or even multiple) or a single innovation in behavior or brain structure that happened 60-70,000 years ago (or at any point in our lineage) that made us who we are.
Modern humans’ evolution was complicated, not uniform, involved hybridization (mating and sharing of information/culture) between multiple of the populations we call “species” in the fossil record. There is increasing evidence of mutual engagement by many different kinds of human-ish groups across our history, and the last 300,000 years was especially messy.
We aren’t even sure if a whole chunk of what we thought was a core part of the human cultural remains was even made by Homo sapiens… it might have been the much smaller-brained Homo naledi behind it. We know Neanderthals made amazing jewelry, complicated stone tools, and built structures inside caves. We also know that having hyper-complex tools and materially robust art is not an indication of humanity, as many contemporary human groups don’t have them. Often human complexity is equally expressed in other areas of social and cognitive life, like telling stories, making temporary sand drawings, and having complicated land use and management systems.
We, modern humans, are not the product of a novel mutation, a specific ability to out-compete and destroy our rivals or even bodies and genomes that are clearly distinguishable from many populations of past humans. Diversity in appearance, behavior, and belief seems to be the norm in the human past as it is in the present. Given the patterns of global conflicts, issues of diversity, and culture-clashes of today, this more accurate, and more complicated, representation of the past might be an important insight.
2. The evolution of warfare and violence: Despite popular claims, there are no concrete archeological or fossil data that offer clear evidence for warfare being deep in the human past. This point is much discussed, but the data are available and there are endless good debates and discussions available on the topic. One might argue that the jury is still out, that we just don’t have the data yet, but nothing in the data we do have supports the idea that there is deep archaeological evidence for warfare, or genetic evidence for violence, as a central pattern explaining human evolutionary success.
As to the assertion that our relationship with violence is getting better in the last few thousand years… there are countless articles and peer-reviewed assessments that demonstrate this is only true if you take a very narrow and selective view of what violence constitutes. Deaths in battle are not the only kind of lethal violence, nor is death the only way to measure the impact, importance, and scope of violence. Suffering matters, too.
But warfare and violence are very real and significant factors for humans today. And they have been for thousands of years. Understanding the emergence of warfare and the patterns of violence in human evolutionary history is critical to understanding humanity today and managing our capacities for immense violence and destruction. Ignoring the actual data and patterns from the evolutionary record is not going to get us the insight we need to face contemporary challenges.
3. Evolutionary history and race: The discussion about race and society in our deep past and in the present has been reviewed many, many times in the scientific literature, and yet remains ignored by much of the public and too many science writers. All of the archeological evidence for the pace and patterns of major technological and cultural innovation by humans and our ancestors, the actual genetic patterns and distribution of biological variation in human populations today and in the past, and the cultural history across Homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years clearly refute claims about racial divisions in modern humans and their relationships to our behavior, biology and the history of civilization.
One does not need to get into the debate about race and racism to refute the assertions that patterns in human evolution are tied to the categories of “European,” “Asian” and “African.” Even a brief assessment of evolutionary and contemporary biological science offers a much more robust and data-driven understanding of human variation, similarity, and difference and offers a better context for dealing with race relations and their associated problems that we face today.
Despite their often entertaining nature, many popular books get the science of human evolution wrong and thus mislead the public about what we know, what we don’t know, and why it matters. Do yourself a favor: Never take these assertions at face value. Don’t settle for simple. Seek the data and embrace complexity. Knowledge is power.
Berger, L. and Hawks, J. (2017) Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story. National Geographic Press
Fuentes, A. (2017) The Creative Spark: how imagination made humans exceptional. Dutton/Penguin
Fry, D. (2013) (ed) War, Peace, and Human Nature. Oxford University Press
Marks, J. (2015) Tales of the Ex-Apes. University of California Press
Sussman, R (2014) The Myth of Race, Harvard University Press