The secret of Homo sapiens evolution? Migration, diversity, mixing – and meaning

19.01.2020 - London UK - Silvia Swinden

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The secret of Homo sapiens evolution? Migration, diversity, mixing – and meaning
Charles Allan Gilbert's All is Vanity, an example of vanitas, depicts a young woman amidst her makeup and perfumes, preoccupied with her own beauty at the mirror of her vanity. But all is positioned in such a way as to make the image of a skull appear, expressing memento mori, that no matter how good she looks, it won't last, as death is inevitable. (Image by Charles Allan Gilbert, Public domain, Wikipedia)

In tandem with attempts to resist the waves of migration produced by wars, poverty and climate change humanity has been on a quest to find the first, unique modern human, a “mitochondrial Eve” from which we are all descendants. But the big surprise has been that although there is little doubt that humans originally evolved in Africa, genetic analysis points out rather to groups that separated for different reasons, evolved genetically and culturally in different directions and then came back together mixing both the genetic material and the newly acquired skills. The common ancestors of today’s modern humans lived a lot earlier than it was thought and science is leaving the door open for even older findings as the fossil register shows an incomplete picture.

For example, a 2017 finding in Morocco threw into question the idea that modern humans originated in East Africa. Those bones were significantly older than any others ever found.

Researchers determined that the bones unearthed in Morocco’s Jebel Irhoud region are 315,000 years old – roughly 100,000 older than the bones previously considered oldest modern human fossils. (Those fossils, found in Ethiopia, were roughly 196,000 years old.)

The remains were also found in a different area of Africa than most other ancient human bones: North Africa instead of East Africa. That suggests our earliest ancestors may not have lived in just one part of the continent.

“There is no Garden of Eden in Africa, or if there is, it is all of Africa,” anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin, who led the Morocco expedition, said at the time.

Silo described evolving systems that go through stages of differentiation, complementation and synthesis, before moving to a new differentiation. Here we seem to have a rather nice example.

Furthermore, genetic analysis has revealed that the ancestors of modern humans interbred with at least five different archaic human groups as they moved out of Africa and across Eurasia. According to Dr João Teixeira, Australian Research Council Research Associate, ACAD in Science Daily.   

“While two of the archaic groups are currently known — the Neanderthals and their sister group the Denisovans from Asia — the others remain unnamed and have only been detected as traces of DNA surviving in different modern populations. Island Southeast Asia appears to have been a particular hotbed of diversity.”

There was an evolutionary leap in those first humans, perhaps accelerated by the merging of the diverging hominid/human groups and exposure to different environments through migration. Learning to use fire initiated the technological revolution of changing materials found in nature, such as clay, ore and sand into other materials with different properties, such as ceramics, metals and glass. At the same time a revolution of consciousness was taking place, that changed the whole society through collective communication, starting from pictorial representations that eventually led to the principles of written language, showing the evidence for evolving abstract thinking paired with allegorical mental processes that seem to have promoted also the development of a spiritual drive. So humans were no longer brought up mainly in a natural environment but rather in a cultural one, that is, historical/social. This accelerated evolution beyond anything seen in nature before. The initial spark of intentionality, the capacity to structure the world and thinking in an intentional way, grew and continued acting from the depths of human consciousness pushing the species towards achievements and transformations without any limits, sketching the first questions about meaning. And this takes us to today.

Humanity 2.0 approaching

We are again, like our ancestors, distributed around large geographical areas, divided into nations, races, ethnic groups and corporations, all competing for resources. Two opposing tendencies serve as the backdrop of today’s human relationships. On the one hand the nationalistic, racist, white supremacist, anti immigration ideologies with their many levels from the mildly fearful following right wing populist leaders to the frankly active neonazis. On the other hand we have the progressives, welcoming diversity and immigration, promoting solidarity, human rights, equality, the protection of the environment and searching from a new economic system away from destructive capitalist neoliberalism. In between all possible shades and combinations. Polarisation grows at the time of elections and other political crises thanks to the rhetoric of the power-thirsty leaders and softens up during events that bring people together.

But the profound search for meaning, for that which helps us make sense of our own existence continues through the waxing and waning of external events, violence, preposterous leaders and our apparently incomprehensible small place in the Universe.

In this way humanity is preparing itself for its next evolutionary leap which is likely to take place when all humans are connected and nobody is left out of the inspirational wave that shook our ancestors and set the spark of intentionality in their psyches circa 300,000 years ago.

We don’t know when this will happen but we can see how the horror of the violence unleashed but certain actors, those who dehumanise others and impose draconian conditions, often work as “awakeners”. But the green shoots of a new sensibility can be seen everywhere, in new political thinking, in youth movements, in a new spirituality based on experience rather than belief and away from the dogma of old religions, in a search for meaning in life.

A few days ago Pressenza published a comprehensive presentation about the Psychology of New Humanism by Victor Piccininni. He states that “… This process does not stop and it is perhaps in 1945, with the developments of Victor Frankl, creator of Logotherapy, that it finds its highest dimension. In his work Frankl highlights the spiritual dimension of the human being and stresses that it is the lack of “meaning” that is the main root of human suffering. This “psychotherapy of the meaning of life” is based on an active consciousness in search of meaning”.

Coincidentally (or not?) the theme kept turning up in different unrelated publications

Steve Taylor , Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Beckett University writing for The Conversation posits that ”Human life is not a meaningless space between birth and death, spent trying to enjoy ourselves and forget about our predicament. I believe that human life and the world mean much more than that. And this is not because I am religious – I am not.

“Instead, my perspective is informed by my scientific research over the past ten years with people who have undergone what I call “suffering-induced transformational experiences”.

“These experiences include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat.

“What all these people had in common is after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything.

“They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe.

“They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.”

In this case the awakeners were not obnoxious sociopathic politicians but personal suffering. It is indeed of great interest to discover that crises can lead to new meanings, but we also need to be careful not to extol suffering in itself, and promote it as something good for the soul that we should seek even when things are OK.

Another perspective on the theme of meaning comes from a study published by Science Daily which examines meaning in life and its relationship with physical, mental and cognitive functioning: “Over the last three decades, meaning in life has emerged as an important question in medical research, especially in the context of an ageing population. A recent study by researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that the presence of and search for meaning in life are important for health and well-being, though the relationships differ in adults younger and older than age 60.

“Many think about the meaning and purpose in life from a philosophical perspective, but meaning in life is associated with better health, wellness and perhaps longevity,” said senior author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it.”

“…The results also showed that the presence of meaning in life exhibited an inverted U-shaped relationship, while the search for meaning in life showed a U-shaped relationship with age. The researchers found that age 60 is when the presence of meaning in life peaks and the search for meaning of life was at its lowest point.

“When you are young, like in your twenties, you are unsure about your career, a life partner and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life,” said Jeste. “As you start to get into your thirties, forties and fifties, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family and you’re settled in a career. The search decreases and the meaning in life increases.”

“After age 60, things begin to change. People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”

Although showing the connection between meaning and health is extremely important, in this case researchers have equated meaning in life with what the Psychology of New Humanism has described as “provisional meanings”: people. objects, jobs, that may be temporary, ephemeral. In the words of the old Sufi saying, we possess only that we cannot lose in a shipwreck. The presence of a deeper and more permanent meaning guides a different search opening up to other regions of human consciousness.

Kenan Malik for The Observer makes comparisons between uber Christian 17th Century John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and its less than holy 20th Century counterpart, Philip Pullman’s “His dark materials.”  He concludes “Reasoned argument and clarity are an indispensable part of our quest for knowledge. So are stories and their ambiguities. They are a celebration of the human capacity to find meaning and a recognition that meaning is not something to be discovered but something that humans create. From Adam and Eve to Lyra and Will*, it is that search for meaning that enchants, excites, moves and inspires.”

Perhaps what is missing from this potpourri of views about meaning and how to get it- wholly understandable in our individualistic society- is that meaning is connected to the sense of internal unity and coherence arising from helping others. Many celebrities, to their own surprise, have discovered meaning in empathising and developing acts of solidarity towards others, something ordinary people are much more aware of.

In spite of the efforts of anti migration forces humanity is again mixing, coming together with its new complexity and different paths to answer the great questions. There has been a long period of differentiation and a new complementation is in motion. This convergence of diversity is at the root of the new leap we are about to take, no matter how solid the meaningless dehumanising system appears to be.

* His dark materials characters

Categories: Diversity, Humanism and Spirituality, Opinions
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