Why do some nations flourish and other nations disappear? What happened to neanderthals and other kinds of humans? Who will inherit the earth and why? The guidelines for individuals and for societies are different. Can we balance them? And why are the oceans full of life but not humans or insects?
Questions to ask before falling asleep
Taking care of everything we need to do in our everyday lives is hard enough. Asking bigger questions is not something we should do unless we are tired and have nothing better to deal with. And yet, the big questions make us human, memorable, and interesting.
This week one of my sons approached me and asked bluntly: what happened with neanderthals and other humans? I was tired so I muttered something about scientific research and demographic success. Possibly I used a variation of “we outflanked them” to describe the demographic success. My own answer surprised me. So now I would like to describe what I meant,
The traces of DNA in our blood
It is easy to say that modern humans were more successful than other kinds of humans. Until there was historical DNA research, we really did not have a better answer. Around a decade ago, new and better answers started to surface.
Neanderthal brains were larger than the brains we have. European DNA has a strong trace of Neanderthal DNA, which makes Europeans different. We can use great inventions and machines, but we struggle to breathe at high altitudes. People that live at high altitudes have traces of another human DNA, so-called Denisovian men. These people were smaller and more robust compared with modern humans and they also disappeared.
Most of the modern human “races” do not have traces of other humans in their blood. And yet, there is huge genetic variability in ancient races that lived in Africa, and that conquered south India and Australia possibly 50 thousand years ago, or maybe more. And yet, most of us can trace our DNA to a small tribe in the area of modern Kazachstan, from around 40 thousand years ago. These people conquered the earth, later diverging into Semitic, Arian, Chinese, Altaic, and other groups of people.
What made those primitive guys and girls so special? This happened well before pottery and textile, metals, cows and horses, agriculture and megalithic buildings.
Modern humans lived not in caves but in primitive houses, they hunted and gathered pretty much anything. They were more resilient and imaginative. When there were no big animals, they ate fish or squirrels, or wild grain. They were smaller and needed fewer calories than neanderthals. And they probably procreated really well, as a smaller head meant easier birth.
This demographic pressure is in place even today, with massive human migration. In some countries, the natives have fewer than two kids per family. This way the kids get a better education and the parents have more money. At the same time in other countries, three or more kids are normal. I personally have three kids, and many of my friends have four or more. Two hundred years from now, who will be the majority in the world? Those who have strict birth control, those who work hard to support a relatively large family, or those who do not even care?
Very few ancient people survived. Probably the only two cultures with more than 3000 years of existence are Jews and Dravidians in south India. Jews did not mix with others in spite of a very long exile from Israel. Dravidians followed the monsoon rains from what is today Pakistan to what is today South India. Everybody else kind of participated in a huge melting pot. To understand this melting pot we can monitor the languages.
There are Arian languages, of people who domesticated horses, mastered the wheeled chariots and composite bows, and later introduced iron. Arian people had probably the best armor in history. There are Semitic languages of people who invented agriculture and were the first to build huge cities. Typically they dominated through economical bonanza and religion. And then there are local languages of people who could not be conquered. Turcic and Altaic languages of nomads. Polynesian languages of sea people. Chinese languages of people with mass production from ancient times to this day. And so on.
The conquering people used not superior numbers but advanced technology. And while they often conquered countries and nations, they usually married locals creating new creole nations with mixed ancestry and cultural values. China was conquered multiple times, and almost every time the countries with the Chinese culture simply grew in population and territory.
The age of discoveries
Something profoundly new happened with the discovery of the Americas. Entire continents were settled by a combination of Europeans and Africans of mixed heritage. The pressure was both demographic and technological. Both masters and slaves traveled great distances to new lands and then back to the capitals of the European empires.
Eventually, the old European aristocracy degenerated and social stratification almost disappeared. Within generations, we kind of have one very diverse almost global civilization with technological, cultural, and genetic melting pot.
While thousands of years ago other humans disappeared due to a combination of technological and demographic pressure, today all cultures that do not belong to the global culture are disappearing at an alarming rate.
We still experience some social stratification due to old nobility, old religions, new money, and new technologies. Educated well trained people are still the most valuable resource in the world. With increasing cultural and technological proliferation, stratification is likely to disappear faster than we currently imagine.
Within decades computers and large global corporations will own everything, rather than individual people and nations. This is not the only possible future,m but probably the most likely outcome. With wars becoming prohibitively expensive, the role of the government will be reduced to maintaining local schools and hospitals.
It is less clear how many languages will be able to survive the singularity. Quite likely we will end up with creole English over local linguistic substrates.
Losses and gains when we lose diversity
Diversity has always played a critical role in human resilience. Different cultures applied diverse strategies when dealing with common stressors. Some were more successful than others.
For example, recently when dealing with COVID19 crisis American way of crisis management was one of the least effective as can be seen in death statistics. What if all the world would react in the same American way? What if the next global crisis will be tougher than COVID?
As we are losing genetic, technological, and cultural differentiation we get more income per capita. There is an economical model with mathematical proof for this phenomenon. And yet almost all of us instinctively hate globalization, because it counterproductive for human survival. We are also not very happy with family planning and birth control. While fewer people die from hunger and poor living conditions, they make become demographically vulnerable.
I am not even talking about the cultural wealth of local food, clothes, songs, and rituals. We are losing that too. I am talking about survival itself.
Into space and ocean
The unlikely prospect of future diversification are the places where we see no insects: oceans and space. Insects are somewhat like us, as they need to breathe air. Insects can breathe through the gaps in their feet and cannot breathe in water. Unless we become dolphins we cannot breathe in water. And nobody can breathe in space.
We share the surface of the planet with our machines. Computers do not really benefit from proximity to salt water. While machines are more likely to prosper in deep space, competition with machines is likely to drive us into the oceans. We can easily imagine floating cities made of plastic with large nets for growing various sea treasures. This dream is with us at least since the 1960s with Jean Jacque Cousto’s inventions and shows.
Then we are likely to see new forms of diversity between the masters of the ocean, the ocean dwellers, and possibly the astronauts. Until this diversification happens, the entire human species is under a threat.
What can we do?
Big questions rarely provide good actionable ideas. We can try to learn as much as we can and generate some technological leverage. Alternatively, we can try to procreate and create some demographic potential. But true resilience often comes from diversity. I am afraid that with all due respect to traditional cultural values and products, they will be eventually replaced by mass-produced substitutes. And then we will have no other choice but to move forward into the unknown.