Why Should We Care About Anthropogeny?
Our species is between 300,000 and 200,000 years old. For most of this one-quarter of a million years, up until just 12,000 years ago, it appears that our ancestors lived in small populations, in small-scale societies of which we can only guess the real nature.
It is truly humbling how we remain in the dark about the age of some of the most diagnostic features of our species: our striding bipedalism, complex tool manufacture and use, fire use, language and societies defining their own identities, collaborating with and competing against neighboring societies.
New data from fossils, molecular and cellular investigations, neuroscience, and comparative psychology and behavior studies are rapidly complicating the potential scenarios leading to our species.
Data from studies of non-human animal behavior remind us of the underappreciated capacities of many other species. However, it has so far not provided evidence for any other species that shares the long list of distinctly human characteristics; chief among those, our species’ capacity to not only simultaneous modify and threaten planetary ecosystems but also document and study such ecosystems across the globe.
It is realistic to expect many new and surprising contributions to anthropogeny from a number of research fields. Drill core studies provide insights into paleoclimates and paleovegetation, via markers for burnt biomass, pollen profiles, plant organic matter and stable isotopes. Much more complete and high-quality genomes now exist for humans and most great apes, and these reveal large and dynamic changes in our genomes, exciting investigations of the microbiota found in and on the bodies of humans and their close relatives also promise novel insights. Combined with new bioinformatic and machine learning tools, these help identify important non-coding parts of the genome (micro- and other non-coding RNAs) or short proteins which can then be subjected to functional studies in cells and/or model animal species including the use of induced pluripotent stem cells and derived organoids for the comparative study of organ development and function across primates. Most promising, perhaps, are the investigations of how human culture including human language, is capable of shaping human biology, by exerting ‘top-down” effects on development, growth, immunity and cognition.
A better understanding of how we came to be who we are will greatly contribute to our attempts at solving important challenges facing humanity. Appreciating the evolutionary forces that shaped us into both highly pro-social and potentially compassionate primates as well as highly destructive and potentially cruel ones.