A Very Quick Tour of Evolutionary History

This is the 3rd blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth.  The first blog in the series is  “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is A Few Unique Traits of Humans.

Wilson is an effective story teller and he does offer a potential history of how evolutionary history unfolded leading to the appearance of modern humans.  That is the heart of his book, and I recommend you read his book because the history is fascinating.  Even if you have doubts about evolution, you can still see how evolutionary theorist piece together and interpret the evidence they have before them.  Certainly as Wilson describes the evidence and the history there are lots of uncertainties, possibilities and probabilities that make up the story, and while it may be the best construct of the existing evidence, one realizes some of this history is guesswork and some parts of the history no doubt are going  to be overturned as new evidence is discovered.  That certainly is the nature of science and the meaning of “truth” in the evolutionary context.   While Wilson is committed to evolutionary theory, it does seem to me in the book he expresses in various ways that the story he is telling is possibly the story based on current evidence but some of the story is interpretation and educated guesses to fill in gaps in knowledge.

That evolutionary theory is constantly undergoing change based on new discoveries and evidence is made obvious in such news reports as as found in England’s  THE INDEPENDENT, Fossil Discovery Rewrites the Story of Human Evolution.   Some will argue the sensational headline’s claim that the discovery “rewrites” the story of human evolution is an exaggeration, nevertheless my read of Wilson is that he would be totally comfortable with rewriting chapters in his book if new evidence led to new theories or a new storyline.  We will get back to debates between science and religion in this series in the near future.

Wilson offers an overview of what his book is about:

“LIKE ALL GREAT PROBLEMS in science, the evolutionary origin of humanity first presented itself as a tangle of partly seen and partly imagined entities and processes. Some of these elements occurred well back in geological time, and may never be understood with certainty. I have nevertheless pieced together those parts of the epic on which I believe researchers agree, and filled in the remainder with informed opinion. The sequence, given in broad strokes, is the consensus I believe to be correct, or at least most consistent with existing evidence.”  (Kindle Loc. 762-67)

Before getting to the controversies between science and religion, below are a few facts from Wilson’s evolutionary timeline which I found interesting.  Keep in mind Wilson’s term “eusociality” which means multiple generations of a species living together with “an altruistic division of labor.”  Humans have eusociality as do some bees and ants.  Very few species have actually developed this trait despite its apparent evolutionary advantage.

“The eusocial insects are almost unimaginably older than human beings. Ants, along with their wood-eating equivalents the termites, originated near the middle of the Age of Reptiles, more than 120 million years ago.”  (Kindle Loc 725-26)

“The oldest known stone tools, knapped crudely to serve some function or other, date to 6–2 million years before the present.”  (Kindle Loc. 677-78)

“The first hominins, with organized societies and altruistic division of labor among collateral relatives and allies, appeared at best 3 million years ago.”  (Kindle Loc 7207-28)

“By two million years before the present, the favored australopithecine line had begun the transition to the still-larger-brained Homo erectus. This species had a brain smaller than that of present-day Homo sapiens, but it was able to shape crude stone tools and use controlled fire at campsites. Its populations spread out of Africa, blanketing the land up into northeastern Asia and pushing south all the way to Indonesia.”   (Kindle Loc. 1378-82)

“By 200,000 years before the present, the African ancestors had come anatomically closer to contemporary humans. The populations also used more advanced stone tools and may have engaged in some form of burial practice. But their skulls were still relatively heavy in construction.”  (Kindle Loc. 1426-27)

“Burials began at least 95,000 years ago, as evidenced by thirty individuals excavated at Qafzeh Cave in Israel. One of the dead, a nine-year-old child, was positioned with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. That arrangement alone suggests not just an abstract awareness of death but also some form of existential anxiety.”  (Kindle Loc. 4502-4)

“Only around 60,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens broke out of Africa and began to spread around the world, did people acquire the complete skeletal dimensions of contemporary humanity.”  (Kindle Loc. 1428-29)

The “’creative explosion’ that began approximately 35,000 years ago in Europe. From this time on until the Late Paleolithic period over 20,000 years later, cave art flourished. Thousands of figures, mostly of large game animals, have been found in more than two hundred caves distributed through southwestern France and northeastern Spain…”  (Kindle Loc. 4507-9)

“’Flutes,’ technically better classified as pipes, fashioned from bird bones, have been found that date to 30,000 years or more before the present.”  (Kindle 4551-2)

“In a very early time, from the Late Paleolithic period through the Mesolithic period, the cultural evolution of humanity ground forward slowly. At the beginning of the Neolithic period, 10,000 years before the present, with the invention of agriculture and villages and food surpluses, cultural evolution accelerated steeply. Then, thanks to the expansion of trade and by force of arms, cultural innovations not only increased faster but also spread much farther.”  (Kindle 1619-23)

There were so many other aspects of the story that I found fascinating, but the above are a few “highlights” of the human evolutionary story according to Wilson.  I value the comments for what they contribute to an understanding of what it means to be human.  To be human is not simply to be the passive victim of biological determinism.  To be human is to create, is to feel, is to worship and is to believe in something greater than one’s self.   We’ll turn now to a more controversial aspect of Wilson’s writings:  his criticism of religion.

Next: Wilson’s Critique of Religion

3 thoughts on “A Very Quick Tour of Evolutionary History

  1. Pingback: A Few Unique Traits of Humans | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  3. Pingback: Wilson’s Critique of Religion | Fr. Ted's Blog

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