What Makes Us Fittest

4 06 2013

lastApeI just read Last Ape Standing by Chip Walter, because I was interested in the variations of human subspecies and how they might have interacted. This book had some great stuff on that topic, but I ended up being much more captivated by what it has to say about the roots of human evolution; in particular, neoteny. What is neoteny? It is the persistence of youthful traits in an organsim. You can read all about it here, but in a nutshell, having the longest childhood of any ape means that homo sapiens has years of life with a still developing brain. That allows us to learn far more than any animal, to develop unique skills and quirky personalities. It’s why we developed self-awareness, and all of our fabulous cultural and technological achievements.

I find this notion to be a wonderfully refreshing refutation of social Darwinism. What I mean by social Darwinism (and this may not be strictly accurate use of the term) is the idea that a person’s innate value is relative to how well they could survive in the wild unaided. Meaning, a person who is physically able to hunt for food and withstand the elements is a better human being than one who is weak or slow. In our society, the concept is more generally applied to economic status. Those with the capability to get rich deserve to, those without it don’t.

I confess, I’ve been susceptible to social Darwinism myself. I’ve always known it was wrong, because that’s what I was taught, but it makes a seductive sense on an intuitive level. The problem with social Darwinism, as Last Ape Standing so aptly illustrates, is that humans are strange animals. We are not like tigers or sharks or eagles. We did not get to the top of the food chain by being the strongest or the fastest. On the contrary, half our tribe was always in this extended childhood that made them completely dependent on the adults and rendered the whole group more vulnerable. But that apparent weakness is precisely what lead to us becoming the one species that can willfully alter the environment, and thus change the rules of the game.

Social Darwinists would have us let the disadvantaged fall away. But with evolution as our guide, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. We got where we are today by caring for the weakest among us. We are made powerful by imagination, curiosity, compassion, and shared effort. To expect us to find our roles in competition like a pack of baboons is to completely misunderstand what it is to be human.

Chip Walter’s website allthingshuman.net has more.

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