Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Being Human

It's been a while since I have posted anything, and there's no excuse!

I read three books recently that I wanted tell you all about. As we all know the human species has gone from a small offshoot of a specific part of the mammalian family to the dominant biological species in the world today (discounting the huge range of bacteria and other micro world beings).  What makes us unique?  What capacity do we have that other species don’t have (e.g., our not too distant cousins, the chimpanzees, etc.).  It turns out that there are at least three characteristics which seem unique to humankind and which have played a major role in our evolutionary development.  These are, in no particular order, our ability to run, our capacity for language, and our use of fire to cook food.  All three we take for granted, and they are all unique to our species (not running, just that we are better at this than anything else!).

The first, and most surprising to me, is our capacity to run.  According to the popular book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, we humans can run better than anything else on our planet.  This doesn’t mean faster, but it does mean we have the capacity for running longer than anything else, and the book explains why and its significance for our evolutionary development. One of the vivid heroes in this great book about running, known in the book as Caballo Blanco, and who in reality was a part-time resident of boulder by the name of Micah True, died last week on a solitary run in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico.  The cause is still uncertain, but there is speculation about a heart attack or something similar.

The second book, Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans by Derek Bickerton, asks the provocative question: what came first, humans or language.  His very enlightening and often very entertaining book gives a vivid answer to this intriguing question and explains a lot about our culinary habits some million years ago or so and how that led to the development of language and how this interacted with our evolutionary development.

The third book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham, and which I read most recently, describes how we uniquely use fire for cooking and how this dramatically affected our evolutionary development. The development of cooking and eating around a common hearth played a significant role in the emergence of many of our social structures which are as true today as they were millennia ago.

I learned a great deal from all three of these books, and although they were written independently and from different points of view, they all contribute significantly to partially answering the question of where we humans come from and what makes us different.

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