Why should we care about Anthropogeny?

Session Date: 
Nov 19, 2022

Our species is between 300,000 and 200,000 years old.

For most of this ¼ 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 that we still are in the dark about the age of some our 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 date from fossils, molecular & 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 simultaneous modify and threaten planetary ecosystems and but also to document and study such ecosystem 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 on paleoclimates and paleovegetation, via markers for burnt biomass, pollen profiles, and stable isotopes. Much more complete and high-­­­­­­­quality genomes now exist for humans and most great apes, so do exciting investigations of the microbiota found in and on the bodies of humans and their close relatives. Combined with new bioinformatic 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 function across primates. Most promising perhaps are the investigations of how human culture 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 prosocial and potentially compassionate primates as well as highly destructive and potentially cruel ones.