Driven to do more than merely survive

Spencer Wells’ genetic time machine sheds some light on my last post’s question: Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?  As a geneticist and anthropologist he has explored the journey of the human population from our origins as a small tribal village in Africa to a population that has expanded around the whole planet.  (For an engaging synopsis of his work, I suggest watching his documentary, “Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey”, on YouTube.  For specific details, you will find his book, of the same title, of interest.)

Using genetic markers in our DNA, scientists found in 1987 that all humans share an African great-great… grandmother who lived approximately 150,000 years ago.[1]  She is the common female ancestor to everyone alive today.   Further research reveals another common ancestor in an African great-great grandfather 60,000 years ago.[2]  For Wells, these two points in time, where genetic data coalesce, indicate that there were no modern humans living outside Africa prior to the latest estimated date: “all modern humans were in Africa until at least 60,000 years ago.  That is the real shocker: 60,000 years may not seem very recent, but remember that we’re dealing with evolutionary time scales here.”[3]

Wells plots the evolutionary time scales over the course of a calendar[4] year, conveying the speed at which our migration took place, from 23 million years ago to today.  On ‘New Year’s Day’ apes appear, and it isn’t until the end of October that our first hominid ancestors walk upright.  From that point, more time passes, until December 28, that our first modern human ancestors appear in Africa.  It isn’t until New Year’s Eve that modern humans leave Africa and populate the world.  As Wells puts it, it was the first big bang of human evolution, and it took place in an evolutionary eye-blink.[5]   In a mere 10,000 years, the planet’s continents, with the exception of Antarctica, were inhabited.[6]  We travelled “from eastern Africa to Tierra del Fuego, braving deserts, towering mountains and the frozen wastelands of the far north.”[7]  To travel, we constantly adapted to life in conditions that were unfamiliar; we grew and evolved our understanding of the world as we migrated – and in order to migrate.

We are left, however, with a big question: what sparked our ancestors’ mass migration on New Year’s Eve?  Wells himself wonders if one single fortuitous event changed the course of human evolution, if the right person was in the right place at the right time that provided the spark, but the truth is we just don’t know.[8]  This all took place before our traditional recorded history, but we do know some things that help us identify the spark.  Three archeological shifts took place at this time, around 60,000 years ago: “First, the tools used by humans became far more diverse and made more efficient use of stone and other materials.  Second, art makes its first appearance, and with a presumed leap in conceptual thought.  And finally, it is around this time that humans began to exploit food resources in a far more efficient way.  All-in-all, the evidence points to a major change in human behavior [sic].” [9]   In essence, we began to think new things, make new things and do new things.

Anthropologists surmise that a critical prerequisite of our new abilities to think, make and do new things is a result of changes to our social habitat.  In this case, advancement of our language skills, which allowed us to develop complex social networks, was almost certainly the spark that brought about the changes in behavior [sic].[10]  A change in our ways of communicating changed our social behaviour, and with it our very culture, tipping the scales to learn new things, drive our capacity to migrate across the planet.  That migration continues into today’s cities.  Learning – thinking, making and doing new things –sparked the initial migration and it continued to spark the emergence of independent settlements, agriculture and civilizations.  Consider Ronald Wright:

By 3,000 years ago, civilizations had arisen in at least seven places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Mediterranean, India, China, Mexico and Peru.  Archeology shows that only about half of these had received their crops and cultural stimuli from others.  The rest had built themselves up from scratch without suspecting that anyone else in the world was doing the same.  This compelling parallelism of ideas, processes, and forms tells us something (p. 64) important: that given certain broad conditions, human societies everywhere will move towards greater size, complexity, and environmental demand (p. 64-65). [11]

The broad conditions that allowed for our migration across the planet, the simultaneous development of independent civilizations and our current city growth are threefold:

  1. Our capacity and interest to create new work (think, make and do new things);
  2. Our capacity to create a social habitat that supports the generation of new work; and
  3. Our capacity to respond to and create a physical habitat that supports our social habitat and the generation of new work.

The relationship between these three elements is a set of never-ending loops that put us on an evolutionary path: our work recreates our social and physical habitats; our social habitat recreates our work and our physical habitat; our physical habitat recreates our work and social habitat.  We are driven by our desire to do more than merely survive.  Our desire to advance is what compelled us to migrate across the planet and, without knowledge of each other, develop independent civilizations – in the form of cities – across the planet.  We desire to thrive, and our ultimate response to this quest is to create habitats for ourselves in which we will thrive – cities.  Our habitat is the conditions we live in.  It is our economic life, our social life and our physical context, each of which are intertwined in such a way that they are the very forces that guide our growth and development as a species.

There are two things to note about Wells and his work.  The first is his passion for new understanding and for sharing his work with others.  Because of his work, and of those who precede and work alongside him, we learn about the world and add to their understanding.  He is fully engaged in the generation of new work and inviting others to do the same.  He is fully engaged in economic life.  Second, we are now noticing that the progeny of our tribe of 11,000 are reconnecting and reintegrating.  Once distant, foreign nations are now connected through global economy.  Our ease of travel allows migration and mixing of cultures.  Our technological advances allow instant and widespread communication through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.  We are deeply connected socially and economically across the planet.  Physically, we are mixing cultures and nationalities to a degree that noticing and following the genetic markers, as Wells has done to find our ‘path’, is getting increasingly difficult.  Even without Wells’ work, we are socially and physically integrating ourselves.  With his work, we see that we are reintegrating ourselves; we always were of the same tribe.

Our migration into cities is an evolutionary impulse that brings with it a level of connection and integration that we are just starting to get used to.  The rate of population growth in cities is clearly on a trajectory that will continue to generate unfamiliar life conditions.  Just as our African ancestors experienced whole new worlds as they migrated, the world we live in is changing literally around us.  The rate of change is unprecedented.  Physically, the number and size of our cities that we build to live in is an indicator.  In our social habitat, the changes offered by technology connects us as we never have before.  In our economic life, we generate new ideas in our cities at an increased rate.  Understanding and accommodating the changes is unimaginable, just as travelling the unknown world was unknowable for our ancestors’ initial migration.

We are living in new times; we have never been here before.  Yet despite not knowing exactly what’s happening or what’s to come, we are headed in a direction: we migrated across the planet, we migrated into cities and we are now growing our cities.  To really answer the question about whether people grow cities or whether cities grow people, we must dig a little deeper into the forces that generate our migration.

My next post will consider this question:  What moves us?

[1]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 33

[2]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 55

[3]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 55

[4]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 55

[5]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 55

[6]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 145

[7]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 145

[8]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 184

[9]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 85.  Wells draws on Jared Diamond’s anthropological work around ‘The Great Leap Forward’ and others’ work around Diamond.  He also draws on Richard Klein’s work.

[10]   Spencer Wells, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, p. 85

[11]   Ronald Wright, A Short History of Everything, p. 64-65

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