How we got here, Chapter 1: Clever MonkeysDecember 17, 2016
This is part of a book I am working on, hopefully due for completion by early 2017. The purpose of the book is to explore where we are at, where we are going, and how we can get there, in the broadest possible sense. It is in “stream of consciousness” phase so your comments, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome! The final text of the book will be freely available under a Creative Commons By Attribution license. A book version will be sent to nominated world leaders, to hopefully encourage the necessary questioning of the status quo and smarter decisions into the future. Additional elements like references, graphs, images and other materials will be available in the final digital and book versions and draft content will be published weekly. Please subscribe to the blog posts by RSS and/or join the mailing list for updates.
If we look back at our earliest roots, humans have some pretty special characteristics that define and drive us, even today, and have made us arguably the most successful species in the world. We have populated every continent, developed complex social structures and specialisation of labour, shaped the environment around us, even traveled to the moon. The rate of human change, progress and indeed, evolution, is only getting faster over time. Though there are certainly issues around the sustainability of how we currently live, we have also come to an age of greater self awareness as a species of our impact, capabilities and responsibilities and can develop new ways to live more sustainably.
By understanding the basic but persistent characteristics of our collective psyche, we can better understand what will drive our decisions and trends of our future.The core human characteristics that collectively differentiate us from other animals are language and symbology, collaboration and specialisation, cumulative learning, curiosity and our thirst for fun.
Language and symbology has given us the ability to both communicate and record ideas, but also to`explore and express abstract concepts. Because we are a highly social and collaborative animal, we also have the ability to share the workload and specialise, such that individuals can become highly skilled at a subset of the skills needed for the group survival and prosperity. This in turn makes us more interdependent on the rest of the group, as highly specialised individuals are necessarily without all the skills needed to prosper. This is no less the case today than it was in ancient hunter and gather communities, though the necessary interdependence of individuals is often forgotten amidst modern ideologies of liberalism and individual rights. The individual needs the collective to share the load of survival in order to have the comfort, time and space to thrive, otherwise that individual little time to think or develop skills beyond the next meal or shelter. As such, the good of the collective is necessary for the good of the individual. One of the interesting things about our social structures, work specialisation and necessary interdependence is that it fosters some element of stability and predictability in life, which we also are taught to pursue. Stability and predictability have historically made it easier to survive and thrive however, this was easier when the rate of change was slower. In any case, stability and predictability when combined with basic needs being met also creates opportunity for growth and advancement.
The characteristics that most significantly contributed to the rise and rise of homo sapiens is our capacity for cumulative learning and cooperative competition. Individuals inherit knowledge, and then build upon that foundation to develop new knowledge, continually passing exchange, enhancing and improving. As very early humans started to travel and trade, knowledge was increasingly exchanged between different groups creating an increased rate of development. The introduction of modern and instantaneous global communications pushed that capacity even further with cumulative learning – and the progress of invention and ideas – becoming faster than ever, with more people than ever able to contribute to and derive from a collective knowledge commons. The fact that the Internet also harbours unprecedented amounts of entertainment with which individuals could simply spend their life creating nothing of substance does not take away from the fact that same individual, if motivated, could educate themselves on almost anything to contribute to making a better world. With so many people so immediately and easily connected around the world, we also have new means of cooperating and competing. Even when our basic needs are met, we still have an inherent instinct to work with others to improve things. Often cooperation and competition are presented as zero sum game principles however, historically, it is by both cooperating and competing that we have flourished. Cooperating on the common, and competing on the distinct. Both are built into everyday life, from sharing cookies with schoolmates at an athletics competition, to sharing workspaces of competing startups in business incubators. In an era of surplus, many of us aren’t competing for resources at the cost of others, but rather are competing with ideas, beliefs and a changing perspectives of success. All competition naturally builds on the back of cooperation as the best of the best will stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before. Similarly, all cooperation is built on a little competition as the people involved in any venture will try harder with their peers watching, and will strive to be the best they can.
Finally, our natural curiosity and fun seeking natures continually compel us to explore the world around us and improve our lives. Curiosity is certainly not unique to humans however, our constant thirst for knowledge, for ever more shiny distractions and entertainment, for invention and fun, can help in predicting how we may behave in future. Once something, anything, becomes uninteresting or onerous, people tend to look elsewhere. Whatever people find interesting (or can be convinced to be interested in) becomes the basis for new markets, entertainment, memes, finances, invention and development. We like to play. In every form of human society throughout time we have made time to have fun, even when our basic needs aren’t met. We have made play such an important part of our lives that we have created entire areas of specialisation that appear to serve no purpose apart from pleasure, though often contain the ingredients for developing skills, building social cohesion and sharing knowledge. Play is a critical part of human development and life, and we tend to work hard to improve our lives specifically to make space and time for fun.
Although we have developed many complicated systems for how we survive and thrive, we are in fact fairly predictable in our basic desires and motivations. We crave shiny things, new knowledge, social acceptance and control over our lives. We aim to make our lives easier so we can have more time to play. We arm ourselves with the tools required to satisfy our desires (whether innate or influenced) and can build on the efforts and knowledge of those who have come before to constantly innovate and improve, working cooperatively and competitively with others around us. We try to avoid what we aren’t naturally motivated to do, and we like to explore and enjoy the world around us, seeking ever new and exciting experiences. Regardless of how complicated a system we build, these traits have endured and apply to us at both a macro and micro level. For instance, an organisation or body of people is no more likely to do something not in its best interest as an individual, and are just as likely to react badly to existential threats. This should shape how we design and deliver public policy, laws, services, regulation and other broad programs but we often build new systems without taking a pragmatically empathetic view to those affected.
These basic characteristics have brought us here and continue to underpin our lives, so they can tell us something about the fundamental trajectory of human development over time and into the future. They also demonstrate clearly the opportunity to thrive when basic needs are met.
- The “Big History” website is amazing and well referenced.
- References to include research papers on psychology, rate of evolution, anthropological and historical references to growth and changes in human society including emergence of highly interdependent specialisation, research on human motivations and thrive vs survive reactions.