“Homo superior in my interior, but from the skin out I’m a Homo sapien, too” – Pete Shelley
We can learn a lot from Neanderthals, the most important lesson being how not to go extinct. Homo sapiens (us) and Homo neanderthalis (them) are currently believed (although the minutiae are hotly debated) to have diverged from a common ancestor referred to as Homo heidelbergensis roughly 400,000 years ago, the African branch of the species evolving into Cro-Magnons (early modern man) and the European version into Neanderthals. About 80,000 years ago, modern man started spilling out of Africa and probably inhabited the same ecological niche as Neanderthals until about 30,000 years ago (the latest date we are sure of for any Neanderthal remains), at which point Neanderthals appear to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Physical anthropologists will admit that they are making some fairly rough (but relatively informed) guesses about the timeline and argue amongst themselves about some of the finer points. And they generally avoid speaking seriously to people who think the planet was seeded by aliens or that men and dinosaurs were contemporaries, not to cast overt aspersions at such folks for as Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter said, “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, everything is possible,” but we haven’t actually met any alien baby daddies or recovered dinosaur saddles, whereas we do have a decent amount of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon bones. By about 30,000 years ago, it appears that the Neanderthals were extinct, and while a few may have hung on until 24,000 years ago in the Iberian Peninsula, essentially it was curtains for our bulky cousins. The current en vogue theory is the Neanderthal Extinction Hypothesis that suggests their demise was due to one or more of: (1) violent conflict with Cro-Magnons and eventually, genocide; (2) exposure to Cro-Magnon pathogens and parasites for which they had no immunity; (3) Cro-Magnon competitive advantages in division of labor, running ability, and hunting techniques adapted to smaller animals when the megafauna started disappearing due to cold weather, and (4) interbreeding with Cro-Magnons that resulted in the absorption of the Neanderthal genome. As a loyal member of Homo sapiens, let me just say, “Go Team!” On the other hand, as a creature subject to evolutionary pressure, this proposed scenario has me concerned. We think we’re so smart, that somehow as a species we’ll outcompete anything else that evolves on the planet (sadly, Neanderthals were bigger, tougher, and had larger brains than Cro-Magnons, and it didn’t do them much good in the end). As an aficionado of monstrosity, and considering the elimination of my species a somewhat monstrous outcome, it seemed prudent to understand what we should be looking for when it comes to what I’ve decided to call Homo proximus (“The Next Man”), so that maybe we can avoid playing the role of Neanderthal to someone else’s Cro-Magnon.
Now here’s the deal. I’m not keen on being outcompeted, least of all by something with brow ridges, a prognathic nose, and an occipital bun. If this happens to describe somebody you know it is because an estimated 1-6 percent of human DNA is believed to be Neanderthal in origin. Occasionally a Neanderthal got lucky with the human ladies. We’ve grown complacent, having been at the top of the food chain for some 30,000 years due to our keen fashion sense (clothing makes the temperature range we can adapt to somewhat wider), our omnivorousness (we eat anything), and our solid understanding of projectile weapons and stand-off distance. Oh, I’m sure if you rough up a few evolutionary biologists they’ll tack on some more reasons, but note that neither they nor I would include skilled use of social media or dominance in World of Warcraft as adaptive strategies. It might be wise to take the hour you would otherwise spend on YouPorn and practice flint knapping. Just saying. Anyhow, as the dominant terrestrial species, when we consider evolution, we tend to think about what we Homo sapiens will look like in a few hundred thousand years (it usually involves an enlarged head, heroin-chic physique, increased height, skin a dark shade of tan, and big anime eyes). I find this a bit presumptuous as we will probably look like a poorly preserved set of skeletal remains dug up by the archaeologists of the species that supplants us. Come back from the happy place you just went to in your mind to avoid thinking about this, and let’s consider what we can do collectively as a species to avoid this fate. And since I incessantly worry about these things, let me give you a jump start. We can figure out what characteristics would define a hominid creature (yes I have a hominid bias, but the taxonomic family, despite a few dead ends, has done pretty well for itself, wouldn’t you say?) that was better adapted to the ecological niche we inhabit and would ultimately outcompete us, and we should probably do so before they start wandering into our cities and signing up on match.com. In short, know your enemy, and your enemy, should you be averse to extinction, is Homo proximus.
Forget about asteroid collisions, super-volcanos, nuclear war, and alien invasion, and take the long view. The Homo genus has split many times in its 2.4 million year history, not to mention its evolution from presumed Australopithecine ancestors, and somebody always gets the short end of the stick (Homo erectus originated in the early Pleistocene about 2 million years ago, but current theory suggests that it was ultimately an evolutionary dead end, except for Homo floresiensis-“Hobbits”-and that didn’t go anywhere). There is no reason to surmise that this process will not continue. Despite the quality of our television programming, factory farming, and ruthless domination of the environment, we are nonetheless still biological organisms. There has been talk of achieving immortality by downloading our brains into computers, but I already have a strained relationship with my GPS, so I find the possible addition of free will, emotions, and a personality into the equation to be deeply disturbing, if not ill-advised. If we want to know what our eventual replacement Homo proximus will look like, we need to consider what has made modern man so gosh darn successful in our ecological niche, then determine what kind of hominid would be better in it than ourselves. The ecological niche of many organisms is often bounded by their tolerance of extreme environmental conditions. You can’t toss a freshwater fish into the ocean and expect it to thrive. First, we discovered clothes, and not long after, Gortex, thereby utilizing our technological chops in greatly expanding the boundaries of our niche. Where other critters may freeze to death, we put on a sweater. Second, we brought our interactions with other species under strict control (except for pigeons and squirrels), harnessing plants and animals through agriculture and husbandry, controlling disease and parasites through medicine, and putting the hurt on anything that vaguely resembled a predator. Basically, we exert intense influence over our potential competitors for big man on the ecological campus. Third, we used our mastery of technology, presumably having a lot to do with big brains, language, and opposable thumbs, to facilitate massive and rapid increases in population. You can try scrubbing, and you can try soaking, but you’ve still got 6 billion humans running around on the planet. This suggests that no matter what environmental calamity befalls us, short of a complete loss of planetary atmosphere, some pesky bunch of humans and cockroaches will likely find a way to endure, unless another hominid comes along and does it better.
The same qualities that have led to the global dominance of our species should clue us in to what the monstrous Homo proximus will look like. Imagine that the Homo sapiens evolutionary line has already bifurcated, and compare the branches of our future family tree. Two sets of hominids would then be competing on the basis of who is better at (1) tolerating (either biologically or technologically) extreme environmental conditions; (2) managing the intensity of interactions with competitors (from predators to parasites); and (3) rapidly increasing its population. We commonly believe that the geek will inherit the earth by the sole virtue of technological acumen, but that’s because we generally associate geekdom with computers (and thus when we think of technology, we are referring to computerization), when in fact we should be concerned with technology in its broadest sense, that of superior technique. Neither Cro-Magnons, nor Neanderthals could effectively use a mouse, but paleoanthropologists have proposed that Cro-Magnons developed an advantage over Neanderthals in hunting through early domestication and utilization of the dog as a hunting aid. Dogs were a technology that afforded a competitive advantage. Neanderthals were obviously cat people. Our extraordinary expansion of our ecological niche is a fragile thing, so while we’ve gotten used to fresh vegetables shipped hundreds of miles daily, steak that we don’t have to chase, mobile phones and central heating, our ability to stay at the top of the evolutionary heap is highly dependent on continuous inputs of large amounts of energy, food, and resources. Look what happens during any natural disaster that stops the trucks from rolling, the power from powering, and those civil services we’ve gotten so used to, from civilly serving. Chaos, death, and destruction, oh my.
Now, I’m not going to indulge in one of those exercises where I show you a picture of your evolutionary enemy. I mean, I would, and in fact could probably have spared you this entire article by drawing a picture of “before” and “after”, but alas I have no gift for artistic expression, as well as the fact that I just don’t know or care what the physiognomic qualities of Homo proximus will be. We may not even recognize our eventual replacement as a different species until they are well on their way to world dominance. You could be having coffee with him right now. Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons certainly intermixed, hung out, dated, and even had children. He might have just been the hairy guy who lived next door and played linebacker for the caveman football team.
We think we’re pretty savvy and have managed to sidestep evolution, but that’s largely because we also don’t like to think about individual death. It’s bad enough that we’ll each end up feeding the worms one day, but horrific to regard the absence of our entire species, and consequently, as evolutionary biologist George C. Williams observed, “Most evolving lineages, human or otherwise, when threatened with extinction, don’t do anything special to avoid it”.
What an awful contemplation, that of the human race bereft of its evolutional energy, disillusioned, without enthusiasm, without hope, without aspiration, without an ideal! To it now such an issue may well appear incredible, since youth and energy cannot believe sincerely, can only think it believes, in decay and death. Perhaps it will be declared repugnant to reason to suppose that mankind could cherish ideals, and thus far ever rising ideals, were these not destined some time to have full realization somewhere; and much more so to believe that, having reached its zenith, these will give place to ever worsening ideals of ever worsening states of things, as the foregoing theory of human extinction assumes will happen. But the instinctive repugnance ought not to count as a fact of much weight: in the first place, it is no argument against death that life in full energy has a repugnance to it and cannot realize it; in the second place, the extinction of evolutional energy that must follow the gradual extinction of solar energy will involve in its consequences the extinction of the upward-tending ideal, and mankind will go on contentedly with a downward-tending ideal, or anti-ideal, without feeling it to be such, just as declining nations do now, any forlorn Cassandra that may raise a warning cry meeting her eternal fate of being unheeded (Maudsley, 1884, p323-324).
We like to imagine the end of our species as the end of the world, which just shows what self-centered little monkeys we are. That’s why our scenarios for Armageddon generally involve global catastrophes that not only eliminate us, but often shatter the planet, because the notion that we might just become genetically irrelevant and fade into some other hominids family tree bothers us more than the prospect of the destruction of the entire ecosystem. Comic George Carlin said it best, noting “The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are! We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.” Show some species solidarity, and keep an eye out for Homo proximus–we want to make sure he remembers us fondly.
Maudsley, Henry 1835-1918. Body And Will: Being an Essay Concerning Will In Its Metaphysical, Physiological, And Pathological Aspects. New York: Appleton, 1884.
A very thoughtprovoking piece. Thank you for writing it.
I must correct you though in one point: cats did never have anything to do with Neanderthals. My cats and I agree, that cats decided tot step in and protect the foodstocks of our species from rodents, when out ancestors started to use agriculture. Without cats protecting the grainhouses our expansion would have been impossible.
Of course, we will change over time. But we don’t need to disappear. As the environment changes, and I mean the whole picture, then those of us with the right combination of genes will prevail. At the moment, there seems to be no other type of homo hidden somewhere. This makes the Neandterthal scenario unlikely. In case of a gradual change, homo proximus will be our descendant. Only if some kind of disaster would wipe out the majority of us, there would be isolated groups diverging. After thousands of years two, then different groups, could play out the conquer and absorb scenario. But neither would be us, both would have changed.
Thanks to both you and your scholarly cats for the observations, and hopefully you are correct, unless of course the divergence has already happened….