The Origins of Humankind

by Hugh M. Lewis


Our origin is our natural liberation and cultural bondage


The complete origin story of human beginnings will probably always remain shrouded in silent mystery. But we have accumulated and analyzed a substantial amount of evidence to enable us to assert with confidence some basic pieces of the human evolutionary framework. We know, for instance, that bipedalism preceded the marked increase in endocranial development, which itself proceeded in a stepwise fashion over several million years. We have an idea of the areas of the first australopithecines, and the earliest tool associations. We have a general idea of when Humankind first came to tame and depend upon fire. We know now that the factors of prolonged infant child dependency, and the reproductive and productive role of the mother in the transmission of early human proto-culture, must have played an important role in the stimulus for cultural and cerebral development.

We no longer can look to simple models of tool use, or to language, or to increased brain capacity, or social organization, as suitable, prime mover explanations for the beginnings of humankind. Our models of anthropogenesis today must reflect the sophistication and the complexity of our fossil record and associated genetic and primate evidence. We know that all of these factors, along with others, were important parts of the process of the emergence of human culture, but what we may never know is exactly how or why these factors came together in such a way as to make anthropogenesis a reality. What we confront with our patchy evidence is a problem of history, of constructing the unrecoverable parts in such a way that the resulting picture satisfies all our questions. We can call it natural history, or the beginning of human culture history, but it remains essentially an historical dilemma. And in this it matters less whether the time depth is a thousand years or a million, except that a million years is much further removed from the bounds of normal human experience.

But the problem of anthropogenesis will always remain an important question to be asked by anthropologists, not only because the answers we give it will inevitably reflect our own contemporary concerns, our own unconscious preoccupations, our own values and our own interests, but also because the kind of answer we give to it will be a measure of how we comprehend and construe other important aspects of human reality. This includes how we understand human nature and culture, how we look at human social organization and human character, how we see primary socialization and the transmission and evolution of cultural traits.

Our answer to this question is important in yet another way. How we fill in the question of our own origin is mythologically fundamental to the sense of completeness of our human identity in the world. In order to keep a relatively unbiased and universal sense of human identity, we need to have an unbiased sense of our own beginnings.

Anthropogenesis must take into account the anthropological processes of humankind making itself in the world for the first time. In this process the role of language must figure as a central mechanism in a similar central way which language figures in the development and primary acquisition of the young child.

The human capacity for language is unique in the animal kingdom, as are humankind's capacity for tool manufacture and use, and human bipedality, year-round female estrus, prolonged infant dependency. From an evolutionary standpoint these were perhaps minor adjustments to be made--rather like the breeding of a strain of dairy cows from an originally feral herd of bovine. They were perhaps transitions that were made within a rather narrow window of space and time--but once accomplished having revolutionary consequences for human adaptation and cultural advancement. Perhaps they occurred only at one particular time and place, within a relatively narrow frame, but once occurring, diffused rapidly to the furthest boundaries of human habitation.

We must also see the complex of uniquely human traits that are associated with anthropogenesis as in some way holistically integrated. When they emerged, they either emerged together, or at least in tandem, such that the acquisition of one trait opened the door for the acquisition of the others.

It must also be seen that the development and subsequent elaboration of this complex of human traits entailed or brought about certain special environmental conditions that fostered such development. Perhaps our original proto-human ancestors had carved themselves out of a particular adaptive niche of the Pleistocene. We can only speculate what this particular niche was like, except that subsequent adaptive success must have led to an adaptive radiation of the human species, to their subsequent differentiation and elaboration of a range of different eco-niches

We can speculate that the early traits evolved in adaptation in a rather specific and narrow econiche of one era, were in someway triggered toward an adaptive generalization which allowed humankind to break free of its natural selective pressures in subsequent periods. Perhaps the triggering mechanism was the change in environment.


We must learn to see as separate but interrelated processes of anthropogenesis as the evolution of humankind and the cultural evolution of human civilization. A theory of "gene-culture co-evolution" would want to see cultural evolution as secondary and subsequent to the determinations of genetic evolution, closely tracking the biological evolution of humankind. But genes may follow as much as lead cultural development, and it seems more likely the case that cultural development gradually "took off" the runway of anthropogenesis some remote time ago and was thus launched on its own trajectory. We can only see a "biocultural miracle" if we step back from the local details to take in the entire panorama of the evolutionary process. Then the brief five million years of hominid history pales in comparison to the three or four billion year history of the fossil record of life on earth. It is certain that the kind of selective regime predominant when humankind first evolved on earth are not the same kind of selective regime which prevails today on an earth which is becoming increasingly dominated by human civilization.

In the evolution of culture we must look to a few horizons of significant changes. One was the development of agriculture and the resulting development of stratified societies. Prior to this Neolithic period, people for the most part lacked the scale of social organization that became possible afterward. The problem of the "prehistoric" period is to explain the development and dynamics of small group cultural traditions--the kind of gemeinschaft cultural groupings that has been stock in trade of anthropological research. The problem of the "proto-historic" period is to analyze the inception and transition toward state organization before the period at which written records can be utilized as evidence. The historic period proper begins with the institution of writing, and continues until today. There is in this transition from a prehistoric, through proto-historic to historic periods, a shift from kin-based mode of social organization and production toward a corporate institutional mode.

There is a sense that in the prehistoric world, culture had come to mean something very different than what it later became during the historic era. The raison d'etre of cultural organization during the prehistoric period was fundamentally altered by the time history had arrived to document the changes that were going on. And the basis of these changes had little or nothing to do with genetic evolution or modification. During the prehistoric period, culture was in a sense more complete and served a wider set of political purposes that it later came to signify. It had not yet become the impersonal kind of constraint it was later to become in peoples' lives. It had a deeply personal, and vital significance. Durkheim referred to its sense of social solidarity as mechanical versus the kind of compartmentalized and specialized organic solidarity of later civilizations. Culture during the prehistoric period more directly mediated the relationship between humankind and the natural world. It was frequently humankinds first, last and only defense against the vicissitudes of the natural order. Culture was a lifeboat, a means of survival, a plan for action, and a proscription for taboos.

As history advanced, small culture became increasingly embedded within a larger and larger context of sociocultural relations. Culture became something limited and limiting, subordinated within a larger socio-cultural field

Two basic processes are at work in cultural dynamics. These are the innovation and transmission of cultural traits.

Cultural traits are largely like genes, and the process of cultural transmission is in many ways analogous to genetic transmission. The levels of significance for the two systems are different, and yet many of the basic processes are the same-both may be seen as different levels of articulation of the same field of relational meaning. Both may be construed as dual or parallel-processing systems that function cybernetically and anti-chaotically in a complex kind of dialectic. The kinds of forces and factors impinging upon one level are separate from those operating at the other level. If selection is occurring at the level of cultural evolution, it is governed by paradigm very different from the kind of selective regime operative upon a genetic level of evolution.

We can speak of basic and derived traits. The invention or innovation of basic traits is virtually irreversible, and once coming into being in the world, their subsequent transmission becomes practically inevitable. Fire, the bow and arrow, the wheel, ideas of zero, all were basic cultural traits which once having come into being, became more or less permanent features of cultural reality. All fires may go out, but the idea of fire will long remain to burn in the human imagination. Furthermore, these kinds of basic innovations have been transformational of the cultural universe of humankind. They permanently alter the calculus of ratios upon which cultural selection and human success in the world are based. Of course, these transformations often result in unintended consequences.

Derived innovations can be seen as the subsequent revision, elaboration and refinement of basic traits to meet a broader range of applications in the world.

It is this aspect of cultural evolution which has made the advance of human civilization a fundamentally trans-cultural and irreversible historical process. It ushers in a whole new era of change. It is essentially a trans-cultural phenomenon because no single culture can forever claim an exclusive monopoly upon a particular trait. The trans-cultural transmission of traits, even just as an idea, becomes virtually guaranteed by the acquisitiveness and interest of people who are able to see the consequences of such innovation.


What kinds of selective factors have been operating in the course of human evolution and human history, and how have these influenced the subsequent development of humankind.

Early selection must have favored certain capacities and characteristics--these include the capacity for cultural acquisition, linguistic competency, the physiological capacity to endure extreme physical privation and stress such as hunger, long term thirst, etc. It may well be that the character and capacity for aggressive violence has also played an important part in human development--the stronger and more dominant have long been selectively advantaged over the weak and submissive. In a similar way, the capacity to make tools may have been a selective force in the emergence of humankind--the capacity to make superior tools conferring upon an individual, and a group, an adaptive advantage. We see a similar force still operating in human history when the possessor of superior technology comes to quickly dominate and control those who lack such technology. Social dependency may also have been a trait selected for--humans coming to increasingly need and depend upon the joint labor of the group, and the resources of other groups, for cultural adaptation and survival. It follows that the more sociable would gain selective success over the less social. Evolution for human sexuality, for sexual receptivity, may have also been selected for. Those children who could bear children year-around, and those men who could steadily and dependably provide for young mothers, were selected for.

The early evolutionary epoch of humankind must be characterized as one of survival under conditions of extreme hardship and physical stress. The lifespan of the average adult must have been relatively short. The human body must have been adapted as an organism for enduring such deprivation. Famine must have been frequent and pervasive, infant mortality high, and degree of physical injury also high. Early life was brutal, bloody and short, offering little hope for escape. The value of a woman would be measured by her reproductive capacity, combined with her productivity in procuring basic food resources to support herself, her offspring, and any other attached people. The value of a man would have been his fearlessness and ferociousness in attacking and dominating others and in defending himself and his group against predators or other aggressors.

We confront a basic paradox in our model of this early phase of human development. Human population, perhaps a driving force in subsequent culture history, was always in a local sense "dense" but in the global framework small. Early groups could have produced offspring limitlessly. Excess population would always be drained off by an exogenous pull. High mortality and early depredations tended to set natural limits to the rate of increase and survival of the offspring of these early populations.

A continuous trans-generational fission and splintering of locally overgrown groupings into smaller, dispersed groups, and the gradually movement and spread of these groups across the uninhabited frontier landscapes, must have been a fundamental pattern for most of human prehistory. Early groups must have been highly susceptible to long periods of isolation in which they had to be self-sufficient for their survival, and to frequent episodes of violent, aggressive contact.

Early eras must have been characterized by a high rate of transience and a basic lack of regularity or stability of social patterning. Early transience may have been such that contact between groups may have been unpredictable, erratic and irregular. Small bands may meet peacefully one year only to vanish without a trace by the next. Human development was marked by increasing regularity and stability of social groupings and relations between groups.

If we are to mention other early selective factors influencing early human evolutionary development, we might include selection for a group orientation--in-group-out-group conscience--for an inherent conservativeness as well as for creative adaptation, and for a capacity for long range strategic planning which allowed a group to calculate, and anticipate in advance, the movements of other groups, etc.

There must have been an optimal range of adaptation for survival. Groups that remained too home-bound or tied to a central place for subsistence, probably faced the prospect of eventually being wiped out. Groups that ranged too far out and abroad, and which wandered aimlessly without a sense of habitual orientation, were probably quickly eliminated. There must have been an intermediate range in which groups maintained a relatively wide arc of external contacts and relations with a range of environments, but focused this range upon a central home area, or even set of places to which they could periodically retire. Such central places must have provided certain safety nets in times of hardship--protection from predators or intruders, access to fresh water and to some kind of dependable food resource.

Early existence involved a daily gamble for survival. One wrong move could spell final disaster for an entire group. Those willing to risk everything, or daring to risk nothing, eventually lost out. Only those who could play the odds, risking here, sandbagging there, stood a chance of winning out in the long run.

Selective forces and factors must have long been at play in the development of humankind. These factors and forces must have been complex, tending to cumulatively or synergistically add or detract from the anthropological complex that was at the core of anthropogenesis. It an erroneous misconception to try to link special significance to a single kind of selective mechanism as decisive in the history of human evolution, or to a single trait or even genetically linked set of traits that would be systematically, overwhelmingly preferred over any other traits.

What we know is that all human groupings tend to be relatively heterogeneous in their overall genetic composition. Biological differences that exist between groups, differences in height, stature, skin color, stamina, blood type, etc., tend to be minor and inconsistent when compared to the complete profile of human traits and the total arc of human possibility. Genetic inbreeding tended to favor a loss in overall fitness for a group, and probably spelled the eventual demise of the group. Heterogeneity was long maintained in the human gene pool by frequent cross-over between groups.

We do not yet know exactly how selective factors may have worked in the course of human history. They were certainly variable in their influence. Selection working at one level or in one context may have been overridden or reversed or neutralized by counter-selective forces operating at another level. Selection must have been a complex set of influences operating upon several levels simultaneously--it was rarely if ever a single cause with a single set of consequences.

And the question remains unanswered as to how much selection is necessary before its influence is noticeable or even decisive in determining the direction of human development. What percentage of a population over a given area must come under the purview of a given selective regime, and how completely, before selection can be said to have been effective in altering the subsequent course of human history.

And then there is also the necessary chaos that must always be taken into any account of selective processes. Chaos may yield the entire field to a single random event, a butterfly effect, and yet may prevent a widespread selective agency from coming to fruition.

The chaos operating in the earliest phases of proto-human development must have been at a sub-critical level. Local events or minor perturbations, though many and frequent, would have little net consequence on the entire course or sum of events in this evolutionary process--while the chance for a single, major cataclysmic event affecting most human remained relatively small.

It also remains fairly certain that the kind of selective regime operating when humankind first emerged was not the kind of selective regime which was operating at the Neolithic dawn of human agricultural civilization, or at the later dawn of historical civilization, or now in our scientific technological epoch. The kind of selection operating today, if there is any that is not canceled out in the complexity of the global system, may be producing a kind of human very different from what we have witnessed in the past or might imagine today.

We must distinguish between natural selection, cultural selection, social selection and human selection;. Whatever kind of selection we are referring to, we may talk about the same basic consequence of selection--conferring reproductive success upon a specific individual, and similar kind of individual, as well as success in trans-generational transmission. Selection which leads to the procreation of a certain males offspring may not have a net positive contribution if none of these offspring survive and in turn continue procreation. The selective regime favoring the procreation of the father may in fact disfavor the procreation of the offspring.

A particular selective regime cannot be demonstrated by the success of a single individual or even by a single generation--its trans-generational success must be shown before its net value can be measured.

Selection must be seen as an entirely statistical kind of phenomena, conferring advantage to one group over others entails game of odds. Single instances may well prove to be the exception to the norm. Furthermore, we can only hope to find measures of correlation between different factors, or between different causes and their associated consequences.

The issue of the total effect and net complex of selection cannot be taken in an exclusively particular or local context--it must always be measured from a global standpoint of chaos.

Theory of human evolution recognizes the value of selection for pro-social behavior. Those actions that favor the interests of the group survival over and above the interests for individual organiismic survival. In this regard we must refer to a kind of symbolic selection for sycophancy, for the capacity to identify so strongly with the reified interests of the group as to lead to self-sacrifice. We refer to kin-fitness, as well as to species-fitness, and recognize as evidence of such eusocial behavior altruistic and heroic acts of self-sacrifice for others survival. Similarly so, we might as well also refer to self-fitness, or to class-fitness or caste-fitness or to ethno-national-fitness. We must see in the willingness to victimize and exploit another in order to advantage oneself the alternative to much rarer ability to sacrifice oneself for one's family or for one's group. Does a eugenic program by an upper caste necessarily build a super-race, or will whatever effects that are produced be ephemeral and quickly nullified by subsequent episodes of miscegenation. Does a program of genocide have a net consequence unless it is 100 percent complete in exterminating a group--and can the group that is doing the exterminating really be sure that they do not have any heterozygous bad blood coursing through their veins. Will countless years of higher education or innumerable sessions of psychotherapy necessarily produce a newer, improved generation of World Systems Managers. Any formula for human fitness must beg the question of whose fitness, and for how long.

Finally, what is the net product of all this selection. We must somehow account with all our evolutionary algebra for the human being--modern Homo saipiens saipiens--multicolored, a fast talker, big brained, narrow-minded, variable stature, short-sighted, two-footed, hairless, family oriented and helplessly dependent creature with a history of violent tendencies. This is a strange and unique combination of traits that no single, simple formula for fitness can fit.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05