Family Ties

I love pictures like these.  All the academic conversation in the world struggles to paint such a concise portrait of our closest relatives.  That being said, it would be impossible to create such an image without those very same conversations.

A picture like this, though obviously based on some artistic licence, can help to demonstrate that there could be some extremely noticeable differences amongst even closely-related species.  Look at a chimpanzee, as an example.  His DNA is a 95% match for yours, but no one would argue that you’re a chimp.  Well, I suppose it depends on the individual.  Nonetheless, a chimp is very similar to a human.  Both are almost identical in physical size, both are omnivorous, both have two hands and two feet with five digits on each.  Both reproduce sexually, both have expressive faces, both are capable of problem-solving.  But Pan troglodytes is no Homo sapiens.

Then again, neither are any of the guys in the lineup here.  Except for the guy labeled “Homo sapiens.”

Anthropologists study the evolution of the human species, going all the way back to the Australopithicine species.  Genealogy is nice.  Perhaps the reason that we’re the current kingpins of the homonid line of species is that we can conceive of such things as “anthropology.”  There has always been debate as to the mental capabilities and characteristics of our ancestors.  Some were much bigger than us; all were definitely stronger, pound-for-pound.  What could have separated us from the pack and caused us to excel?

For starters, ask yourself: are we really excelling?  There are two basic fundamental criteria to mark the success of a species, one being distribution, and the other being longevity.  You can say that Homo sapiens kicks some ass, because we have cellphones and internet porn and spacecraft, but you’re totally missing the point.  By the appropriate measures, sharks are a far more successful group of species than homonids.  Half a billion years of kickin’ it old school in the oceans, all of the oceans, would tend to indicate that they’re no slouches, their lack of texting capability notwithstanding.

So, despite our smartphones and anthropology, we still haven’t made the cut as truly successful, even when compared to just our own little family, who we’ve pretty well supplanted at this point.  Conceptual thought allowed us to tame the world before we had even discovered electricity, perhaps moreso than any of our antecedents.  Our success at dominating any environment in which we find ourselves is frankly incredible, and does, in fact, mark us with the potential to be regarded as a highly successful animal.  Longevity is the key, and it’s one of our biggest weaknesses.

Look at how fast we optimize to take resources, and how fast those resources get depleted once we’re ready to take them.  Look at how fast we can fill up space, how efficiently we kill other animals.  We’re absolutely astounding in our ability to dominate; in fact, we’re too good at it.  Fact: life changes the environment in which it is placed to an environment best suited to support itself.  Stromatolites were responsible for bringing oxygen into the atmosphere, after they’d filled the oceans with it.  And presto, animal life has an abundant and active element to power itself.  It seems that one branch of life, the carbon dioxide breathers, make the planet bearable for the other half, the oxygen breathers, who then return the favour.  But we’re too good at it.  We can create more carbon dioxide than is safe for animal life.  The plant life will regulate it, eventually, but will that be soon enough?  Who knows.  What I’m getting at is that if we want to live a longer and healthier life than our grandpa Homo erectus we’re going to have to quit smoking.

Else we’ll end up like the rest of that lineup: just a dusty old photo on the next homonid’s mantelpiece.

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