Saturday, November 17, 2007

Untutored anthropology: man as an adaptation to harsh conditions

By which I mean that the fact that we aren't completely subject to the whims of nature is evidence of successful adaptation. I was walking through a natural history museum in Seattle, one that had up to date reinterpretations of things like the function of different parts of dinosaurs when it sort of came to me that dinosaurs, growing a hundred feet high, were a product of an environment which had little in the way of obstacles. The exhibits said that current thinking is that features like the plates on the back of the stegasaurus were for mating displays more than they were for actual defense. Without any barriers dinosaurs could develop in ways that were completely inefficient. Then the meteor hit the Caribbean causing the worldwide extinction event that destroyed them, letting smaller mammals have a chance at developing.

The difference between the way the dinosaurs developed and the way that mammals ultimately developed was that mammals were not only more efficient but they produced the breakthrough that let them beat the system: advanced cognitive capacity. With a better brain humans could radically change behavior and change the world around them without having to evolve into a new species, something taking hundreds of thousands of years. Instead of increased strategies for survival coming slowly based on an evolution of instincts and pack behavior they could be rapidly produced, and passed onto the next generation through teaching and learning instead of through genetics. In a way, we survived by beating natural selection at its own game through being able to interact with the environment in a way that produced better than than normal conditions.

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