Living with Homo sapiens – A Primer for Survival
Let's get this out straight-away. We're nothing special. Sixty-five million years ago, the colossal dinosaurs were on top of the food chain. Now, look at them. 99 PERCENT of all species who ever walked, crawled, swam, or slithered on Earth, became extinct. One might, however, believe that we'll do just fine. I mean now that our species are kings and queens of the hill, so to speak. Déjà vu is so rarely discussed in evolutionary circles. Anthropocentrism describes the most mortal of perspectives that, like before Galileo, the universe revolves around our species, or more precisely—our individual selves. We humans mistakenly conclude that we are SO unique; we can then dismiss our primeval succession of amino acid building blocks. The nearly 40-trillion cells in our bodies are all constructed from DNA snippets—some being 4-billion years old. Our DNA codes match chimpanzee-building blueprints by over 99%. Yes, another significant pair of nines. If not of African descent, then we average up to 5% of Neanderthal genes in our bloodline (Homo neanderthalensis). Oops. Wait. Every person on the planet is of African descent (the Out of Africa Hypothesis). I meant the 5% applies if our more recent ancestors hail from Europe or Asia. If not for the Saharan desert, then ancient Africans would have also occasionally made love with the northerly, strapping, and who knows, potentially wicked-alluring Neanderthals.
When researchers exclaim that our DNA programming matches chimpanzee instructions by such a statistically overwhelming margin, what do they mean? Essentially, of the three-billion distinct alphabetic codes in our 24 chromosomes, over 99% of the sequences correspond LETTER FOR LETTER. Because you were probably busy passing notes in high school biology class, you might need a refresher to recall that A, G, C, and T nucleotides are the chemical ladder rungs in our spiraling DNA molecules. Letter-codon sequences specify amino acids that link together to build proteins. One of our proteins contains 27,000 amino acids. Consider then that a single coding-letter error in our DNA can kill us or make us frail or sick for life. 3 billion codes. Our proteins influence every aspect and function of who we are and what we think. DNA sequences also build neural networks in our brains. Thought networks often come about by learning and experience (or nurture). Many, however, do not. These inclinations arrive preconditioned as they do in sea turtle hatchlings who using three types of advanced navigation (sight, wave-pulse, and magnetic heading), scramble off the beach at full-throttle to the open sea. As adults, they cross thousands of miles of azure ocean to return years later to mate and bury the next generation of eggs deep into the same warm, ivory sands. Instinctual patterning is nature, not nurture.
In his groundbreaking treatise The Triune Brain in Evolution, neuroscientist Paul Maclean presented an insightful premise that primate forebrains such as ours layer upward through two previous incarnations of ancient vertebrate thought-processing. Darwin's evolution usually advances by experimenting with slight variations to successful living platforms. Tearing down an existing, organic infrastructure and then starting from scratch is virtually never encountered in our primordial string of life. The oldest vertebrates and early fish had brain designs similar in functionality to our hindbrain, midbrain, and the lowest portions of our newer-outer forebrain. The bottommost brain stem coordinates autonomic activity (involuntary) such as breathing, respiration, heart rate, and digestive activity. The adjoining midbrain provides vision, hearing, motor control, and temperature regulation. Our ancient neural circuitry regulates base motor and survival skills. Our early, vertebrate brains guide us in ways that are automatic, instinctual, and resistant to change.
Building up from our brain stem, our reptilian or R-complex forms the lowest portion of our three-layered forebrain. Maclean reveals that lowly lizards with simpler versions of our upper-two brain areas (limbic system and outermost neocortex) employ a "daily master routine" where they search for food, avoid predators, mate, AND establish rigid social hierarchies in male or female lanes. Lizards then figure out which males and females of their own species are strong (either physically or due to their attitude). Then they adapt subservient behaviors to avoid getting their asses kicked. In general, females posture to females and males to males. Take note of this. Reptilian, bottom-dominant brains formulated complicated fear-learning cognitive networks to stay out of trouble. That is until such time, where they could turn the tables and ascend the community pecking order. Alpha reptiles of either gender horde better feeding sites, more desirable mates, and they produce additional offspring on average. Darwin 101.
What about the R-complex in our brains? How different are human behaviors when compared to the core survival wiring in reptiles? Not very! Surely, our newest-largest portions of gray matter (cerebral cortex) orchestrate many of our most elegant thoughts, including those involving art, music, mathematics, reading trash novels, and posting unverified news memes from Russia across the Internet. But, upward from our paleo-vertebrate brain lies the limbic system (MacLean's paleomammalian complex), including the hippocampus, amygdalae, and other areas specializing in memories, emotions, sexuality, nurturing, and bonding. Distinctly, across EVERY layer of human culture, our limbic nodes and R-complex intervene by establishing behavioral impulses that delineate social hierarchies. Our early mammalian brains deduce who precisely should be the alpha males and females in our "clans." Hominids (great apes) such as chimpanzees and ourselves also exhibit these clear-cut practices. Three billion codes. 99%.
We now associate much of the functionality of the intermediate limbic system with later amphibians, reptiles, and the most ancient mammals. Advances in neocortex evolution came about by later-arriving mammals as they developed complex interactions within social settings (the Social Brain Hypothesis). Improved forebrain-processing allowed mammals to manage sophisticated relationships within larger, interacting groups of cohorts—well before the arrival of quantum theory, the redshift phenomena of universal expansion, and the post-war erosion of the middle-class. And we, of course, possess the largest brains and most sophisticated thought patterns on our planet, bar none. Well, actually, no, we really don't. Anthropocentrism. State your criteria. How about watching pornography, wasting time on cell phones, and creating plastic-based environmental nightmares across every continent? Hands down, we rule. Thank goodness for all that crucial neocortex.
But did you know that in our current century, a European man, a civil servant with a wife and two children, accidentally misplaced 75% of his neocortex? Going to the doctor for weakness in his left leg, brain scans revealed that most of his fantastically-necessary forebrain had dissolved into cerebral fluid over the intervening 30-years due to a rare condition known as hydrocephalus (the turning of neural cells into liquid). I could list tens or hundreds of similar, documented cases where due to accidents, genetics, or disease, large portions of someone's supposedly-crucial neocortex were destroyed. These maladies left functional, if not quite rocket-scientist-like people managing relatively well—on predominantly, the lower two sections of their triune brains. 75%. He was a married, civil servant, for goodness sake. State your criteria.
Largest brains and most neocortex—cetaceans (whales, dolphins) and elephants. Most peaceable and caring mammalian social relationships—matriarchal elephants. Bonobos (slightly more diminutive chimpanzees) come in second. The first mammalian sub-order to communicate using language and syntax (words and phrases)—cetaceans. Surely, he jests. No, really, we aren't that unique. The most playful adults on the planet who also actively take time from their own engrained master routine to instruct youngsters—otters, cetaceans, then humans. Female hymenopterans like ants, wasps, and bees display supportive and unshakeable sibling relationships that are beyond compare in the animal kingdom. Instead of men, the ultimate, devoted animal fathers are—emperor penguins, gorillas, wolves, foxes, and pygmy marmosets.
Concerning human-centric paraphernalia, we seem to be the current top-o-the-heap species. But taking the long, four-billion-year view, what if we, ourselves, don't make it? What would be our post-mortem review on rottentomatoes-evolution.com? Humans may be the harbingers of one of the largest biologically-caused mass-die offs since the cyanobacteria decimated their cousins 2.4 billion years ago. The "Oxygen Catastrophe" caused by the newest oxygen-producing microbes killed off most existing bacteria on our world, leaving them to hide in river and ocean bottoms where they remain today. Scientists believe there have been 20 severe, world-wide extinction pulses caused by various phenomena, many from geological, weather-extreme, or meteor-impact events. But, thanks to all our exceptional neocortex, estimates suggest we may be losing between 25 and 100 species of flora or fauna per day to near-extinction levels. State your criteria. Most deadly and destructive species to global ecosystems on Earth – Homo sapiens.
How do we then survive—us? In families, communities, jobs, and the running of nation-states, our lower two-thirds of gray and white matter, literally, STILL—rule our behaviors more than we might care to believe. Unlike the dads mentioned above, human fathers, on average, are nowhere near as faithful to their offspring because they lack paternity surety. Penis lengths don't lie. Gorilla silverback males have small penises and scrotums, although, at 400 pounds, they weigh twice what females do. Super-large frames, fearsome-biting canine teeth, teeny johnsons, tiny testes. This is Darwin's sexual selection in full swing. Darwin 102. The teeth, muscle mass, and testosterone keep all potential suitors away from a silverback's harem. No foreign willy's then, enter any wandering gorilla vaginas. Ergo, no need to deeply flush a mate's vulva with a few extra-million sperm. Welcome to the fascinating world of sperm competition. Upon ejaculation, chimpanzees and squirrels attempt to seal their mate's wombs with pasty copulatory plugs. Some insects inject libido-reducing anti-aphrodisiacs into their mates. Drone bees often explode-off their penises (and abdomens) in suicidal attempts to block future stud-muffins from wooing a virgin queen. Human males generally have the largest penises of all great apes, even those having over twice our mass. Do the evolutionary math.
Men are programmed to compete for mates. Although in some men (whose neocortex allows them to intercede with "lower" programming), males of almost EVERY species battle other males for access to females. When not struggling mano y mano, instead, their penises and sperm cells tangle, literally. That is—every male on our planet. Men are burdened with a fiendishly, staggering evolutionary impediment. Unlike almost all animals in existence, men are challenged to sense when their mates are ovulating. Several insightful studies reveal that women unconsciously become sexually gregarious during ovulation, just like chimpanzee matriarchs who leave maternal cliques to wander with roving bands of fellas during ovulation. Talk about an evolutionary one-two punch. Men don't consciously know when women are fertile and, at the same time, the most randy. The difference being that chimpanzee matrons (and almost every other female) blatantly advertise estrus to males while women keep it a secret. Chimp ingenues attempt to have sex with many preferred males during estrus. Did we mention that chimpanzee gents also have long penises and the largest testes among all living hominids, including men and gorillas?
Apparently, paleo-women stumbled across an ingenious gambit for stealing some evolutionary influence back from their combative and pugnacious mates. Not only do males clash with each other, but depending on species, they often intimidate and, yes, rape, harm, and sometimes kill intended mates. Dragonfly matrons who have already bred drop to the ground and feign death until annoying and potentially harmful suitors exit the stage. This certainly one-ups declaring a headache. Once we were walking upright, manipulating tools, and passing down wisdom and lore, evolving Homo species probably began suffering murderous intra-clan brawls as paleo-women went into unconcealed ovulation. As Jane Goodall recounts in The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior, a community weakened by the loss of protective males can fall prey to neighboring clans and be systematically exterminated. Hundreds of thousands of years of sexual-dimorphic evolution (large, powerful, testosterone-driven males - smaller, more nurturing, less combative females) became obsolete in short order. New tool-wielding beta males with long memories could now assassinate larger alpha males when they dropped their guard. Four-million years of silverback-like modifications to DNA—poof. Having little notion when their mates were ovulating, paleo-men would now have to avoid slaughtering one another while also appeasing women. Why? Because men could be cuckolded in a span of sixty-seconds upon leaving the bivouac. Female hominins (human-like offshoots) may have reached a pinnacle of mate choice and social control rarely seen in the animal kingdom. But how then did women let overall societal authority slip away to their bellicose mates?
Men control most higher-level nation-state resources and power flows. Older men. Everywhere, every race, throughout recorded history. Those rare egalitarian tribes and cultures where less antagonistic, matriarchal leanings hold sway are, for statistical purposes, almost nonexistent. And it is Darwin's elegant yet straightforward premise of natural selection, which explains much of what we see in living nature and society. As human brains and civilizations grew in stature, alpha male physical advantages now morphed into resource and power attractants for women. Instead of individualized physical contests, including weaponized retribution, males now directed their pugnacious neural instincts and hormones into accumulating wealth and dominance. As cultural classes came into being, competitive, masculine impulses pitted tribes and city-states against one another. But make no mistake. Our R-complexes and limbic systems still guide us to establish hierarchies, kowtow to clan superiors (now across virtual spaces), and to then also treat lowers like refuse. Our foundation wiring, 250-million years in the making (since early reptiles first appeared), spices most relationships we maintain on every layer of culture. We are pre-wired to discriminate against people who are: different, inferior in status per the norms of each of our extended tribes, of the opposite gender, or from contrasting ethnicities. And it's not just the men.
Across most clan settings (now countries or virtual-clans), the more communicative and socially-configured women tend to strongly influence kin and extended-family dynamics. Several fascinating studies report that in contemporary human cultures, women maintain instincts to compete against non-related women in an evolutionary attempt to safeguard limited resources (food, prestige, material goods, comfort, better mates). Generally, women don't engage physically with other women; instead, they use "indirect aggression" to suppress rivals (criticism, rumors, social exclusion). Women's brains are more negatively affected by social-mediated competition (non-physical). On average, and until very recently, men generally competed with other men, while women often set their sights on non-related women. Men are more apt to genuflect to superior clan (now work or societal) power hierarchies. With women, these nuances became a bit more complex. Due to bonding relationships and their impulses to primarily compete with other females, women may have generally deferred executive clan leadership decisions to those of their mates. We still notice these dynamics in most societies.
Chimpanzee communities mirror these gender-style behavior differentials, with males joining highly social warbands (with a clear alpha male). At the same time, matrons associate primarily with their kin and don't show a propensity to develop upper-level power dominions among large cliques of females. Elephants, spotted hyenas, and meerkats are exceptions to this generality, and the altered dynamics are obvious when dominant alpha females control their societies. As native enclaves transformed into city-states, women slowly relinquished enterprise-level authority to energy-wasting patriarchal influences. For example, can we imagine an environment where so-called "women's work" was valued over activities performed by predominantly male CEOs? These evolutionary strategies and the accumulation of evidence showing subtle (yet crucial) brain differences between men and women predict that regardless of culture, women have a statistical tendency to not engage in circumstances precipitating unnecessary, aggressive, physical outcomes. This master-neural formula is evident throughout same-species interactions in mammalian females. Occasional sniping at other females and their young being a readily-observed exception.
We now summarize some handy evolutionary guidelines to deal with the almost-constant barrage of circumstances encountered as we interact with the reptilian-cored, triune brains of our own species. Of course, we are not all cookie-cuttered by gender. There are toxic alpha women, nurturing men, and everything in-between. Human brains show considerable plasticity. But not to be overlooked are the undeniable outcomes regarding gender-differentiated ascendancy in every large society. Firstly, we need to consider the mate-bonding relationship between every semi-monogamous human couple. There are mixes of male-dominated, female-dominated, or relatively egalitarian relationships. Then, there are those especially troublesome sexual urges.
You know what I'm talking about. If mating drives in either parent are robust (the seeking of new partners), then relationships with offspring become challenging, strained, or even nonexistent. Statistically, women suffer this syndrome somewhat less than men. Women cheat, as well. However, men are programmed to cheat with MORE partners, and at the drop of a hat. The daily master routine from our triune brain. This is why the animal-dads listed earlier, having near-absolute paternity surety (a rarity in the animal world), make such doting fathers. Over millions of years, tightly polygynous or monogamous matches (one male, multiple females, or just one female) weave neural patterns allowing these dads to fastidiously nurture and attach with THEIR offspring. While often with men—not so much. Concretely, it also takes thousands of years to fashion extra-long penises. And especially after matrimonial failures, moms or dads can become so immersed in the process of rebonding that offspring become lost in the shuffle. The more tenuous the original nuptials (less paternity surety), the more distant the human father may become. Axiom 1. Unlike many other primates, men and women can lose connection with offspring because of underlying needs to secure a mating affiliation. Because women always have outright maternity surety, this effect manifests itself more with the alleged dads.
Siblings. Few humans can hold a candle to the devotion of honeybees to their sisters or juvenile wolves to the newest litter of pups in their pack. Compared to Homo sapiens, the reverence shown by matriarchal-elephant congregations to their multi-generational families is breathtaking, long-lasting, and resilient. But when young wolves mature, then Darwinian competitions can turn once rock-solid relationships into edgy confrontations. Usually, only the alpha wolf-pair mate and produce young. The remainder of the pack, who are almost always older litters of the same parents, bide their time, learn to hunt, regurgitate meat to the newest pups, and wait for their hormones and neural algorithms to signal a time to branch off and start their own pack. Axiom 2. Generally, non-lethal yet testy exchanges occur as adolescents begin sexual cycles and begin to test leadership or mating impulses with either their parents or older siblings.
But these are trying times for all pack members. And this is especially so if a two or three-year-old sibling is a talented hunter, cherished caregiver of pups, or serves as emotional glue to the pack's cohesiveness. Excommunicated sons and daughters face harrowing challenges to avoid being killed by neighboring packs, which grant them no kid-glove-only snarling and baring of canine teeth. Axiom 3. Depending on their rapport with one or both parents, and their various siblings, many humans fall out with their brothers and sisters due to their bonding drives, resulting mate-relationships, or need to establish leadership and authority. If one or both parents don't rise above their core mating-authority impulses, then unlike matriarchal elephant herds—fragile, human family networks collapse.
In-laws, work, and community. Axiom 4. Male-to-male competitions and female-to-female rivalries color EVERY aspect of our lives. In recent times, non-familial male-to-female power struggles also take center stage. Add in the inter-generational or supervising-control dynamics in whatever venue we consider (beneficial or noxious), then our lives become an impassioned free-for-all of head-swirling chicanery. Do you find yourself out of the loop in the ascending, canoe-club cliques or bands at work? Is that at-first, horrifically slow driver in front of you (perhaps unconsciously) going well over the speed limit as you attempt passing on the left? Sometimes, for example, in-laws are excluded from blood-kin interactions in extended clan settings. Blame our triune brains. LIZARDS establish rigid social hierarchies based on perceived mating, physical-intimidation, desirability, or prestige-power differences. In chimpanzee communities—plots and intrigues abound as males, females, and siblings vie for resources and dominance. Certainly, if we become rich or famous, drive expensive status-cars, or have knock-out-good-looks, then others of our species are preconditioned to grant us higher prominence and allow us more say-so in general. They flock to our Internet feeds—like reptiles lining up by stature, during the engrained master routine, as the morning sun warms their cool, rocky overnight-dens.
The "Selfish Gene Theories" anticipate such behaviors by reminding us that two, near-microscopic, unicells, sperm and egg cells (and their DNA), still dictate many of our supposedly-independent actions. Just as in sea turtle hatchlings. To rise within social or family settings, one must consider the associated bonding, resource, and dominance chain of command. Axiom 5. Humans project most of our core emotions and drives onto community, work, and global scales. Now, extended-clan kinetics replace our earlier small-tribe environments, where for over 10-million years, many of our hominid impulses were fashioned. But our affinities to establish strict clan-based dynasties still foreshadow every cultural interaction we experience. We at once desire power and prestige but also subserviate to those we deem worthy. In male hamsters, once defeated by another male, omega-males now show submissive behaviors even when smaller, non-aggressive hamsters are placed into their home cages. International, ethnic, and cross-class rivalries build from deep, patriarchal drives of our now more distant (web-based) pseudo-alpha males. Women possess similar but nuanced neural algorithms. On average, women are less combative than men, and there might be fewer wars and less strife—if women built powerful, upper-tier coalitions.
Contrary to many nurture-over-nature aficionados, male and female brains are built differently. Not better or worse, or smarter. Just contrasting and distinct. Across averages (for all this data), men's brains are larger. But for the same size head, women's brains have a higher percentage of gray matter (computational cells). Their gray matter is thicker with more surface area, and they have more gray matter in the upper-most, frontal, or more recently developed portions of our brains. Men have increased proportions of white matter (connections) and tend to display higher values of gray matter when deeper in the lower-two (or instinctual) triune brain platforms. Women have decidedly more processing in language-centric areas of our neocortex (communicative capabilities), and women, in general, have more empathetic neural impulses. Women also have more connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Men seem programmed to become obsessed with things or processes (almost for their own sake, not necessarily evolutionarily-important rituals). At the same time, women are inclined to value relationships and people, especially kin.
The two genders are NOT taught these tendencies via our environment. These are engrained wiring differences helping to ensure the survival of selfish gene combinations. Women show emotional complexity, while men use simpler reward-gaining and punishment-avoiding strategies. Darwin 401. Emotional sophistication was (and is still) a Darwinian response for being the gender having the lion's share of responsibility when trying to keep offspring alive. The overwhelming majority of mammalian infants require their moms. Very few species lean on their dads (or even know who their dads are). Males conform to subordinate hierarchies while socially-advanced females continually process circumstances, mentally hedge their bets, and then attempt to choose the most survivable outcomes for their kindred. Differences in neural wiring foundations manifest themselves as women suffer from depression twice as often as men. Boys meanwhile are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at four times the rate of girls.
ASD is now defined as behaviors revolving around lack of communicative skills, preoccupation with things instead of people and relationships, behavioral inflexibility, and problems with empathy and socialization. Across averages, men are decidedly wired to be less nurturing, and they show more connections and processing on lower neural echelons (established routines). Women instead become exhausted and depressed due to the constant upper-level calculations required to navigate an uncertain world with themselves and offspring intact. This is because, in hominids (and other social mammals like wolves, cetaceans, elephants, and horses), moms don't just protect young from predators. They also must shield offspring from same-species dangers and mishaps. And then, females must negotiate resources from potential mates or the species-specific social system. Research shows that opposed to men; women don't always choose the quickest-win scenario when presented with reward-punishment combinations. Men quickly learn to avoid adverse social outcomes (and perhaps entire social environments). In contrast, women stay more engaged as they test, evaluate, experiment, and then choose based on their instincts and long-term goals.
These evolutionary strategies and the accumulation of evidence showing subtle (yet essential) brain differences between men and women predict that regardless of culture, women have a statistical tendency to not "rock the societal boat." Males across almost every animal species display more reckless and physical behaviors when either channeled by youthful (experimental), instinctual-mating, or status-improving drives. Throughout our past, entanglement in power struggles and intrigues held devastating effects on women and their offspring. This model is both insightful and predictive. Contemporary patriarchal dynamics divided and conquered women by taking advantage of their instinctual preferences to avoid chaos and ensuing violence. What percentage of a society's net worth should channel into arms and warrior classes instead of plowshares, sustainability, hospitals, and quality of life for the working class? Human instincts for acquiescing to regimes (and their pugnacious leaders) run deep in our programming.
Will humans rise above our inherent tendencies to compete with one another across genders, clans, ethnicities, and nations? Only by disconnecting people from our four-billion-year chain of ancestors could anyone believe that prejudices are completely moldable thought patterns. Both men and women harbor affinities to protect offspring and clans from "things that are different." Homo sapiens anonymous. To survive, and to have our planet endure, we may need to engage an evolutionary 12-step program where we first acknowledge who we are and where we came from. Then perhaps, women could cease deriding one another and lead the way by establishing stalwart, balancing, and global matriarchal coalitions. And who knows, men might actually become used to not killing each other to better the standing of their 1%, reptilian-thinking masters.