Why has human evolution been so different to other mammal species? Have you ever asked yourselves this question?
In the old days the answer was obvious. We all knew, because the Bible told us, that man was created by God to rule over the animal kingdom: ‘to have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth’. However, since Darwin and the discovery of DNA we now know differently; we are just another species formed by evolution.
But how did we come to be so successful so quickly in geological time?
We’ve only been around: 0 .004% of the time since the Earth was formed 0,.02% of the time since the first multi-cellular bodies and 1% of the time since the first apes. And yet we now dominate the planet so much that we have changed its very nature. We live in a new geological era the Anthropecene.
People think that evolution is only to do with physical development caused by genetic mutation over time. However, the development of behaviour is just as important. Insect behaviours are instinctive, solely determined by their genes. But for larger animals, behaviours can also be passed on by imitation. These concern how and where they gather food and how they interact with each other. Think of the hunting behaviours of lions or monkeys grooming each other.
The word meme was invented by Richard Dawkins to describe the ideas that animals are able to transmit between themselves in order to imitate behaviour. Through the miracle of evolution it is possible for one animal to reproduce the same behaviour as another animal. These instructions in their brains are memes. Memes behave just like genes in evolution: they can reproduce; they mutate over time to produce different behaviours; and they confer an evolutionary advantage.
The reason humans are so successful is that they are able transmit these memes in ways not available to other animals. Sometime during the 200,000 years of man’s existence, humans developed the ability to speak. This transformed the ability to pass on memes. New ideas, skills and behaviours were transmitted between hunter gatherers. Homo sapiens became the first species to populate all five continents because of the flexible way he was able to adapt to the environment. Later humans learnt to write, educate and eventually transmit information at incredible speeds and volumes all round the world. Human evolution, memetic evolution, is still accelerating. We are rapidly changing the face of the planet and testing the limits of the Earth’s resources.