Is it culture or evolution? –or– What’s the best way to explain why humans are so fucking weird?

So I saw this article yesterday.

http://phys.org/news/2014-11-men-evolve-skills-links-spatial.html

In essence, it discusses a study done on the Twe and Tjimba tribes, and attempts to link the spatial and navigational superiority of men in the tribes to the pressure placed on them to find more mates.

Better navigation=more mates. More mates=more success.

To quote the article in a quote of the study:

How does mating pressure favor navigation skills?

“Navigation ability facilitates traveling longer distances and exploring new environments,” Vashro says. “And the farther you travel, the more likely you are to encounter new mating opportunities.”

Ok. Now. This kinda set me off. And still does.

On the one hand, yes. With bigger ranges, you’re going to encounter more mates. Of course. More land covered means you’re gonna just run into more people. You’re probably gonna get laid.  It seems kinda neat and tidy. But I disagree. Completely and thoroughly and I think that this study has so many implications beyond just being flat out wrong. I’m going to touch lightly on them but I’m going to try to keep the focus of this within the realm of anthropology rather than social justice and all that. But I’m sure you’ll be able to draw conclusions.

Or maybe I’ll just get pissed off and go on a rant.

Anyway.

So humans have the biggest range out of any animal in the world. We have to. Because we can do pretty much anything. We live in space. So with that established, I think we are in agreement. Humans=biggest home range.

There are a lot of components to this though. We cannot separate males and females completely. Despite what the book says, we are from the same planet. We are the same species and are going to have similar constraints.

I’m going to do my best to contextualize humans within the kingdom Animalia, then within the order Primates, and then lastly within different cultures. I’m going to discuss the various issues I see with this study, as well as its value…because really the research does have value, even if I personally feel that it is misguided.

When discussing biological tendencies, features or controlled behaviors within a species and in terms of evolutionary trajectories, you cannot ignore other species, starting with those closely related. If there is an innate behavior, look to closely related species. If the behavior exists in that species, it’s most likely homologous–meaning of shared ancestry.

Basically, there is less reason for a group to evolve a trait, split into two groups, one of which forgets about it and then subsequently evolves it again than to think a group evolved a trait, split in to two groups and they both retained it.

The simpler explanation that meets all necessary criteria is going to be the most likely.

So. Within humans, it is necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food/water, getting tools, getting to work and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

Howbout the other apes? What are they up to?

Well. It would seem that within the apes, it is necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food/water, getting tools (yep, apes use and even make tools) and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

What about primates in general? Monkeys? Prosimians? What are they up to?

Well. It would seem that within monkeys and prosimians, it is necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food and water and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

Well…what about placental mammals in general? What are they up to?

Well. It would seem that within placental mammals, it is necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food and water and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

How about the entire class of mammals as a whole? What are they up to?

Well. It would seem that within the entire class of mammals (placental, marsupial and monotreme), , it is necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food and water and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

Well. How about we go back even further in time looking at divergence. After mammals, the next closest link are the mammal-like reptiles. How about them? What are they up to?

Well, it would seem that within mammal-like reptiles, it was necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food and water and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

Well. Don’t we have to find some kind of stopping point? What about reptiles and birds, they’re the next closest in ancestry? What are they up to?

Well, it would seem that within reptiles (including birds), it was necessary for individuals to navigate and orient themselves spatially in order to get through day to day life. Day to day being getting food and water and all that. And yeah, getting laid. That’s in there, too.

Isn’t this getting nuts?

We diverged from chimpanzees about 6 million years ago. We diverged from the gorillas as recently as 7 million years ago. We shared a concestor (meaning “common ancestor,” and yes, I read Dawkins) with the rest of the great apes around 14 million years ago. Our concestor with Old World Monkeys is situated right around 25 million years ago. Our concestor with New World Monkeys was about 40 million years ago. The prosimians and our ilk were diverging around 63 million years ago.

Marsupials? 140 million years ago.

Monotremes? 180 million years ago.

Mammal-like reptiles? About 300 million years ago.

Reptiles and birds? About 310 million years ago.

See my point there?

All animals that move–meaning locomote– have some form of spatial orientation and navigational ability. Yeah, jellyfish are stupid. But they’ve got some weird eye stuff going on and can generally get about and find food.

Spatial orientation and navigation kinda stops being relevant when you’re something like a sponge who just dumps your wad into the ocean and hopes it fertilizes something. Filter feeders need not apply.

So really. We need to go back before dinosaurs existed to find a species in which spatial orientation and navigation didn’t matter. Back then it probably had a good deal to do with mating, as there wasn’t as much investment by parents in the lives of children. That’s a generalization, and honestly “before the dinosaurs existed” is also far too general and recent to really be accurate.

But for the purposes of this tirade, it works. We don’t need to stretch our imaginations back so far.

What I’m getting at is…it’s probably homologous.

And really, I could have kept it within primates, which I’m gonna get into now.

Apes and monkeys have exceptional vision and dexterity. They have to. Stereoscopic and chromatic vision are critical when you’re living in an environment as dynamic as a tropical rain forest (where primates evolved). They need to navigate dense canopy, rummage around in trees and make sure they’re not missing any branches and find food. Food can be anything…leaves, fruits, nuts, insects, other mammals, gum and sap, seeds. Also fish, shellfish, tubers/rhizomes/corms. If you’re a monkey sneaking up on a big ass grasshopper, you better have good depth perception in order to tell how close that sucker is. And you better have good dexterity so you can grab the SOB.

And fruits? You better eat them when they’re ripe or you’re probably going to die. How do you tell? The color.

Some primates brachiate. Prosimians cling vertically to limbs and leap between them. Do that without being able to orient yourself spatially. Did you die? Probably.

Their home ranges vary. Callithricids (marmosets and tamarins…meaning the coolest things ever) sometimes have home ranges that are like 10 trees. Some have like 1000. Depends on how they get the gums and saps that make up the majority of their diets–obligately or opportunistically.

That’s another thing. There aren’t different seasons in a tropical rain forest. It’s just rainy. So plants aren’t seasonally predictable. A seed falls, germinates and grows into an adult plant. The seed may or may not be transported to wherever the hell else in the forest. Then it germinates and has its life cycle completely independently of its parent plant.

Seasonality in temperate biomes causes dormancy in plants. Seeds only germinate in certain seasons. And you have uniform forests and whatnot.

Temperate forests are named for the predominant tree. Because there are so many individuals of fewer species of tree. Tropical forests are named for the main water source. Like the Amazon. Because there are so many different trees and plants in general, but they are so widely dispersed over territory and generally much lower in numbers.

So already, primates evolved in a highly dynamic environment full of hard-to-catch prey, poisonous fruits if you get em under ripe but that ripen at an unpredictable rate, and trees that couldn’t friggin’ care less if anyone plummets to their demise on the forest floor below.

They need to be able to orient themselves spatially. And they have a hell of an environment to navigate.

This doesn’t consider the different social structures, meaning it doesn’t yet take into consideration mating behaviors.

There are five social structures in primates. Solitary foraging, single male/single female, single male, multi female, multi male/multi female and fission-fusion.

I’m really not gonna get into them. Some of it is intuitive to some extent. Humans and chimps are fission fusion, meaning we are involved in different groups throughout the day. I woke up next to my girlfriend. My two roomates were home sleeping. I went to work with a bunch of other people that I mostly don’t see out of context except the family members with whom I work. On the way to work I was alone.

In a little while I’m going to the store to get whole milk so I can make an entire box of dark chocolate hot cocoa in a stock pot and then stay up all night playing video games with my girlfriend.

Each of those are different and compartmentalized social groups. That’s what fission fusion means. You fission off from one group and fuse to another. For a time.

The rest, whatever…I’m sure I’ll get into them in another post. But I think it’s safe to assume that you either A) know what they all mean anyway, or B) don’t really give a shit in the first place.

They all have different idiosyncrasies and home range sizes that vary from strategy to strategy and species to species. All of them revolve around food, water, and getting some butt.

But that’s just within primates as an Order.

Chimps have pretty big home ranges. Just their territories (most defended area. Don’t mess with it), can be up to 150 miles. My territory is like…my yard. 5,000sqft.

In humans, things are different though. Yes, we are mammals, we are placental mammals, we are primates, we are apes and more specifically we are hominins.

We range farther. We kill everything. We live longer. We are smarter. We are weaker. We are more individually susceptible to elements. We have incredibly vulnerable young with abnormally drawn out developmental stages.

Chimps are ready to go at 7. Humans, not so much. We can reproduce at like…12. Sometimes younger. But really we are children until mid-20s.

Why?

Culture.

We’re slow as anything. We don’t have a lot of fur. We stand upright and are rife with health problems because of it. Our eyes aren’t the best. Our teeth are varied but still pretty unimpressive. We’re weak as anything.

But we use tools. We communicate in unprecedented ways to convey information about things that may not even exist. For example:

I want to invent a giant invisible spatula that attaches to my car

so I can flip irritating drivers out of my way.

That does not and cannot exist. But you know exactly what I mean. Other primates…nope.

Other primates use tools, but not to the extent that we do (I’m on a computer).

Now, evolution doesn’t care. It’s a thing, but only because we call it that. Things die when they can’t handle what’s going on. Things don’t die when they can.

Therefore, things better equipped to not die, live. Things that live have kids.

Things better equipped to live have kids that are better equipped to live.

Those kids have upped the ante and it all starts from their level.

(that is all evolution is)

Now, like I said. Evolution doesn’t care. Anything can happen. But it won’t specifically happen.

But, once something does, you’re off on a trajectory.

I don’t quite know what it was that led us to us. But I’ve speculated elsewhere on here.

I’ll do so briefly now.

When we started relying on tools, it changed some stuff. A weaker group could get the meat. A more hairless group could survive the winter. A blunt-toothed group didn’t need its canines anyway.

Because tools compensated for that. We can use stone tools to butcher meat. We can use animal hides to protect ourselves from the elements. If you try to attack me, biting isn’t going to be the first thing I think of to fend you off (although it’d be pretty funny).

So, once you’re clever, you don’t need to outrun. It all comes down to cost/benefit.

I don’t need to invest in fast running if I don’t need to run. I don’t need to invest in scary teeth if I don’t need them to hunt and defend myself. I don’t need to invest in thick fur if I can build shelter and make clothing and harvest/make fire.

But I also don’t need to do those things until my body no longer natural ways of doing it. I don’t need to, but I can if I want to (right, Julie?). That’s culture.

It’s so intertwined it’s inextricable. But you probably get the picture.

Once you’re clever, you can make tools. Once you make tools, your body doesn’t need to take the brunt of things. Once your body doesn’t take the brunt of things, more generalized and less specifically-adapted individuals survive to reproduce.

Once you’re more generalized: Stay Clever.

These tools really made us who we are. Brains included–and perhaps especially.

You see, neural tissue is incredibly metabolically costly to develop. And it develops slowly. We have these big damn heads with these big damn brains whose surface area isn’t evident by the size of the skull. That wrinkly ass cortex…flatten that out and your head would be gigantic.

Anyway.

Moms can’t metabolically handle that stuff after a while, so babies are born “early” in comparison to other animals. Horses get up and go in a few minutes. Humans? Shit, they’re sometimes still on their parents’ couch at 40.

Seriously though, brain size has a lot to do with child birth and why we are so helpless as infants.

And also…we use that time. So much of learning is social. And this brings me to the final bit of this rant, and hopefully the most powerful.

SO MUCH OF BEING HUMAN IS SOCIALLY AND CULTURALLY CONTROLLED.

And as such, it can almost be considered arbitrary. This is why IQ tests are seen as stupid as anything now. They don’t measure real intelligence, they measure the intelligence generated within a certain context…even if you don’t exist within that context in the first place.

whatever.

So this study focused on two modern tribes. It postulated that their behavior is representative of an ancestral condition. Why? Because they have a social structure that is more like an ancestral condition than mine…with my computers and free time to bitch about things on the internet.

But…that’s a very slippery slope. So. In these groups, the men who ranged the farthest tended to have more offspring. Thus, they pass on their far-ranging genes.

Well…why are they ranging in the first place? Are they out to get laid? Probably not. Not specifically anyway.

And even if they are:

THEY ARE NOT AN ANCESTRAL POPULATION, THEY ARE A MODERN POPULATION

They have been around as a people at least as long as anybody reading this has been around as a people. Probably longer. Meaning they have been subjected to all the changes and all that that we have. Meaning most of our evolution occurred before modern humans existed. The “evolutionary” differences we see are really just phenotypic expressions that are biologically meaningless and may suggest generations of sexual selection in a culture or confer protection against an environment. Short and stout, tall and thin, dark skinned, light skinned, whatever. They’re genotypic traits expressed phenotypically given environmental conditions. They pop up fairly quickly but do not convey any information about species, because they’re superficial traits anyway.

Using existing populations as proxies for ancient ones is really just not a good idea.

In the distant, diiiiiistant past, why would people go walking about? Well…with paternity certain, males of a species are more likely to invest in the raising of young. Look at seahorses and penguins. Dad hatches egg. Dad gives birth. So they help out.

In small bands of early humans, there was a lot to cope with. You needed food, fire, water, shelter, clothing, and to get laid. But you’re in a group. You all travel around together, or you have a home base type thing that y’all return to later on. But you’re probably gonna get laid.

So the pressures to innovate really aren’t on getting laid.

But you’re this weakling of a species that I summated a bit ago. You need to kill meat.

Meaning you probably want to make a projectile weapon. Lets leave the atlatl out of this, and say you just want probably a projectile spear. This means you need  a long, strong, straight piece of wood. You need a durable stone that can take a rough edge in order to split it. You’re gonna need a somewhat durable stone that takes a fine edge to use as a point, and you’re going to need something with which to bind the tip to the shaft.

The best material to bind that tip is sinew. Tendons from animals.

The best material for that point is volcanic glass–namely obsidian.

The best way to break that big chunk of obsidian into smaller, workable or transportable chunks of stone is a harder stone.

The best way to reeeeeeeally hone that point down is antler or bone.

Remember what I said about the invisible spatula? Here it is again.

You’re talking about people that knew they would need to eat in the future. Knew they would be cold later in the year. They knew they would run into an animal that would provide them with food, clothing and tools to make better tools with which to kill more of the same animal.

Have you ever seen obsidian? That beautiful, black glass used to make things like arrow heads.

Have you ever seen it on the ground? It doesn’t look the same before processing. It has a white rind. It looks like a glob of chalky shit. And most people didn’t live right on top of it.

They would walk like 40 miles to get the stuff.

So these are people who had no GPS, no phones, no maps of any kind. They memorized a landscape such that they knew the kind of ground that would yield a rock that looked nothing like their end goal, but would fracture into the kind of shapes that were the kinds of shapes that were conducive to the point they wanted to make.

And then they could get home.

They had to track animals over vast distances following seasonality. They knew that smaller, pointy bones, like those of fish, could be used to make needles that could be used to pull cordage or sinew through hides to make clothing.

Meaning they could look at water and know there are bunches of relatively defenseless animals that are tough to catch who are a great meal and contain body parts that can potentially be used to bind the body parts of other animals to other parts of that same animal and synthesize something that will keep them warm in a season that isn’t there yet.

Do you see how complex this is getting?

And it’s kind of going to revolve around a home social group. To some extent.

Humans are not solitary foragers. We have a lot of different ways to socialize but that’s rarely it. And is definitely not our ancestral condition.

To say that we evolved navigational skills to find mates doesn’t even begin to make sense to me.

But. Once we are out ranging around, we are going to meet more people. And yes, we are going to have sex with them. That’s like the first thing humans ever try to do.

So yes, humans with bigger ranges are going to pass on whatever far ranging navigational abilities they have to their more numerous children.

Yes, women are metabolically constrained by childbirth and are typically taking care of the very-vulnerable children. So yes, men are freed up to range around more.

But this doesn’t mean men drove evolution or are better at navigating than women.

That is an insane assertion and really, we just need to stop asking questions like that. We evolved as a species. Not as man and woman. That is nothing short of idiotic. This is the 21st century and it’s time for our research to start reflecting that.

Yes, we have some inherent differences, but in humans, especially modern humans, you cannot separate them from culture. And aside from biological functions directly linked to reproduction, you pretty much can’t separate it at this point.This study is so thick with the Eurocentrism and sexism that has plagued science since it was conceptualized.

“Men drive evolution and they do it with sex.”

“Tribal peoples must be like our evolutionary ancestors, or at the very least more representative of the earliest humans ever.”

Aren’t we anthropologists? Aren’t we supposed to see through this crap by now? Didn’t Franz Boas realize that race was BS over 100 years ago?

Europeans left Europe and found some people the bible didn’t talk about. So amid raping, enslaving and killing them, someone thought to study them. That’s where this garbage about tribal peoples being “primitive” comes from.

Darwin predicted African origins. And he was ignored because Europe was considered the pinnacle of society. Raymond Dart found Australopithecus africanus in friggin’ 1924 and he was ignored because Africa didn’t have white people in it, and therefore modern humans must have evolved where white people are. So we kept focusing on Europe.

We created the Piltdown Hoax because of this. We fucked up our interpretation of Neandertal because of this. We set our science back half a century because of this crap.

And we are still doing it.

We need to stop.

Yes, research the correlation between home range and reproductive success.

But do not call it causal. It isn’t causal. We were home ranging long before we were humans.

And I’ll leave you with one really great example of how stupid it is to say that men are inherently better at orienting things spatially.

In northern Australia there is a small island called Pormpuraaw. On it there is a people called the Kuuk Thaayorre. Their language requires the use of cardinal directions. This means that if I spoke their language, I wouldn’t say that Zeke! (my dog) is in front of me. I would say that he is to my south.

Pikachu (my roommate’s cat) is currently to my north.

Why say that? The dog is in front of me and the cat is behind me.

The Kuuk Thaayorre aren’t like that. They don’t use spatial terminology to speak. Researchers took a bunch of people from different language groups and brought them to UCal, Berkley. They gave them a bunch of pictures and asked them to arrange them chronologically.

A man aging, a crocodile growing, a banana being eaten. They were shuffled and given to people to arrange.

The English speakers, naturally, arranged them left to right.

Hebrew speakers? Right to left.

Makes sense.

Kuuk Thaayorre?

They arranged them east to west. What?

Yep. When they faced south, the cards went left to right. North, right to left. East, they came toward the body of the individual arranging them. And they didn’t need to ask which way they were facing. They knew.

For the Kuuk Thaayorre, YOU CANNOT SPEAK PROPERLY IF YOU ARE NOT ORIENTED SPATIALLY.

Seriously. A five year old girl was part of this study. She’s not a grown man roaming around looking for tail.

There isn’t a piece of this study that cannot be explained by either evolutionary homology or cultural idiosyncrasy.

With all due respect to the researchers involved in this study, it is time to start rethinking how we approach our research.

Now. It’s time to shower and get that whole milk so I can make the stock pot of dark chocolate hot cocoa. My girlfriend is gonna be here in a couple hours.

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About Pedal Powered Anthropology

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. This blog is intended to be for the development of my own positions and ideas, mostly regarding paleoanthropology and paleontology in general, with a heaping helping of evolution on top...but also includes bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

Posted on 11/14/2014, in General Science, Paleoanthropology, Scientific conjecture, Social Justice Babblings. and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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