Why are we here? It is the question that the human being has been asking for generations, centuries, and it is the question that the paleoanthropologist, co-director of the Atapuerca Foundation and scientific director of the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, has been asking himself for decades, Juan Luis Arsuaga. Among the many questions that still exist about the human being, its evolution and its future, the paleoanthropologist proposes one on which he pours several reflections: why does childbirth hurt? “Now we know that it is linked to evolution. We are highly encephalized mammals and the birth canal is narrower than in other primates because we are bipedal,” he suggests.
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The human being and his questions
We should start with why we ask ourselves questions. As we ask ourselves questions, it makes us a unique species. Why we are here is not a scientific question. Just as we ask mythical, philosophical questions, we also ask ourselves why the sun rises every morning, which would lead to formulating a scientific theory about solar cycles. All those questions we ask ourselves. And the underlying metaphysical question is why are we here? Scientists care more about how the world works. The question of why we are here had a religious answer until Darwin, until a century and a half ago, which is when it was solved at the scientific level. Now the scientific answer is evolution.
How likely was a species to develop a technological civilization? Well, very few. They are a series of steps, of thresholds that must be crossed and each one was passed or not. Perhaps the most important was the appearance of complex cells. But that took 2 billion years. You can believe in utopia because it is achievable. It will be very difficult for us to leave Earth, it would be better if we were thinking about that, so as not to stop facing the challenges. If one thinks that we are going to leave, we will not be committed to defending this planet. It is very difficult for there to be a planet at such a distance from the sun that life can exist.
Who would rule the world if there was no human being?
If human beings were not on Earth, the planet would be dominated by a social species, in fact it already does. Life begins in the water, here and anywhere, from a certain moment the land begins to colonize. What we are seeing is that there are many evolutionary lines in many directions, but here there are species that live in complex societies. For about 70 million years the dominant invertebrates have been ants, termites, bees, in short, social insects. You might think that being able to form a complex society gives you an advantage. Vertebrates too. We primates in general, but also elephants for example, and they are doing very well. And in the sea the dolphins.
It is possible that our evolution has conditioned that of other species. For example, chimpanzees are said to have become so forestry precisely to avoid us. It could be that they have specialized in a type of habitat that we are not in. Each species occupies a niche and in doing so excludes other species from dominating there. Species diverge and evolve divergent ways.
To begin with, homo sapiens, which is the last, could not have existed. Our ancestors were not a species with a great capacity to impact ecosystems, they had great creativity, but they were neither more abundant nor more important than cave lions or bears or deer. The great change occurred with the invention of agriculture and livestock, which is not a biological phenomenon. Anyway, I think it would have happened anyway.
At what point in evolution would it move?
I would move, for example, until the arrival of homo sapiens in Europe. I would also address a Neanderthal and do the following experiment, very simple, I would put my hand to my chest and say “Juan Luis, I’m Juan Luis” and if he did the same and put a name for himself, they would be like us. They would have a me.
Every day I am amazed. The human being is a very unknown species. It has remained basically unknown until the arrival of an anatomist in the 16th century, the human being has been studied very late and how it has been studied in isolation.
The questions that remain about the human being
I have so many questions about the human being that I could not summarize them. For example, I did my thesis on the evolution of labor, why does labor hurt? The biblical answer is that it is a curse. Now we know that it doesn’t and that it has to do with evolution. In primates in general, childbirth is very tight, painful, because we are very encephalized mammals, we have a large head, along with other social mammals. In any monkey this problem occurs, the head is large, the birth canal, the hips, are normal, and also the newborn tends to be born quite alert. The monkey does not make nests. You have to give birth to a fetus that has sufficient development, you have to hurry to the maximum. In the human species it is added that our brain is larger, our development is slow and also the hips are narrower because we are bipeds.
In general, human beings develop very specialized technologies, we do not create general intelligences, it could be cynically said that for that we have other humans. We have a general intelligence and the type of machines we produce are highly specialized. Now things have started to change a bit because if you give him different instructions he learns. AI is very present in our world. Algorithms are very important to everything and we have to think about whether or not they improve our life.
The human being of the future
We have the ability to change ourselves. So it will depend on us. If we could improve ourselves what we would have would be tougher arms, which is what people are going to do at the gym. Contrary to those prophecies that in the future we will have all kinds of artifacts, what I think is that it would be better if we had abs. It is that we like ourselves like this, the Greek ideal, everyone’s dream is to be eternally young, not to live forever, but it is not the ideal to be eternally old, but eternally young.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.