Homo sapiens as a species is a relative infant on the planet, taking its first steps on earth (in near enough to present form) about 40,000 years ago. Since departing the mainstream of primate lineage, approximately 10 million years earlier, several major adaptations occurred precipitating the development of humans as we know them.
First came bipedality. A small trick you say? A poodle can do it in time to music. True, but can a poodle snap its fingers and tap its foot simultaneously?
While a narrowed, rotated pelvis and a slender, arched hind foot facilitated efficient upright locomotion, the development of an opposable thumb on the forelimb freed primate hands for sophisticated tool use.
But one problem still remained: Not enough brain! We had to figure out what to do with our newly acquired appendages.
That’s a bigger problem than you might first imagine. Think about it: You’re a Neanderthal woman with the relatively narrow pelvic width required for bipedality but you want a child with a big brain, someone who can do more than swing through trees.
You need a child with a big head… Large head, small pelvis: a painful thought!
A newborn horse can rise up onto all fours and trot after its mother. An infant baboon can hang from its mother’s fur while she swings through the jungle using alternate arm locomotion, leaving her nice wide pelvic span to hang comfortably below.
But a human newborn can neither suspend its own head nor roll onto its back without help. The final step in human evolution was (perhaps) premature birth. We had to be born with a head small and undeveloped enough to pass through a narrow pelvic opening.
The price of this development was a small, helpless and extremely vulnerable baby requiring an extraordinary amount of post-natal care, an extended infancy and an extremely long adolescence during which our brains and heads might grow larger. Then finally, an education could fill us with enough culturally transmitted information to make effective use of those bulbous heads.
Before humans, evolution could be characterized in two phases: In the first, the stuff of primordial soup could be described largely in terms of physics and chemistry. In the second, those physico-chemical laws compounded creating living organisms. The laws of selective-genetic evolution governing this second phase describe the development and diversification of species through the information encoded and carried forth on chromosomes through genes.
Although humans today remain subject to physics, chemistry and selective-genetic evolution, we also grow and evolve as a cultural entity, recombining basic laws of genetics and even physics to our will. A new third phase of evolution, where information is carried, not just chemically and genetically, but cerebrally and culturally, characterizes us. A cerebro-cultural evolution with newly compounded laws and entirely new potentials defines our future limitations and possibilities.
If human culture is really an indication of a third level of evolution then perhaps a new entity has come into being on the planet, almost unnoticed. Information is its DNA carried down through culture and individuals are its chromosomes: a gigantic new organism taking its first steps on Earth.
So here it is, Mom! It’s a baby! It’s a boy and a girl—with 10 billion eyes and 50 billion toes. It has a big head but no idea where it’s going.