Why Are Humans So Different
Posted 4/15/2011 12:04 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments
Diversity is a fundamental question for anthropology--that
goes to the heart of our common past and also our common future. In
this way, anthropology has much to contribute to natural history
museums, which study and celebrate the concept of
How Can We Explain Human
A driving question for countless generations of humanity
has been: why are humans so
For millennia the answer to this question has been offered
in origin stories--the narratives that explain our human
beginnings. Think, for example, of the Judeo-Christian tradition,
which suggests that all humans were born from Adam and Eve. The
Book of Genesis goes on to speak of humanity coming together again
at Babel. Everyone lived together and spoke one language--until God
again dispersed humanity to all corners of the globe.
In the Western tradition, the answer to this question was
first systematically sought with the ancient Greek writer
Heroditus. His book The Histories, written some 2,500
years ago, was perhaps the first ethnography; it sought to document
not just politics and geography of different peoples, but also the
many cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
When Europe began its age of discovery, the Renaissance
and then the Enlightenment led to ever more systematic efforts to
record the natural world, as well as the human populations that
occupy it. Finally, these attempts to categorize all living things
and the driving curiosity about the human condition led to the
science of anthropology, which fundamentally documents and explains
human diversity through time.
When Did Human Diversity Begin?
From an anthropological perspective--from the viewpoint of
our own scientific origin story--we look to evolution for answers
about the beginnings of human diversity. Currently, two hypotheses
dominate our ideas of human origins.
The multiregional hypothesis suggests that sometime
between 1 to 2 million years ago, some groups of Homo
erectus left Africa, populating Europe, Asia, and Oceania, and
then this species of our ancestors interbred creating Homo
sapiens. The out-of-Africa hypothesis suggests that a single
lineage of Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens in Africa, and
then left about 100,000 years ago to settle the other
The latter hypothesis has recently gained support with the
discovery by geneticists that there is likely a single woman, who
lived about 200,000 years ago, who is a common matrilineal ancestor
for all humanity. Recalling the origin stories of the Old
Testament, she has been dubbed Mitochondrial Eve.
Why Are Humans Diverse?
For nearly 3 million years, our most ancient ancestors
were likely not especially diverse. We can see this in the lack of
multiple cultural adaptations. For example, until about 50,000
years ago, humans used the same basic stone tool technology that
had preceded them for several millions of years. Then, something
began to change.
Fascinatingly, the very dynamics that make humans unique
have also led to our multiplicity. Tool making allows us to create
different technological solutions and adaptations. Symbolic thought
has led to myriad languages, religious, and artistic expressions.
Domestication of plants and animals have led humans to
fundamentally control the natural world in different
And so, technology, symbolic thought, and adaptation to
the environment not only explains what makes humans unique but also
what makes humans diverse.
How Has Human Diversity Changed Through
Through these mechanisms, these qualities and adaptations,
humans invented culture. Culture has been the main driving force
for human diversity.
Over the last 50,000 years, human cultures have spread
around the globe into its wondrous diversity. We are the same and
yet we are different. Consider, for instance, the construction of
gender, and specifically masculinity. Every known culture has
created different categories of female-ness and male-ness (and the
in between), but each expresses these categories in very different
Look again at the picture of the world at the top of this
page. We can see how in northern Europe, men express their
masculinity through binge drinking; in New Zealand through warrior
culture; in South Asia through cricket; in South America through
futbol; in Madagascar through music. The picture over the western
U.S. is perhaps humorous because it challenges our American
cultural sense of gender roles. A pretty blond in a miniskirt
should not be posing with a gun.
It is in this way humans share many common traits, yet
they express these traits in a grand array of
Will Human Diversity Persist?
We live today in a dramatically changing world.
Businesses, transnational corporations, are global as they
have never been before. Car parts are made in Mexico and Poland and
Singapore, and then assembled in Michigan. The success of Starbucks
and McDonalds, Toyotas and Tiger Woods, create a more common
cultural bond for humans everywhere through an inextricable
web of economic relations.
The number of languages in the world has been decreasing
for a generation. Today there are only about 5,000 languages, but
hundreds of languages are on the verge of extinction. Soon there
will be more English speakers in China than in the United States.
The days of Babel are perhaps upon us again.
National borders are collapsing, as humans can more easily
travel the world. As never before, millions of people can wake up
in Asia and go to sleep in Europe.
Humans can now communicate with each other from just about
any point of the globe in just about instantaneous time. The recent
events in Japan and the Arab world show how local events can
be known around the world in real time, which creates and demands
In short, we stand on the precipice of unprecedented
global flows, which will have dramatic and fundamental influences
on human diversity. What our shared fate will be is unknown, but
this is a central subject for anthropologists to consider and,
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