Museum Blog

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 diversity.

How Can We Explain Human Diversity?

A driving question for countless generations of humanity has been: why are humans so different? 

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 continents.

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 ways.

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 Time?

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 ways.

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 possibilities.

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 global responses.

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, hopefully, answer.

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