June 17, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

What Makes You Human?

If you are a war-mongering beast who likes to burn things, you’re displaying your evolutionary past.  That’s what a couple of news reports are claiming.  New Scientist has a review of two books: Fire: The spark that ignited human evolution by Frances D. Burton, and Catching Fire: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham.  Saswato R. Das got the message.  He entitled his review, “How Fire Made Us Human.”  Here comes the synopsis in the form of a just-so story:

Anthropologist Frances Burton suggests that taming fire led to the evolution of modern humansMillions of years ago, our ape-like ancestors may have overcome their fear of fire to pick at found delicacies – maybe an animal accidentally cooked in a forest fire.  Over time, they learned how to keep a flame going by feeding it twigs, how to use fire to thwart predators and how to harness it for heat and light.  This familiarity with fire, Burton argues, changed the hormonal cycles that depend on light and darkness: light from nightly bonfires may have caused a change in the nocturnal flow of melatonin.  Over time, this changed the rates and patterns of our ancestors’ growth, and the regulation and activation of genes, leading ultimately to us.

Das did not explain why no apes have been found repeating this experience in recent times.  Regarding the second book, Das said that “Wrangham builds a compelling case” that cooking turned an ape into a human, “although archaeological proof of his theory has yet to be found.”  Das ended with colorful prose: “These fascinating books show how the biological evolution of human beings may not have been a matter of biology alone, and why, as Wrangham writes, ‘we humans are the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame.’”
    Dan Jones wrote for Nature that “War and migration may have shaped human behaviour.”  Reviewing other anthropologists’ work, he explains that make love, not war is a false dilemma: it was making war that led to human altruism.  Here came his just-so story: “intergroup conflict would have been common among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and estimates that it accounted for roughly 14% of all deaths – much higher than the mortality rate seen in wars of recent history,” he said, without explaining where he got the statistics.  “Under these conditions, [Samuel] Bowles [Santa Fe Institute] shows that even costly group-beneficial altruism and cooperation could be favoured.”  His theory relies on group selection – a controversial theory among evolutionists.  Adam Powell [University College London], by contrast, looks to human migration as most influential for human culture and behavior.  Chris Stringer [Natural History Museum, London] called this a “nice bit of work” but was “not convinced it is the whole story” that explains what makes us human.  None of these evolutionists attempted to explain why warring chimpanzees have not started an Ape Red Cross, let alone built a fire or cooked their meals after all these millions of years.

1.  Dan Jones, “War and migration may have shaped human behavior,” Nature 4 June 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.546.

Evolutionary anthropology should not be understood as following the scientific method to achieve conclusions that are observable, testable, repeatable, falsifiable or any of that good stuff you associate with the word science.  No; it is the endless quest for a good story (see 12/22/2003 commentary).  Since the storytelling rules eliminate design as a possibility (see Brett Miller cartoon), you can be sure the stories will be funny.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Early Man

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