Friends, if you believe that you have sinned, or that you are seriously flawed as a human being, I am happy to tell you that salvation has arrived. Just place yourself in the story of evolution, dive into the big picture, the history of all life, and there you will see that no one among us is to blame for who we are. The story of evolution says you were created out of the shape-shifting stream of life as it danced with ever-changing Earth conditions and natural phenomena. You did not choose to have your consciousness, senses or your instincts for love or self-preservation any more than you chose to have your thumbs. Can I get a witness? In the eyes of Mother Nature we are all forgiven! Accept it. You are not your fault.
For one thing, we are all human beings, a very young species; a brand-new kind of animal. By the way, I hope you aren’t offended by being called an animal. Our eminent scientists classify us as animals for very good biological reasons, but most of us refuse the designation. You’ll find evidence of our collective denial at any café or supermarket where there is a sign in the window saying, “No Animals Allowed.” We humans walk right in!
But we are a brand-new kind of animal, an animal just figuring out that it is an animal. The body that you and I inherited broke away from the rest of our primate crowd only about five million years ago—just yesterday in biological time. That’s when the Great Rift Valley was created in Africa and our ancestors had to swing down from the trees of the jungle to live in the tall grasses of the savannah. It must have been as difficult as first slithering out of the water to live on land many millions of years earlier.
Among those who began to hang out on the savannah was an ape-woman the scientists have named “Lucy,” considered to be the mother of us all. (Can we therefore presume that the father of us all was “Ricky”?)
After living on the ground for a while, our ancestors began making crude stone tools and we became a subspecies of human called Homo habilis, or “handyman.” We handymen started standing upright more often, probably to fix a leaky roof, and after a while we seemed to like it so much that we changed our names to Homo erectus, or “upright” humans. And we’re not talking morality here; once we stood up we ushered in the era of full-frontal nudity. Four-legged animals don’t have to worry about clothing because their private parts are hidden by their stance. Standing up put our sexual organs right out front for everyone to see, and no doubt this led directly to the invention of the loincloth.
Standing up not only brought us shame, it also brought us pride. I have a theory, fully uncorroborated, that the upright stance elevated our heads too far off the ground, and that’s precisely when we started feeling remote from the Earth. We also started looking down at other creatures. We thought the crawlers weren’t as good as those who walk. Our upright stance may have also contributed to our belief that we came from some other realm. With our heads lifted high, we thought we were above it all.
Most importantly, according to evolutionary biologists, standing up seems to have triggered a rapid increase in brain size. You would expect the exact opposite to have happened, and that standing up would have caused our feet to swell instead. But that’s not the case.
Here’s the scientists’ theory: standing up left our hands free, and after a while we realized that we could use them to hold and manipulate objects. So we started using tools—spears, axes, chopsticks. Doing so required far more brain connections to coordinate the more precise movements of our hands and fingers, and so a feedback loop was created: better hands, bigger brains; bigger brains, better hands. Pretty smart, Mother Nature. Worthy of a deep bow.
Standing upright also left our arms free to carry our stuff around with us, and after a few million years we started migrating out of Africa. Nobody knows exactly why we left, but I suspect it was to look for Chinese food. At the time our brains were only half the size they are today, otherwise we would have been smart enough to just phone in for Chinese takeout.
Anyway, we started wandering around the planet and got caught in an ice age or two. That may be one reason our brains kept growing—we had to think hard and fast about how to stay warm. Of course, it would have been easiest just to grow a heavy coat of fur, but at the time our brains just weren’t big enough to figure that out. So instead of a fur coat we grew an even bigger brain and learned how to make fire. Then we started huddling around that fire and telling stories about ourselves. Stories like this one about evolution.
“If we are here for any purpose at all (except for collating texts, running rivers and learning the stars), I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. We are a gang of sexy, primate clowns.”
In the early days of human speech it wasn’t so easy to tell stories because our lips and tongue weren’t coordinated enough to put a lot of sounds together. Back then it was basically “uh-huh” or “nuh-uh” and “yum” or “yuck.” But we quickly got good at talking and soon were saying things like “Let’s get something to eat” and “Your place or mine?” Et cetera.
Scientists believe that talking—sharing information with each other, gossiping, telling stories, kvetching—contributed to another large increase in human brain size. Proof of the importance of language is the fact that a disproportionately large part of our brain is now devoted to the movement of the tongue and lips.
Now we’re so good at making coherent sounds that most of us do it without needing to think about where to place our tongue and lips. Just say something—like what you had for breakfast. You don’t have to consciously decide to move your mouth from the “eh” shape to the “gg” shape to create the “egg” sound. It just comes out fully formed the second you think it, understandable to anyone who knows what the sound means.
Words became so vital to our survival and dominance on the planet that nature has now installed in us a biological program for language. It is a built-in feature, and we are each born with the ability to put words together grammatically, the so-called “language instinct.” We are born to yak.
An unintended consequence of having so much of our brain connected to the movement of our tongue and lips may be our love of kissing. The other primates don’t go around kissing all the time, puckering their lips when they meet each other. The origin of kissing must be in those extra nerve endings that enable our language. I talk therefore I kiss.
Kissing, talking, telling stories— what a wise and lovable species we are! With this mouth I sing praises to Mother Nature for this mouth.