Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature
David P. Barash
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For all that science knows about the living world, notes David P. Barash, there are even more things that we don't know, genuine evolutionary mysteries that perplex the best minds in biology. Paradoxically, many of these mysteries are very close to home, involving some of the most personal aspects of being human.
Homo Mysterious examines a number of these evolutionary mysteries, exploring things that we don't yet know about ourselves, laying out the best current hypotheses, and pointing toward insights that scientists are just beginning to glimpse. Why do women experience orgasm? Why do men have a shorter lifespan than women? Why does homosexuality exist? Why does religion exist in virtually every culture? Why do we have a fondness for the arts? Why do we have such large brains? And why does consciousness exist? Readers are plunged into an ocean of unknowns--the blank spots on the human evolutionary map, the terra incognita of our own species--and are introduced to the major hypotheses that currently occupy scientists who are attempting to unravel each puzzle (including some solutions proposed here for the first time). Throughout the book, readers are invited to share the thrill of science at its cutting edge, a place where we know what we don't know, and, moreover, where we know enough to come up with some compelling and seductive explanations.
Homo Mysterious is a guide to creative thought and future explorations, based on the best, most current thinking by evolutionary scientists. It captures the allure of the "not-yet-known" for those interested in stretching their scientific imaginations.
phonemes. Yet only their combinations have content: we string together meaningless sounds to make meaningful words. No one has yet explained how our ancestors got over the hump of replacing “one sound/one meaning” with a sequential combinatorial system of meaningless phonemes, but it’s probably one of the most important advances that happened during ape-to-human evolution.4 Traditionally, when trying to identify the evolutionary basis of human intelligence, researchers have focused on such
consciousness: a particular example of awareness (whatever that is!), characterized by recursiveness in which individuals are not only aware but also aware that they are aware. By this conception, many animals are aware but not strictly conscious. My Boxer dog, for example, is exquisitely aware of and responsive to just about everything around him—more so, in many cases, than I. I know, however, that I am conscious because I am aware of my own internal mental state, sometimes even paradoxically
focus only on his pleasure. If so, then maybe he’ll also be inclined to clean up the family cave, and—a few tens of thousands of years later—mow the lawn and help put the kids through college. Menopause: Some Unlikely Hypotheses Last among sexual mysteries in this chapter, as in life, we come to menopause. Less engaging than orgasm, less obvious than breasts, menopause shares more with menstruation than its first three letters (which don’t refer to male human beings, but to “month”). Like
not just abortion but even contraception. In fact, the most orthodox and fundamentalist religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, are all vigorously pronatalist, frowning on any behavior likely to diminish reproduction. Typically included is intolerance of homosexuality, as well as resistance to divorce—except, notably, in cases of infertility or failure to “consummate” the marriage. On the other extreme, the Shakers, a peculiar sect that prohibited sex and thus
elsewhere, maybe in the stars. It seems likely that our ancestors have been powerfully rewarded for recognizing patterns in the natural world: changes in the seasons, the flow of rivers, the migrations of animals. And indeed, it isn’t surprising that we have a strong species-wide predisposition for “pattern recognition,” for extracting genuine meaning from the world around us. Sometimes, those patterns may even be purely arbitrary and nonsignificant, such as those stars as seen from earth, the