Grandparents and the Dawn of Civilization
Having become bored with topics such as Quantum Mechanics, Linear Algebra, Code Division Multiple Access Modulation and the like I recently decided to tackle a truly challenging topic: Anthropology.
Actually, human anthropology (I know … that’s redundant) is divided into several basic sciences:
"The science of anthropology is divided into several subfields including physical anthropology, the study of the origins and development of human beings; cultural anthropology, the study of human culture or the means by which human beings sustain life; linguistics, the study of human language; and archaeology, the study of human life based primarily on the recovery of artifacts, objects made and/or used by human beings". – author lost to antiquity or extreme dullness.
Believe it or not, I found physical anthropology quite dull. I came away with the conclusion that human evolution is not very clearly understood yet. I suspect that this is because for millions of years there was more than one type of "human" and we "super humans" don’t like to admit that. Much controversy about Neanderthals being another species and then of course there’s that mitochondrial DNA fiasco and the "out of Africa" theories.
Even though the evolution thing is a good mystery --and I like mysteries -- I got to thinking about a more modern one. If you can call 30,000 B.C. modern that is. From a total human history point of view, it is very modern indeed. But the archeological evidence has uncovered a very funny thing that happened about 30,000 years ago: we suddenly seem to have gotten smarter. No one seems to know why. But the facts are these: For more than 100,000 years, physiologically modern humans sat around making essentially the same kind of stone tools in essentially the same type of community with essentially the same kind of behaviors.
Now think about that for a moment in very human terms: 100,000 years! 5-7000 GENERATIONS of physically modern human beings showing no signs of progress in technology. The same flints, the same stone tools… . Pretty boring history class I would say (as if that has changed!)
About 30,000 years ago all that changed. The record shows complex jewelry, new kinds of hunting instruments and new tools. Suddenly we had decorated pottery, necklaces… . And even ART. Wow. After 100,000 years of stagnation we suddenly started to become human? What happened? There are, of course many theories including the development of language, but these all seem somewhat lacking to me. Did we actually develop that thyoid bone that allowed modern speech to emerge? We did, but we seem to have had that long before the sudden change of 30K B.C.
I would like to propose a hypothesis. I was corrected when I called this a theory, since theories are usually supported by facts. Unencumbered as I am by facts, here I go nonetheless… .
The records show another interesting fact that happened about 30,000 years ago: life expectancy had changed gradually from less than 25 years to over 30 years. Many informed people (note that this author is excluded from this category --ed) claim that this change was the reason for the sudden dawning of the human experience. Like an old dog that has picked up the human language, we got smarter as we got older. Sure, I buy that. But surely that was a gradual process and doesn’t explain the rapid change in human behaviors. Something happened to provide what we engineers call positive feedback. Positive feedback creates a potential instability in the status quo that leads to rapid changes. Something profound happened when we extended the average lifetimes from 25 to 30+ years.
That profound something was the sudden appearance of GRANDPARENTS.
Do the math: if you only lived to be 25 years old and you had your first child at age 13 or 14, you probably never lived to see your grandchildren. They would have appeared on the scene at the ripe old age of 26+. As average life expectancies passed the 30 year mark, a new "grandparent" class of humanity emerged. I believe that the very emergence of this class was a direct cause of the sudden improvement of the human condition.
Think about this for a moment: for the first time in human history the experiences of more than one generation could be directly shared. Grandparents could aid in the nurturing and education of the young like never before seen. Every generation started out just a little better educated than the previous – over and over again-- until suddenly we began doing those things we like to think distinguishes ourselves from the rest of animal life on this planet: We suddenly became human.
Many things contributed to the advances of civilization to be sure, but these advances, like Steven Jay Gould’s punctuated evolution came in sudden steps. Step one, 30,000 years ago I’ve just talked about. Step two was the introduction of written language about 10,000 years ago that enabled a more formal type of civilization. Step 3 was the introduction of mass distribution of books … a direct result of printing. Each step resulted in a fundamental delta in the average level of education of children. Each generation stood on the shoulders of the previous one and spanned multiple generations of experience.
So let us not forget the grandparents. They may very well be the very cornerstones of our modern existence. Without them, we might have faced another 100,000 years working with flint. Talk about dull.
And grandparents: do not forget the children. They are the future of humanity. You have responsibilities that span eons of time.
I’ll end with this thought: very recently, at least in anthropological terms, life expectancy continued to lengthen and yet another class of human arrived on the scene: Great-Grandparents. The possibilities are endless.