Image: A recreation of ‘Lucy’ has the entirety of her 1.1m (3′ 8″) stature covered with hair. Credit: Travis S (full name not supplied).

Professor Thomas Suddendorf, at TEDxUQ, in his talk, Clues about the evolution of our extraordinary minds, says the absence of other hominids from our world leaves a gap between us and other animals.

Just 2000 generations ago, a mere 40,000 years, we modern humans, Homo sapiens, shared the planet with, “Neanderthals, with Homo floresiensis, (sometimes known as the hobbits), with Denisovans, and quite likely with the last remnants of Homo erectus,” says Professor Suddendorf.

Professor Suddendorf says after the divergence of the chimpanzee and hominid lineages six million years ago our hominid relatives and ancestors began to populate the planet.

Professor Suddendorf says uniquely human traits, “were not developed in one quantum leap. Nor did they develop in a linear fashion.”

Rather than there being a straight trajectory of humans scaling an evolutionary ladder, there is instead, “a fairly bushy tree”.

Scattered across time, six million years, our distant ancestors may have often shared a valley or a savanna with other hominids.

Plot of individuals known from fossils or live Human-Chimpanzee Clade specimens. Credit: T. Michael Keesey.

Plot of individuals known from fossils or live Human-Chimpanzee Clade specimens. Credit: T. Michael Keesey.

We can know nothing of the interactions, or lack of them, millions of years ago, says Professor Suddendof.

However coming after the divergence of hominids and chimpanzees, all hominids were likely to have more in common with each other than we do with the chimpanzees or other great apes.

Professor Suddendorf says the hominidspecies, Homo erectus, which appeared about 1.7 million years ago was a toolmaker developing “the most successful tool ever.”

Homo erectus

Image: Homo erectus. Credit: ‘e-monk’ (no real name given).

This tool, the bi-facial hand axe, a technological tour de force, was in use for over a million years.

This highly successful hominid shared the planet for 1.7 million years with, “… other homos, other Australopithecines. All of them are upright walking, tool-using, big-brained hominids.”

At this time, Professor Suddendorf said “the difference between humans and other creatures would have been very small in comparison to what it is now.”

In the case of Neanderthals and modern Europeans the DNA evidence is that interbreeding took place.

In the case of the Denisovans, of whom evidence was found only recently in a remote Siberian cave, people in New Guinea and other Melanesians carry some of their genetic information.

So we have genetic evidence that the interactions included sex and successful breeding.

This is a very small gap indeed between us and another creature.

Perhaps one day we may find evidence of trading or cooperative hunting.

The gap between us and these other hominids is much more traversable than that between us and our chimpanzee cousins.

Professor Suddendorf said, “the gap between other animals and humans is so large because the other hominids have gone extinct.”

Whatever the causes we have lost a stepping stone to our fellow creatures.

Over the millennia there would have been many reasons for extinction.

More recently, based on our own history, we know our species is capable of horrific genocidal behaviour, but there is no evidence that we were implicated in the recent hominid extinctions.

These extinctions have further distinguished us from other creatures. Our unique characteristics are more evident, our separation made more apparent.

“Are we to become even more extraordinary?” asked Professor Suddendorf.

IQ scores are going up. Technological advances are obvious. “Perhaps we are getting more extraordinary.”

“There’s another way in which we could become more special. It’s a simpler way and perhaps a more traditional way. And that is we could just exterminate all our closest living relatives,” says Professor Suddendorf.

He says human activity, whether it be habitat destruction, slaughter for bush meat or removal for the pet trade, has put all of our nearest relatives at risk of extinction.

“Our great grandchildren might very well grow up in a world where great apes are no more,” he says.

The closest relations our descendants might have in the world could be the monkeys.

“But monkeys are very different creatures to apes,” he says.

It would be a much larger gap. We would be more extraordinary yet perhaps more alone.

Professor Suddendorf finished his presentation with an encouragement to us all to try and “protect our ape relatives while we still can.”

“If we are able to achieve that I believe that would be truly extraordinary,” he says.

To read about Professor Suddendorf’s presentation on the evolution of the mind, click the link.

TEDxUQ Profile – Professor Suddendorf on the evolving mind.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

View ratings
Rate this article

Leave a Comment