The widespread ignorance about these truly important changes in the world feeds into a general discontent about how the world is changing. When YouGov asked in a separate survey the more general question: “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?” there were very few who gave a positive answer. In France and Australia only 3%(!) think the world is getting better.
Theories of How We Became Human, and Why They’re All Wrong
What a piece of work is man! Everyone agrees on that much. But what exactly is it about Homo sapiens that makes us unique among animals, let alone apes, and when and how did our ancestors acquire that certain something? The past century has seen a profusion of theories. Some reveal as much about the time their proponents lived in as they do about human evolution.
1. We Make Tools: “It is in making tools that man is unique,” anthropologist Kenneth Oakley wrote in a 1944 article. Apes use found objects as tools, he explained, “but the shaping of sticks and stones to particular uses was the first recognizably human activity.” In the early 1960s, Louis Leakey attributed the dawn of toolmaking, and thus of humanity, to a species named Homo habilis (“Handy Man”), which lived in East Africa around 2.8 million years ago. But as Jane Goodall and other researchers have since shown, chimps also shape sticks for particular uses—stripping them of their leaves, for instance, to “fish” for underground insects. Even crows, which lack hands, are pretty handy.
This primitive hand ax, found at a site in Israel, dates from 790,000 years ago and was probably made by Homo erectus. The oldest stone tools are 3.3 million years old.
2. We’re Killers: According to anthropologist Raymond Dart, our predecessors differed from living apes in being confirmed killers—carnivorous creatures that "seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb, slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh.” It may read like pulp fiction now, but after the horrific carnage of the Second World War, Dart’s 1953 article outlining his “killer ape” theory struck a chord.
3. We Share Food: In the 1960s, the killer ape gave way to the hippie ape. Anthropologist Glynn Isaac unearthed evidence of animal carcasses that had been purposefully moved from the sites of their deaths to locations where, presumably, the meat could be shared with the whole commune. As Isaac saw it, food sharing led to the need to share information about where food could be found—and thus to the development of language and other distinctively human social behaviors.
How Many People Are Wrongly Convicted? Researchers Do the Math.
Is there a more tragic story than an innocent person going to prison? Tragic, and powerful. That’s why The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most beloved movies of our time. And why we’ve all heard of this quote from an esoteric 18th-century English guy, William Blackstone: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” And why real-life stories of the exonerated always make headlines. Here’s the first line of a Washington Post story about Glenn Ford, who was exonerated last month:
“My sons, when I left, was babies,” Louisiana’s longest-serving death row inmate told reporters after his release late Tuesday. “Now they’re grown men with babies.”
It hits you in the gut. You first think about this particular person, this man who lost his family, who spent decades in some awful cell believing he was going to be electrocuted. And then you think that other frightening thought, the bugaboo lurking behind all exoneration stories: How many other Glenn Fords are still behind bars? How many will die there? Just how often does our venerated justice system fail?
Rarely, at least according to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In a 2006 opinion he cited an approximate error rate of 0.027 percent, based on back-of-the-envelope calculations by an Oregon district attorney in a fiery op-ed for the New York Times. The op-ed was in response to a report by Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, cataloguing 340 exonerations between 1989 and 2003. “Let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt,” the op-ed read. “Let’s assume that he understated the number of innocents by roughly a factor of 10, that instead of 340 there were 4,000 people in prison who weren’t involved in the crime in any way. During that same 15 years, there were more than 15 million felony convictions across the country. That would make the error rate .027 percent — or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.”
How to bring out human goodness
Spelled out this way, these findings don’t seem to bode well for humans. We have evolved to support our immediate social groups, a tendency that can be easily manipulated into discriminatory behavior, especially at younger ages. The good news, according to Sapolsky, is that there are always individuals who resist the temptation to discriminate and won’t conform to harmful acts based on othering or hierarchy.
Throughout the book, he offers suggestions for how we might subvert social tendencies to conform and aim our behavior towards better social ends. For example, his advice to counter xenophobia includes ”emphasizing individuation and shared attributes, perspective taking, more benign dichotomies, learning hierarchical differences, and bringing people together on equal terms with shared goals.”
Sapolsky’s attempt at intervention-advice doesn’t always succeed, which could leave the reader discouraged about the fate of human beings. The fact that there are so many “ghosts in the machine,” working in so many nefarious ways, is disquieting. And this is true even if that nefariousness can be positively hijacked, to unleash the best of our angels.
If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s a non-trivial to-do list item to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Keep in mind that what seems like rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces that we never suspect. Focus on the larger, shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. Recall the historical lessons of how often the truly malignant Thems keep themselves hidden and make third parties the fall guy.
Importantly, Sapolsky makes these points without the classical hubris of a know-it-all neurobiologist talking down to social scientists, which makes his arguments digestible to non-scientists. At the same time, his book alerts basic scientists that their often mechanistic take on behavior can miss some things—namely, an appropriate understanding of how context shapes the biology of good and bad.
Statue of limitations vs. Statute of limitations
You may feel very strongly and intense about your purpose, but that doesn’t make the phrase correct. Another common incorrect use of the phrase is switching the words “for” and “with”. The correct phrase means that you are covering all possibilities and circumstances.
The phrases good and well get interchanged so much that some people think they are actually interchangeable words. They’re not. If you’re ever confused about which to use, here’s a tip: Use “well” as an adverb (words used to describe verbs) and “good” as an adjective (words used to describe nouns). For example:
Knowledge about what we have achieved leaves no place for cynicism
Finally the survey suggests that there is a connection between our perception of the past and our hope for the future. This chart shows that the degree of optimism about the future differs hugely by the level of people’s knowledge about global development.
Those that were most pessimistic about the future tended to have the least basic knowledge on how the world has changed. Of those who could not give a single correct answer to the survey questions, only 17% expect the world to be better off in the future. At the other end of the spectrum, those who had very good knowledge about how the world has changed were the most optimistic about the changes that we can achieve in the next 15 years.
This is a correlation and as we know, correlation does not imply causation. To understand whether there is a causal link we would need to know whether getting a more accurate picture of how the world is changing makes one change one’s belief about what will happen in the future. Unfortunately I am not aware of a study that looked into this question. 5
Of course no one can know how the future turns out and there is nothing that would make the progress we have seen in recent decades continue inevitably and not every global development pessimist is ill-informed. But what we do know from these surveys is that these two views go together: Those who are pessimistic are much more likely to have little understanding about what is happening in the world.
As we have seen, being wrong about global development mostly means being too negative about how the world is changing. Being wrong in these questions means having a cynical worldview. Cynicism suggests that nothing can be done to improve our situation and every effort to do so is bound to fail. Our history, the cynics say, is a history of failures and what we can expect for the future is more of the same.
In contrast to this, answering the questions correctly means that you understand that things can change. An accurate understanding of how global health and poverty are improving leaves no space for cynicism. Those who are optimistic about the future can base their view on the knowledge that it is possible to change the world for the better, because they know that we did.