Is human nature universal

Nature and culture : What makes people

Pigeons, of all things. The publisher John Murray had examined Charles Darwin's manuscript "On the Origin of Species". And had come to the conclusion that a popular book on these birds would be much better received than Darwin's all-round cover. The naturalist should read about the origins of pigeons They all bred pigeons in Victorian England, even the Queen.

But Darwin turned down the proposal, presumably angry. He insisted on the origin of species, not pigeons. For many years he had researched this subject, planned a great work. And so “Origin of Species” could appear in 1859. The central thought of the naturalist: The diversity of species is due to natural selection. Animals and plants were not created once and for all, but developed gradually. Nature is governed by evolution.

"Light will fall on the origin of man and his history"

Darwin's revolutionary idea opened many new doors to knowledge. But there were still a few things he could not know, at best guess. Above all, it was unclear to him which processes the inheritance is based on. Genes, so to speak the breeding ground for evolution, were unknown 150 years ago. But all the essential findings of later generations of researchers added almost seamlessly to Darwin's thoughts, complemented and completed his work.

"Light will fall on the origin of man and his history," wrote Darwin in the "Origin of Species". There was more to him than pigeons and he was more than right.

There is, human nature

How has evolution shaped us? Actually, modern man has got used to keeping nature at bay. Protected from their influences, in air-conditioned offices, well-fed and equipped with a remote control, the contemporary observes the natural spectacle from a distance. The more he glorifies and kitsches up nature, the greater the distance. In doing so, the contemporary person has lost sight of the fact that he himself is a product of evolution. There is, human nature.

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," wrote the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. One could modify this sentence: "Nothing in culture makes sense except in the light of evolution." Of course this is an exaggeration. But there is more than a grain of truth in it. The patterns of evolution are woven into the carpet of civilization, even if it is not always easy to recognize them.

Nature doesn't make jumps

Life on earth began about 3.5 billion years ago. In this unimaginably long period of time it has continued to develop up to the present. Conversely, this means that every person living today could trace their ancestors back to the most primitive ancient animals, at least in theory. On this journey to the origins, you discover that the distance that you cover to the beginnings of the first human civilizations a few thousand years ago is barely more than a millionth of the total distance. This corresponds to one to two millimeters by one kilometer. Measured against the history of life, the pyramids were built the day before yesterday, so to speak.

And something else would be noticed on this expedition. The fact that there are no breaks in development, only gradual transitions. Nature doesn't make jumps. Much of what sets people apart is not that unique on closer inspection. Language, morals, tradition, all of these things are at least partially present in some animals and are probably built into the genes. Man is not a blank slate when he comes into the world. It is not a piece of clay that can be kneaded as it suits you. The character is "an imprinted form that develops in a lively manner," wrote Goethe. If you transfer the “imprinted form” into the world of biology, then you are dealing with the genome that shapes humans. The exciting question is how much genes shape us. Are they, with Goethe, the “law” according to which we “entered”, or can we “escape” them?

"Mammoth hunters in the metro"

Some evolutionary researchers believe that humans are “mammoth hunters in the metro”, as the book by science journalist William Allman goes. Behind the facade of the employee in a tie and collar, who opens his notebook in the subway in the morning, lurks a hairy prehistoric man who finds it difficult to keep his urges in check. According to this theory, the evolutionary legacy of the Stone Age enshrined in genes weighs so heavily that civilization is only a backdrop.

Other scholars are less fatalistic. In their view, evolution is not a one-way street leading from biology to culture. One to two million years ago humans must have learned to think beyond the Horde, they say. He must have learned to cooperate in larger communities and to learn from one another. This is how the foundation of cultural evolution was laid. This in turn fueled competition between groups. The more social they were, the better their inner cohesion, the higher their chances of survival. Morality could have arisen from the spirit of community.

With the deciphering of the human genome, genetics has added another dimension to the discussion about human evolutionary roots. It is possible to look for those traits in the genome that are “typically human”. From what is known so far, “the” human gene that separates Homo sapiens from its closest relatives in the animal kingdom does not exist. Instead, there are many large and small genetic differences that give humans their individuality, despite their family closeness to other primates.

Civilization has made it possible for even those who wear glasses to survive

But even here culture comes into play again. Not as an opponent of nature, but as an extension. The human ability to learn and adapt has also reduced the pressures of natural selection. Civilization also protects the supposedly weak. It made it possible for even those who wear glasses to survive. Paradoxically, it is culture that increases human genetic diversity.

That man would one day colonize the whole earth, cross the oceans and set off into space - none of this was a genetic master plan, but the collective work of living beings capable of learning. It speaks for the “wisdom” of nature that it did not plan man down to the last corner of his being, but equipped him with the ability to learn. The genes are often seen only as a source of defects and diseases, as fateful in the bad sense. But here they show themselves at their best. We owe them that we can learn to develop a memory. That gives us freedom, makes people a possibility being.

Human nature is a mixer

Biology and culture, talent and education come together in the human mind. It is a thoroughly musical harmony. In Nature magazine, science writer Dan Jones describes human nature as a mixer. The mixer has many switches and controls that the culture can use to let off steam and attract different tones and melodies.

A lot is possible, but not everything. The equipment of the mixer sets the limits. With the best will in the world, a person without tact will not become a Mozart, and an average mathematical talent will not become a professor of theoretical physics.

An example of the interaction is the language. Humans not only have the anatomy required for speaking, i.e. the “hardware”, but also the necessary “software” in their brains. He was born with the ability to speak. But which language he learns, whether English, German or Japanese, depends on the culture in which he grows up. Right next to the language faculty is the mathematics faculty. Apparently a sense of numbers and geometry is also innate. Not to forget morality, even the penchant for religion. Even they are possibly universal, inherent in everyone.

Is it possible for ideas to compete for storage space?

It is a fascinating thought experiment to transfer the recipes for success of evolution to culture. Even in the productions of civilization there could be such a thing as selection. Is it possible that different ideas compete for storage space in our brain? This thought comes from the biologist and author Richard Dawkins. For him, evolution is almost a cosmic principle, not tied to stupid biochemistry and genes. He calls the “genes of culture” memes. Whether Dawkins' thesis is more than an interesting "meme" remains to be seen.

“Light will fall on the origin of man”: 150 years after the appearance of Darwin's main work, this prophecy has largely been fulfilled. But the "evolution in nature, technology and culture", as the annual theme of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy for 2009 and 2010 is, has so many facets that it will provide stimulating discussions for at least 150 more years.

- The author heads the science department of the Tagesspiegel.

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