Monday 29 August 2022


This is the fourth part of a weekly series of six. Here are the links to the first three parts:

The most important and sustaining element in this exploration of the Quaker experience is the hour of silence and the fruits I draw from that encounter with the Holy Spirit. The Quaker booklet 'Advices and queries' (1994) is a reminder of the insights of the Society of Friends. In it, I read:

'Worship is our response to an awareness of God. ... We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God's love drawing us together and leading us. ... Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern?' (pp.7-9)

How wonderful to belong to a church that asks searching questions and is learning how to thrive on 'ambiguity tolerance' - understanding that we grow by learning to live with uncertainty. 

Ambiguity tolerance is OK

I have already explained that my focus within the weekly hour of silent worship has taken me back in time to the writing of Mark's Gospel, 2,000 years ago - see Part Two in this series. My journey back into the past has not stopped there. Why should it? It seemed to me, as I reflected on the matter in the communal silence, that it was essential to go right back to the beginning - to the point when homo sapiens found that they and not homo neanderthalensis had emerged as the successful new kids on the planetary block. If I was to sustain a spiritual belief about the nature of mankind and its purposes, I needed to become the anthropologist and make sense of these teachings of the charismatic carpenter-

turned-preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, in a big-picture context that places those teachings towards the end of a time-scale of human life that extends from 50,000 years ago to the present.  

My direction of travel in these thoughts was being shaped by the Spirit, through what I was now reading. My dear friend, Julia, whose Quaker identity I had not then fully appreciated, mentioned in passing in an email back in February this year that she was reading Rutger Bregman's latest work: 'Human kind - A Hopeful History'.  She thought I might find the work interesting. By April, I had my own copy of Bregman's book and by late May I had begun reading. By the time of my scheduled talk at the Penzance Literary Festival on my latest publication, 'Dying to Know - Running through a Pandemic', on 7 July, I had drafted my 50 minutes of text on 'The Power of Hope' around Bregman's insights. For an illustrated version of this talk, press and open this link here.

Rutger Bregman - the Dutch historian and writer, author of 'Human kind - A Hopeful History' (2019/20)

Here are the main thrusts of Bregman's conclusions from his fascinating chapter on 'The Rise of Homo Puppy':

  • Scientists have determined that 50,000 years ago there were at least five hominins besides us - Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis, Homo denisova and Homo neanderthalensis - all of them humans, just as the goldfinch, the house finch and the bull finch are all finches. So why did these five hominins disappear, leaving only us: Homo sapiens?
  • Analysis of bone fragments suggests that Neanderthals were stronger than us - and they had larger brains. They built fires and cooked food. They made clothing, musical instruments, jewellery and cave paintings. Why did Homo sapiens survive and not them?
  • In 2014, an American team began looking at human skulls from a range of periods over the past 200,000 years - and concluded there was an observable pattern. Our faces have grown much softer, more youthful and more feminine. Our brains have shrunk by at least 10 per cent, and our teeth and jawbones have become paedomorphic - childlike. Compared with Neanderthals, we have shorter and rounder skulls, with a smaller brow ridge. What dogs are to wolves, we are to Neanderthals. Just as mature dogs look like wolf puppies, humans evolved to look like baby monkeys. Meet Homo puppy, as in the title of the chapter. 
  • In Soviet Russia, a geneticist, Dmitri Belyaev, wanted to turn wild animals into pet material, simply by breeding only the most amiable creatures. The only criterion for selection was friendliness. He chose, in 1958, the silver fox, a vicious animal never domesticated. In 1964, with the experiment in its fourth generation, the first fox to wag its tail was seen. Soon, the selectively bred foxes were becoming tamer and tamer. By 1978, Dmitri's video presentation at the International Congress of Genetics, held in Moscow, excited the audience - as did Dimitri's suggestion that the changes in the foxes had everything to do with hormones. The more amiable foxes produced fewer stress hormones and more serotonin (the 'happy hormone') and oxytocin (the 'love hormone'). And then Dimitri concluded with the idea that the theory can apply to humans too. 

A monument to Dmitri Belyaev (1917-85), Soviet geneticist and academician

  • So, two years after Richard Dawkins published 'The Selfish Gene', in which he concluded that people are born selfish ( a view that he later accepted was mistaken), Dimitri Belyaev's theory said the opposite. People are in fact domesticated apes. Over tens of thousands of years, the nicest humans had the most kids. The evolution of our species was predicated on 'the survival of the friendliest'.  
  • Like pigs, rabbits, and now silver foxes, human beings have indeed got smaller and cuter, as the 2014 American survey referenced above established. 
  • How, then, did 'Homo puppy' conquer the world? Brian Hare, a young biologist with a special interest in canines, provided an answer. In 2003, he became the first foreign scientist to study the silver foxes that had now reached the forty-fifth generation in this remarkable experiment. He is now a professor in evolutionary anthropology who has established that dogs are very smart indeed, in some instances even cleverer than chimpanzees. His work with the silver foxes showed that the latest generation of friendly foxes were remarkably astute and much smarter than their aggressive wild counterparts. 
  • Up until then, around twenty years ago, the assumption had been that domestication diminishes brainpower, literally reducing grey matter - as in the cliches: sly as a fox; dumb as an ox. But now, Brian Hare was able to argue that if you want a clever fox, you don't select for cleverness. You select for friendliness.

Brian Hare, born in 1976, now professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, USA 

  • And so back to us, human beings. What makes us unique? In the words of Rutger Bregman, we are ultrasocial learning machines. Our ability to learn from others sets us well apart from the chimpanzees who score on a par with two-year old humans on almost every cognitive test except the one for social learning. We are born to learn, to bond and to play.
  • Therefore, it is not so strange that blushing is the only human expression that's uniquely human. Blushing is such a social action - it shows we care what others think, and that fosters trust and enables cooperation.
  • Only humans have whites in our eyes. This unique trait lets us follow the direction of other people's gazes. Every other primate, more than two hundred species in all, produces melanin that tints their eyes and thus obscures the direction of their gaze. Brian Hare speculates that our unique eyes are another product of human domestication. As we evolved to become more social, we began to reveal more about our inner thoughts and emotions.  
  • The smoothing of our large brow ridge contrasts with the protruding ridge of apes - and gives more prominence to our eyebrows which we use in communication in all kinds of subtle ways in expressing surprise, sympathy, disgust, and other emotions. 
  • We constantly leak emotions and are hardwired to relate to the people around us. No way is this a handicap. In Bregman's words: 'This is our true superpower, because sociable people aren't only fun to be around, in the end they're smarter. too'. 
  • Neanderthals had bigger brains as individuals - but homo sapiens cohabited in larger groups, migrated from one group to another more frequently and may have been better imitators. We could share and pass on advances in knowledge and understanding that individuals acquired in the group because we are social creatures.
  • Some scientists - for instance, James Thomas and Simon Kirby, 'Self domestication and the evolution of language', Biology &Philosophy (27 March 2018) - theorize that the development of human language, too, is a product of our sociability.

Blushing has played a vital and helpful part in our early development as a species 

  • So did Homo puppy wipe out the Neanderthals? There's not a shred of evidence to suggest this. the more plausible theory is that we humans were better able to cope with the harsh climatic conditions of the last ice age (115,000 - 15,000 years ago) than the Neanderthals because we had developed the ability to work together. 
  • Although struggle and competition are clearly factors in the evolution of life, every first-year biology student now learns that cooperation is much more critical. Our distant ancestors knew the importance of the collective. Hunter-gatherers the world over, from the coldest tundra to the hottest desert, believed that everything is connected. They saw themselves as a part of something much bigger, linked to all other animals, plants and the Earth itself.

Where now, with my new understanding, courtesy of Rutger Bregman, of our biological nature as a species?  How do I fit the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth into this big picture which, critically, has laid to rest the notions that life is necessarily nasty and brutish and short (as Thomas Hobbes declared in the 17th century and that our so-called 'selfish gene' has determined our competitive nature (as Richard Dawkins proposed in the 20th century). 

I think that the Jewish carpenter-turned-preacher had, like others before and since, realized that very many in the world he knew were living less than full lives. I think he instinctively grasped that forces were at work which denied the good life to most of his people. It is as if an ancestral pull is at work, a memory strand of how life once was and should and could be again, directing his thinking, urging him to condemn the pursuit of wealth and the divisions it brings, as well as war itself. His was a teaching of forgiveness. That did not stop him being angry enough to seal his own death warrant by his act of protest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, as I shall explore further in the last blogpost in this series of six. 

Jesus's cleansing of the Temple (Wikipedia image) 

But his vision was always one of peace and togetherness. Non-violent solidarity, we might call it now. A return to the garden. The hunter-gatherers had got it right way back in the past. The species started going off the rails when the hierarchies appeared. Jesus resisted the bad stuff done in the name of God by the Jewish religious authorities who were now colluding with the Roman occupation forces. But this conflict with his own elders was not one to be waged by the sword. The instruments of war had no blessing from the God he saw as his own Father - and his people's too. 

'Our Father ... Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven'.

All we need is bread, food to sustain us - and the rediscovery of how to get on with each other. 'Forgiveness of others' is the key. That will unlock the doors to community living. 

It was a vision that the first Christians shared - and they were prepared to die for that truth.   

Next week, I offer an account of what has been happening to our species over the last 15,000 years.             

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