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Hunting for Human Origins

Dr. Karl Hutterer Discusses Human Origins on Verge of Museum of Natural History’s Weekend Symposium


To celebrate the 200-year anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150-year anniversary of his On the Origin of Species, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is hosting a “Symposium on Human Origins” this weekend. With scholarly sessions lasting all day Friday at the museum and public lectures taking place all day Saturday at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, the symposium will feature some of the anthropology world’s biggest names, such as Donald Johanson, who found the fossil “Lucy” in 1974 and went on to form the Institute of Human Origins at UC Berkeley; Ian Tattersall, a human paleontology expert who is a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; and SBMNH’s own John Johnson, an expert in Chumash culture who will be speaking as part of the Saturday night celebration dinner. Topics include the development of language, early hominid species, the Neanderthals, evolved behavior, and more.

To get a sense of what the symposium will mean to the everyday Santa Barbaran, I sent a few questions to the museum’s director, Dr. Karl Hutterer, who was an integral visionary behind the event. He obliged with thoughtful responses.

What do you hope this symposium will bring to Santa Barbara and the general public at large?

I know from personal experience that the issue of human origins and human evolution fascinate many, many people, including Santa Barbarans. It is a topic that has great popular appeal. At the same time, it is also a field in which much is happening all the time, in part in the way of new fossil finds, but even more in terms of archaeological discoveries, research in the neurosciences, animal and human behavior, and linguistics. It is amazing the ferment that is going on. The general public knows relatively little about that.

Our symposium brings some of the top level people together both for discussions in which scientists debate some of the issues among themselves in ways that does not usually happen, and for popular presentations where our community can hear from the very best in the field who are actually doing the work.

For the S.B. Museum of Natural History, organizing and hosting the symposium is a new venture. You might say that we are spreading our wings to delve into areas in which we have not previously been much active. There is an interesting connection here to the research that Dr. John Johnson from the museum has been doing on Santa Rosa Island at the Arlington Springs site from where we have the 13,000-year-old human remains, so far the oldest on this continent. While these remains are far later than the first emergence of “modern” humans, which is the subject of the conference, we are dealing here with evidence for the pioneering efforts of humans to settle a vast new land.

In some very interesting ways, there is a real connection between the emergence of humans and their early efforts to spread throughout the globe through virtually all environments. This was made possible through cultural capacities that evolved with the first modern humans some 100,000 or more years ago.

Do you believe in evolution?

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Why is the study of human origins relevant to the everyday man?

Two very basic reasons: It is a uniquely human characteristic to be deeply conscious of our historical roots and to want to know ever more about them, including the time, process, and circumstances of the evolution of our species.

In this Darwin Year, there is another interesting reason: Darwin’s second major book on evolution was entitled Descent of Man. When he wrote the book, almost nothing was known about hominid fossils. But, as in so many other ways, he was remarkably prescient. As our society continues to struggle with the question of evolution, the fact that evolutionary theory links us so closely to the animal world is probably one of the biggest reasons for the ongoing visceral opposition to it. The upcoming symposium gives us a great opportunity to confront these issues head on.

What has changed in the field of evolutionary science in the past five years? Why does that matter?

I am not sure that I can answer this question adequately. In my mind, one of the most important things is that the scientific research dealing with human origins and evolution has greatly progressed beyond a focus on fossils. While fossils remain important, so much other evidence is now being brought to the table.

For instance, fascinating arguments have emerged about the origin of language and its role in human evolution - interesting arguments, derived from comparative ethnographic studies and the study of animal behavior about the role of changing nutrition, control of fire and its use in cooking, etc.

There is a whole field that concerns itself with the evolution of the human mind, particularly strong here at UCSB. A lot of this will come out at the symposium.

Are we still evolving?

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What is there to learn about our future by studying humans past?

There are a couple of conclusions I would probably draw:

In spite of our sophisticated culture, we remain incredibly close to our animal origins (that’s why animal models work in medicine!), and we disregard this insight only at our peril in the long term

Evolution is not a thing of the past but is still continuing. The things we do to our environment and the things we do to ourselves will have inevitable evolutionary consequences. It may be difficult at this moment to predict those consequences, but they will definitely come.

Where would the world be without Darwin?

Without Darwin, we would not only not know how we as humans arose, but we really would not understand the living world. Evolutionary science has come a long way since Darwin but, while it has vastly elaborated and refined his theory, it has never contradicted its basic tenets. And, to paraphrase a famous modern biologist, “Without evolution, nothing in biology makes sense.”

Are you amazed that there are still some people who deny evolution even happened? What do you say to them?

I can summarize my thinking in that regard in a few basic points:

1) Evolution itself is not a theory but a demonstrable fact. It is so well demonstrated and documented that arguing against it simply does not make sense. If someone argues against the fact of evolution, he loses my respect; I can only think of him or her as a nut.

2) The explanation of how evolution happened is evolutionary theory. Some people think of “theory” as being nothing more than (perhaps educated) guesswork. Nothing could be further from the truth. Theories are the basic explanatory building blocks of science; even gravity is a theory.

Can evolution and religion coexist?

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3) Neither the fact of evolution nor evolutionary theory is incompatible with religion. It is entirely feasible to link evolution with some divine, transcendent being or force (God) who, in some incomprehensible way created the universe and the forces that shape it.

4) What is incompatible with evolution is a literal interpretation of the creation story in the Bible. That story many thousands of years ago was to teach illiterate and uneducated nomads in the Middle East some basic religious truths, i.e. that a supreme being created the universe and everything in it. Taking this story literally today is, in my mind, incompatible with true religion, because it brings the concept of that unimaginable supreme being down to a human level. This is a mockery of religion.

Why were humans uniquely able to make the jump to becoming conscious beings?

I think that this is one of the great unanswered questions. The fascinating thing is that the human mind, and human culture, are nonmaterial phenomena that, however, clearly arise out of biological capabilities. How and why this happened will be one of the great questions woven throughout the symposium.

How much does the development of spoken and written language account for our planetary dominance?

Another one of the great questions that will come up in the symposium. Most basically, human culture is a “means of adaptation” to the environment. Another famous modern biologist once wrote that, in some very fundamental way, “Culture is to humans what a long neck is to giraffes.” Clearly, however, culture has developed vastly beyond purely physical means of adaptation (e.g. claws, sharp teeth, the ability to eat rotten meat, etc.). Somehow, our ability for symbolic reasoning and, based on it, our ability to communicate through language and our ability to fashion ever more sophisticated tools, including iPods and moon rockets, has enabled us to out-compete virtually all other species, to the point where we now are well on the way of consuming the very planet that sustains us.

How much does our expertise at accommodating evolutionary flaws (bad eyesight, reproducing with disease and disabilities, other inherited maladies) work against us in the long run?

Again, I don’t think that I can answer this question. However, my guess would be that what gets us in the long term is not so much that we have artificially eliminated basic biological selective processes but our eventual inability to sustain this ever advancing technology.

Is there any evidence that we’ve begun evolving out of our Stone Age mindset into a more city-oriented being? How quick are we adapting as a species?

Again, this is too sophisticated a question for me, but I do have a couple of thoughts. Obviously, we have evolved cultural systems that are entirely based on urban, highly technological life styles. Even biologically, we have evolved somewhat away from our Stone Age ancestors; for instance, our teeth today are smaller than they were 100,000 years ago. There are probably certain areas of the brain that have evolved well beyond that early stage.

However, in some other ways, we are still very much the hunter gatherers we used to be. Our biological makeup (including aspects of the brain) have not evolved nearly as quickly as our culture. And there is a good reason for that: biological evolution involves genetic means and moves on an intergenerational basis. Cultural evolution, even though it is based on genetic enabling mechanisms, does not involve genetic means so that cultural change can happen within a generation.

Where do you predict we might be in another 10,000, 50,000, or 100,000 years?

I would not venture a prediction - far too dangerous! However, I would say that, looking at the evolutionary history of other species, and at what we have done to the planet and to ourselves, I would not expect that we will still be around 100,000 years from now.

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The Symposium on Human Origins is happening this Friday, April 17, at the Museum of Natural History and Saturday, April 18, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. See sbsoho.org or call 682-4711 x116 for tickets and more details.



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