Fri
Mar 15 2013 1:00pm

Why We’re The Last Ape Standing

Chip Walter Last Ape Standing NeandertalRight off the bat in Last Ape Standing, Chip Walter gives off hints of what eventually grows to become his thesis: that neoteny is the mechanism that defines human evolution. He doesn’t make a big flashy “science journalism” headline out of it—which speaks well to him as a writer, and as an articulator of arguments, as he lets his statements speak for themselves—but it is always there, lurking in the background. It begins with the big toe, with the move to bipedalism, which everyone really agrees is what sets us apart, at least initially, from the other apes. Chimps, gorillas and that ilk have big toes, but they are opposable, thumb-like. It doesn’t start like that, though; no, indeed, it starts straight, and then develops that bend during gestation. What if, instead, it…didn’t? I have to hand it to Walter; it is a pithy and plausible theory.

That isn’t the end of the neonatal conversation, by a longshot. He lays out the bare bones a little later—just what this “neoteny” is, and a little of its history as a concept—and he returns to it again and again. He spells it out in the discussion of “sensitivity” in epigenetics, where he posits that it is humans’ extended childhood—a compromise between big brains and bipedal hips—that allows youth to skip most animals’ “hardwiring” during extended pregnancy and (drastically) shorter childhoods. “[G]enetically similar, but behaviorally unique,” is how Walter puts it, and he even ascribes morality, attraction and the existence of the so-called “problem of other minds” to neoteny. Creativity and problem solving? An off-shoot of playing, of just doing things to see what happens; the picture he paints of humans being defined by their long periods of childhood is compelling.

Ultimately, Last Ape Standing is about humans. Or I should say Humans, capital-H, because I think that the other hominins, like Neanderthal and Erectus probably deserve to be under the small-h human umbrella with Homo sapiens. The other also-rans of history are brought into the mix as a way of illuminating a facet of humanity, and as an opportunity to muse on whether not having whatever trait is under discussion is what doomed them to extinction.

Personally, while I understand the reasons for asking “why Neanderthal went extinct but Humans didn’t,” I don’t think there is a pithy answer that will frame the narrative or provide closure to the existential question of why one group lived and dominated the planet and the other died off. As I touched on in my How to Think Like a Neandertal review, every time someone comes up with a reason Neanderthals couldn’t talk, science disproves it. I think that Human bias has a lot more to say than the science, when it comes to that particular can of worms. You know that genetic bottlenecking that the “mitochondrial Eve” comes out of? Well, one bad flu could have spelled doom for good old Homo sapiens. No rhyme or reason, no satisfying “why” or discreet answer. Just nature, red in tooth and claw.

As a brief aside, let me just mention something that I’ve thought about a lot, and that Mister Walter has apparently noticed as well. He mentions Homo erectus and the ubiquity of the Acheulean hand axe, comparing them to Swiss Army knives and cell phones. I have to actually wonder about that latter comparison, because I have often posited half in jest that I think the reason that cellphones are the size cellphones are is because…well, because of the evolutionary pressures of the Acheulean hand axe technology! I mean, those hominins carried those things around for 1.6 million years; that is a long time. In Wranham’s Catching Fire he discusses how the technology of fire and cooking changed the course of human evolution; technology already has the ape in a feedback loop. I think the physical similarity of a hand axe and a cell phone isn’t accidental.

Focusing on other hominins as the paradigm for talking about humanity does miss an opportunity to discuss something dear to my heart as a reader of anthropology books, however: behavioral modernity. Chip Walter touches on it briefly in his chapter “Beauties in the Beast,” but I would really have liked to see more about it. For me, that is the line of demarcation, that is the Rubicon. Homo sapiens is just another smart ape for 150,000 years, like Homo erectus or Homo neandertalis, with a roughly equivalent technological toolkit, until 70-50,000 years ago, something changes, and there is just an incredible bloom of symbolic culture. “Blades, beads, burials, bone tools, and beauty” as the mnemonic goes. Walter discusses it, but here is where I want to see the “why” question asked. Why! Why behavioral modernity, what jumpstarted it? My impulse is to discount “mutation” theories, and I personally favor the idea some linguistic critical mass, but I’m open to the discussion.

Ultimately, the take-away from this excellent book is in his discussions of neoteny, which he lays out incredibly well, positioning each point in an evolutionary context that just rings true. Chip Walter is also the author of Thumbs, Toes and Tears, another sort of pan-discipline book on the nature of humanity. I’ve already picked it up, which I think is the ultimate vindication for Last Ape Standing—if you finish a book and go right out to get another by the author…well, that’s the real test, isn’t it?


Mordicai Knode personally would guess that Neanderthals could be part of “Behavioral Modernity” if they had the same cultural toolkit as Humans. You can argue about it with him on Twitter or Tumblr.

15 comments
olethros
2. olethros
I didn't think the idea of neoteny being a driver of human development was that new. I'm pretty sure I remember reading about it in college, and I definitely remember boggling my co-workers minds when I talked about it behind the coffee bar as a college barista, and that was over a decade ago.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. olethros

The idea isn't new, but Walter's articulation of the idea, with specific cites, lays it out in a way that makes it...rather definitive. Part of the thing with science is everybody saying the same thing over & over, fixing the broken bits, improving the core theory, shaping it like a stone handaxe. Last Ape Standing is a pretty good sharp rock.

If I haven't stretched the metaphor all out of shape.
olethros
4. haveYouRead
Have you ever read Lives Of A Cell? One of the most striking premises is that language is in fact the most enduring monument that mankind generates and shapes. As you phrased it, "linguistic critical mass" is of import, allowing us to achieve things that otherwise we could not.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
Hmmmm...Clone neanderthals and use them as foot soldiers...there is a thought.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
4. haveYouRead

I have not, but yeah, language as "the Thing" is a big sci-fi trope that I'm awfully fond of.

5. SkylarkThibedeau

Nah, they'd probably make lousy soldiers; no good at mass tactics. Astronauts or Navy SEALs though...
Beccy Higman
7. Jazzlet
I'm a bit suspicious of X being THE answer to human development. It may not make such a nice simple story, but x, y, z and a bit of k together spurred the big change seems so much more likely. But then the nature v nuture argument always seemed to me to be a ludicrous dichotomy too.
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
7. Jazzlet


Well, "nature versus nurture" is certainly silly, since neither exists in a vaccum apart from the other. Mind-body problems: everything is biology, nature & nurture both!

But the thing that makes neoteny a compelling argument is that it is a trend, it is a self-reinforcing feedback loop, not like, one pithy gizmo. As I said with regards to Neanderthals, I too am suspicious of a cute single answer. Walter's discussion of neoteny isn't like a switch that is flipped, it is a demarcation-- heads versus hips!-- that does define human beings on an evolutionary scale.
olethros
9. justif
Minor technical note: a "mitochondrial eve" will exist regardless of genetic bottlenecking. Current research places her at around 200,000 years ago, long before the Toba supervolcano eruption 70,000 years ago which some suggest caused a population bottleneck in humans.
Sanne Jense
10. Cassanne
If I remember correctly, the Naked Ape already mentioned neoteny, and I found it a compelling and fascinating theory.

@9 Leads me to hypothesize that this bottleneck 70.000 years ago was the cause of behavioral modernity. Extreme circumstances that promote creativity plus genetic bottleneck. Pretty hard to prove though...
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
9. justif

Huh; no that is a totally justified nitpick; I have always conflated those two things in my head. Just plain wrong-headed of me. Huh, I've been carrying that bit of misinfo around in my head for a while now!

10. Cassanne

Stupid Behavioral Modernity, all mysterious as hell!
olethros
12. The Grey Drape
Saying we are neotenous apes is all very well, but it's hardly falsifiable. And it's a mere statement - an initialization of variables, if I may dive deep into my CompSci background.

What really needs to be done is find the driving forces behind that establishment of neoteny as the guiding principle behind prehistoric human evolution. I mean, we aren't the sole surviving ape species: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orang utan, siamang and gibbons were doing quite nicely until we Humans turned up the heat. What are the reasons why neoteny became established as that guiding principle?

There is the risk of course, that it may sound quite circular - if everlasting curiosity is the reason why and neoteny causes everlasting curiosity, then it's tautological. Why would everlasting curiosity be of such a high adaptive value?
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
12. The Grey Drape

I'm a huge fan of Karl Popper, but you've sort of just encountered the rub that is the "softer" sciences; experimental models in anthropology are never really strong, because time machines don't exist. You sort of have to go sideways to get at the truth. I suppose from that angle it might be more accurate to look at it as one of Kuhn's "scientific research programs" (née "paradigms") rather than a theory; it is a context, rather than a testable hypothesis?

I mean, there is citable evidence; genetics, statistical ratios of hip to head size, that kind of thing. As I said to someone above, I don't think Walter is waving his hand around in a "scientific journalism" way saying "neoteny is the one true reason!" or anything like that. He makes his arguments over the course of the book, descriptively. Yes, it might not be entirely rigorous as far as the standards of peer review journals but then, part of the point of secondary sources is to synthesize from primary sources to get a kind "bigger picture."
olethros
14. Eugene R.
The concept of evolution via neoteny seems to have a long, respected history; I recall several of Stephen Jay Gould's columns in Natural History making points about humanity's "immaturity" and its evolutionary implications.

And Aldous Huxley used the idea in his 1939 novel, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which the quest for immortality leads to a 200-year-old English aristocrat who has finally matured into "adult" (gorilla-like) form. Not surprising for Huxley to use the idea, as his older brother Julian conducted investigations into neoteny in axolotls, a salamander species which achieves sexual maturity without metamorphosis into an "adult" form.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
14. Eugene R.

The axolotls are actually the genesis of the term, if I'm not mistaken. Of course, their extended neoteny is a different kettle of fish from humans but yes, ripe territory for speculative fiction.

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