Or to those who do not speak Welsh, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” In the last couple of weeks I have written about Christmas. As I said last week, it is generally celebrated on December 25 each year and is a sacred religious holiday as well as being a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. For two millennia, people around the world have been observing it with traditions and practices that are both religious and secular in nature. So we have been remembering and celebrating each year for a very long time. I recently watched an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, with the starship Enterprise and its captain, Jean-Luc Picard in command. It showed how a planet which was not as yet advanced enough to be a member of the United Federation of Planets was monitored and the inhabitants of that planet were secretly watched, to see how they were progressing. This wasn’t in any way to interfere with them, but just to observe. However, the watchers were discovered and the captain of the Enterprise was therefore seen as some omnipotent super-being, a god who could restore life to the dead. Picard had the difficult job of showing how he and everyone else had a finite life, that they could be hurt, injured and would eventually die. But the planet’s inhabitants really did take some convincing. Picard pointed out that these inhabitants had begun life living in caves, then gradually they progressed to building structures, but that their cave-dwelling ancestors would have seen them as people to be worshipped because of their skills. I think the writers of that Star Trek episode did very well, because if we were to go back two thousand years and use the skills we have learned over that time, what would the people of that time think of us. So no matter what our beliefs may be, here we are. Humans in the 21st century. Here on Earth, we are the most abundant and widespread species of primate, characterised by bipedalism along with large, complex brains. This has enabled the development of advanced tools, culture and language. We are highly social and tend to live in complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from families and kinship networks to political states. Our social interactions have led to a wide variety of values, social norms and rituals which bolster human society. Curiosity and a human desire to understand and influence the environment and to explain and manipulate phenomena have motivated our development of science, philosophy, mythology as well as religion and other fields of study. Although some scientists equate humans with all members of the genus Homo, in common usage it generally refers to Homo sapiens which emerged around 300,000 years ago in Africa, evolving from Homo heidelbergensis and migrating out of Africa, gradually replacing local populations of archaic humans. For most of history, all humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers but the Neolithic Revolution which began in South-west Asia around 13,000 years ago saw the emergence of agriculture and permanent human settlement. As populations became larger and denser, forms of governance developed within and between communities and a number of civilisations have risen and fallen. Humans have continued to expand, with a global population of over 7.9 billion in December 2021. Genes as well as the environment influence human biological variation in visible characteristics, physiology, disease susceptibility, mental abilities, body size and life span. Though humans vary in many ways, genetically two humans on average are over 99% similar. Generally, men have greater body strength and women have a higher body fat percentage. We are omnivorous, capable of consuming a wide variety of plant and animal material, and have become capable of using fire and other forms of heat to both prepare and cook food. We can survive for up to eight weeks without food, and three or four days without water. We are generally diurnal, sleeping on average seven to nine hours per day. It is quite usual for both the mother and the father to provide care for their children, who are helpless at birth. Over the ages humans have grown and developed, we presently have a large and highly developed prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain associated with higher cognition. We are intelligent, capable of episodic memory, flexible facial expressions, self-awareness and a theory of mind which is fully capable of introspection, private thought, imagination, volition and forming views on our existence. This has enabled many great technological advancements and complex tool development to be possible through reason and the transmission of knowledge to future generations. Language, art and trade are defining characteristics of us humans. Long-distance trade routes have led to cultural explosions and resource distribution that gave an advantage over other species.
Interestingly, the word ‘human’ is a Middle English word from the Old French ‘humain’ and ultimately from the Latin ‘hūmānus’, the adjectival form of ‘homō’, or ‘man’ in the sense of humankind. The native English term can refer to the species generally (as a synonym for humanity) as well as to human males. It may also refer to individuals of either sex, though this latter form is less common in contemporary English. Until about 12,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers as the Neolithic Revolution, the invention of actual agriculture first took place in South-west Asia and spread through large parts of the ‘Old World’, consisting of Africa, Europe and Asia. This was before contact with the Americas, which became known as the New World. Agriculture also occurred independently about 6,000 years ago in such places as Papua New Guinea and some regions of Africa. Access to food surplus led to the formation of permanent human settlements, the domestication of animals and the use of metal tools for the first time in history. Agriculture and sedentary lifestyles led to the emergence of early civilisations. Then an urban revolution took place in the fourth millennium BCE with the development of city states, particularly Sumerian cities which were located in Mesopotamia and it was in these cities that the earliest known form of writing, cuneiform script, appeared around 3000 BCE. Other major civilisations developing around this time were Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley. They eventually traded with each other and invented technology such as wheels, ploughs and sails.
This getting to be more of a history lesson than I’d realised! But bear with me please. Astronomy and mathematics were also developed and the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. But there is evidence of a severe drought lasting about a hundred years that may have caused the decline of these civilisations, with new ones appearing in the aftermath. Babylonians came to dominate Mesopotamia while others, such as the Minoans and the Shang dynasty, rose to prominence in new areas. The Bronze Age suddenly collapsed about 1200 BCE, resulting in the disappearance of a number of civilisations and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages. During this period iron then started replacing bronze, leading to the Iron Age. In the 5th century BCE, history started being recorded as a discipline, so providing a much clearer picture of life at that time. Between the 8th and 6th century BCE Europe entered the Classical Antiquity age, a period when Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome flourished and around this time other civilisations also came to prominence. The Mayan civilisation started to build cities and also create complex calendars whilst in Africa, the kingdom of Aksum overtook the declining kingdom of Kush which facilitated trade between India and the Mediterranean. In West Asia, the Achaemenid Empire’s system of their centralised governance become the precursor to many later empires, while the Gupta Empire in India and the Han Dynasty in China have been described as ‘golden ages’ in their respective regions. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476CE, Europe entered the Middle Ages and it was during this period that Christianity and the Church would become the source of centralised authority and education. In the Middle East, Islam became the prominent religion and expanded into North Africa. It led to an Islamic Golden Age, inspiring achievements in architecture, the revival of old advances in science and technology and the formation of a distinct way of life. The Christian and Islamic worlds would eventually clash, with the kingdom of England, the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire declaring a series of ‘holy wars’ to regain control of the Holy Land from Muslims. In the Americas, complex societies would arise starting around 800CE, whilst further south the Aztecs and Incas would become the dominant powers. The Mongol Empire would conquer much of Eurasia in the 13th and 14th centuries and over this same time period the Mali Empire in Africa grew to the largest empire on the continent, stretching from Senegambia to the Ivory Coast. Oceania would see the rise of the Tu’i Tonga empire which expanded across many islands in the South Pacific. It was throughout the early modern period (1500–1800) that the Ottomans controlled the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, whilst Japan entered the Edo period, the Qing dynasty rose in China and the Mughal empire ruled much of India. Europe underwent the Renaissance, starting in the 15th century and the Age of Discovery began with the exploring and the colonising of new regions. This included the British Empire, which expanded to become the world’s largest empire and the colonisation of the Americas. This great expansion led to the Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of Native American peoples. The period also marked the start of the Scientific revolution, with great advances in mathematics, mechanics, astronomy and physiology. The late modern period, 1800 to the present, saw the Industrial and Technological revolutions bring such discoveries as transport, energy development and imaging technology. The United States of America underwent great change, going from a small group of colonies to one of the global super-powers. The Napoleonic Wars had raged right through Europe in the early 1800s, Spain lost most of its New World colonies and Europeans continued expansion into Oceania as well as Africa where European control went from 10% to almost 90% in less than fifty years. A tenuous balance of power among European nations collapsed in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, one of the deadliest conflicts in history. In the 1930s a worldwide economic crisis led to the rise of some authoritarian regimes and a Second World War, involving almost all of the world’s countries. Following its conclusion in 1945, the Cold War between the USSR and the USA saw a struggle for global influence, which included a nuclear arms race as well as a space race. What I believe is now the current Information Age sees the world becoming increasingly globalised as well as being interconnected.
Early human settlements were dependent on proximity to water and, depending on the lifestyle, other natural resources used for subsistence such as populations of animal prey for hunting as well as arable land for growing crops and grazing livestock. Modern humans, however, have a great capacity for altering their habitats by means of technology, irrigation, urban planning, construction, deforestation and desertification. It has been said that human settlements continue to be vulnerable to natural disasters, especially those placed in hazardous locations and with low quality of construction! Grouping and deliberate habitat alteration is often done with the goals of providing protection, accumulating comforts or material wealth, expanding the available food, improving aesthetics, increasing knowledge or enhancing the exchange of resources. It is also said that humans are one of the most adaptable species, despite having a relatively narrow tolerance to many of the earth’s extreme environments. Through invention, humans have been able to extend their tolerance to a wide variety of temperatures, humidity and altitudes. As a result, we are a cosmopolitan species found in almost all regions of the world, including tropical rainforests, arid deserts, extremely cold arctic regions and heavily polluted cities. Most other species are confined to a few geographical areas by their limited adaptability. The human population is not, however, uniformly distributed on the Earth’s surface because the population density varies from one region to another and there are large areas almost completely uninhabited, like Antartica and the vast swathes of ocean. Most humans live in Asia (61%), the remainder live in the Americas (14%), Africa (14%), Europe (11%), and Oceania (0.5%). Within the last century, humans have explored challenging environments such as Antarctica, the deep sea and outer space. But human habitation within these hostile environments is restrictive and expensive, typically limited in duration, and restricted to scientific, military or industrial expeditions. We have briefly visited the Moon and have made our presence felt on other celestial bodies through robotic spacecraft. In addition, since 2000 there has been a continuous human presence in space through the habitation of the International Space Station. Estimates of the population at the time agriculture emerged in around 10,000 BC have ranged between 1 million and 15 million. Around 50–60 million people lived in the combined eastern and western Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. Bubonic plagues, first recorded in the 6th century AD, reduced the population by 50%, with the Black Death killing 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa alone. The human population was believed to have reached one billion in 1800 and has then increased exponentially, reaching two billion in 1930 and three billion in 1960, four in 1975, five in 1987 and six billion in 1999. It passed seven billion in 2011 and in 2020 there were 7.8 billion of us. In 2018, 4.2 billion humans (55%) lived in urban areas, up from 751 million in 1950 with the most urbanised regions being Northern America (82%), Latin America (81%), Europe (74%) and Oceania (68%), with Africa and Asia having nearly 90% of the world’s 3.4 billion rural population. Problems for humans living in cities include various forms of pollution and crime, especially in inner city and suburban slums. We have had a dramatic effect on the environment as we are ‘apex’ predators, being rarely preyed upon by other species. Human population growth, industrialisation, land development, overconsumption and combustion of fossil fuels have led to environmental destruction and pollution that significantly contributes to the ongoing mass extinction of other forms of life. We are the main contributor to global climate change, which may accelerate the Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the sixth mass extinction or Anthropocene extinction, which is an ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, with the more recent time sometimes called Anthropocene as a result of human activity. The most popular theory is that human overhunting of species added to existing stress conditions as the extinction coincides with human emergence. Although there is debate regarding how much human predation affected their decline, certain population declines have been directly correlated with human activity, such as the extinction events of New Zealand and Hawaii. Aside from humans though, climate change may have been a driving factor in the megafaunal extinctions, especially at the end of the Pleistocene period. Ecologically, humanity has been noted as an unprecedented ‘global super-predator’ that consistently preys on the adults of other ‘apex’ predators and has worldwide effects on food webs. There have been extinctions of species on every land mass and in every ocean. Overall, the Holocene extinction can be linked to the human impact on the environment and this continues into the 21st century, with meat consumption being a primary driver of the mass extinction along with the human population growth and increasing per-capita consumption being considered as primary drivers of this decline.
The above image shows the Earth as seen from Space in 2016, showing the extent of human occupation of the planet. The bright lights signify both the most densely inhabited areas and ones financially capable of illuminating them. But there is relatively little variation between human geographical populations, and most of the variation that occurs is at the individual level. Much of human variation is continuous, often with no clear points of demarcation. Genetic data shows that no matter how population groups are defined, two people from the same population group are almost as different from each other as two people from any two different population groups. Dark-skinned populations that are found in Africa, Australia, and South Asia are not closely related to each other. As for our culture, the most widely spoken languages are English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Standard Arabic, Bengali, French, Russian, Portuguese and Urdu. Our most practices religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, some Folk religions, Sikhism, Judaism as well as a few unaffiliated ones. Language is the principal form of communication and unique to humans, although many other species have their own forms of communication. Unlike the limited systems of other animals, human language is open, as an infinite number of meanings can be produced by combining a limited number of symbols. Human language also has the capacity of displacement, using words to represent things and happenings that are not presently or locally occurring but reside in the shared imagination of others. Language differs from other forms of communication in that the same meanings can be conveyed through different media, either audibly in speech, visually by sign language or writing and through tactile media such as Braille. Language is central to the communication between humans, and to the sense of identity that unites nations, cultures and ethnic groups. There are approximately six thousand different languages currently in use, including sign languages, and many thousands more that are extinct. But unlike speaking, reading and writing does not come naturally to us and must be taught. Despite this, forms of literature have been present before the invention of words and language, with 30,000-year-old paintings on walls inside some caves portraying a series of dramatic scenes. One of the oldest surviving works of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, first engraved on ancient Babylonian tablets about 4,000 years ago. Beyond simply passing down knowledge, the use and sharing of imaginative fiction through stories might have also helped develop the human capabilities for communication and increased the likelihood of securing a mate. Storytelling may also be used as a way to provide the audience with moral lessons and encourage cooperation. We are are often the subject of the arts, as while most art focuses on individual humans or a small group, in literature the genre of science fiction is known for tackling issues related to the humanity as a whole, for example topics such as human evolution or the future of civilisation. This aspect is definitely something I have seen quite clearly in episodes of Star Trek. I feel that we have learned much, yet there is so much more for us to hopefully learn and share with others in a good and positive way that will be of benefit to us all.
This week, I have read…
We all know that Santa has a sleigh, on which he puts all the presents which must be delivered. He has his reindeer, all ready to take him around the world. For Santa, time is special and so that he can get all that must be done in good time he takes with him a Workshop elf. This elf makes sure the sleigh is in good working order and that the presents are packed correctly. The elf is also an engineer and will do repairs if needed, especially with tower blocks going higher and higher as well as aerials, satellite dishes and the like. It’s a hard life, but as you open your presents and thank Santa, please spare a thought for the Workshop elf…