Homo Sapiens. The species that has dominated the Earth for ages, the species we read about in our books. You are a member of this species, I am too, and so is every other human being that resides on this planet. Were humans always the same as they are now?
No. Humans first appeared on the surface of Earth about 6 million years ago as ape-like creatures; without technology, ready-made tools, manufactured facilities, concrete homes, altogether deprived of specific clues on survival. But, we strive to live better. Whether it's the predators hunting on preys for a satisfying dinner, or us working to earn a living, we keep desiring for better ways of survival and our observations allow us to do so. This can be exactly why we evolve. Humans began to observe their surroundings, make more neural connections, and live in communities. This gave them a sense of belonging, giving them a purpose: protecting themselves and their respective groups. Soon for this protection, they developed tools used against wild animals. These small discoveries laid the groundwork for what humans have achieved till date. New observations, discoveries, inventions that ‘updated’ our knowledge of our surroundings. And these updates can be better termed as Human Evolution.
The first recognised type was the Homo habilis that meant ‘handy man’. These are believed to come into picture about 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago in various parts of Africa, which had just started evolving. Then came the Homo erectus: ‘Homo’ means man and ‘erectus’ describes upright or erect; these evolved and they were not only detected in Africa but in China too. Archaic humans like Neanderthals and Denisovans are primates that are known to be the closest types to our lineage. A study by Max Planck Institute studied a Neanderthal’s DNA sequence and concluded that Homo Sapiens (our current stage of evolution) showed similarities.That means modern day humans hold clear ancestry from Neanderthals (shown). It is considered that Neanderthals crossed modern humans too and the genes kept evolving. And not just genes- skills like starting fires were also exchanged. Researchers say that it is difficult to track inter-group activities in detail as they participated in frequent migrations.
But a question that is often asked is, why did we rise above all species? Why was it not some other species that evolved into ones that would take operating control of the world? Yuval Harari, author of the award-winning book Sapiens, holds the opinion that humans were different because of our imagination.
While other species were dependent on reality and enclosed within their known worlds, humans went beyond and created fictional entities. For example, the existence of God. This supreme power is created through the power of storytelling by humans. The basis of every faith and belief lies in imagination. Democracies, human rights, economic and political systems root from such entities that humans were able to create ages ago. Their incredible network of co-operation has been an essential part of survival. In comparison to a wild animal, a single human doesn’t hold the power to defeat the animal. It is the group that assists one another. This is why socialising has always been a human trait- it is directly linked to our security.
Humans always found ways to create energy. Whether it was lighting up fire with two rocks, or utilization of fossil fuels that created the base of industrialization. This creation of energy helped in great ways to form ‘civilisations’. As the production of these energy sources grew, so did our ability to be able to feed and assist a larger population.
Humans still feared the presence of other animals. Our massive growth, being able to take over other species through tools, made us rise to the top of the food chain and take instant control. Our abilities to detect threats made us even more dangerous, yet adept at defending ourselves.
With the current species, Homo Sapiens dominating every aspect, we often realise how far we have reached after several stages of evolution. We have interacted with ecosystems in various ways, whether it has been to provide us with fuels, regulating provisions; the environment has provided us with the foundations for what humans have built over the years. Yet, our actions towards the ecosystem tend to show otherwise.
In cherishing the privilege of the resources provided, many limitations are ignored. And as we soar, the repercussions don’t seem to hold any value. If we trace back our phylogeny until now, humans have always tried to get a grip of the balance that nature has tried to maintain, and unsettle it. An example of this, global climate change. An issue severely debated about, but has to be brought up solely because of past and current human activities. This is due to an excessive usage of fuels that can pose alarming challenges. Natural disasters like floods, droughts, and more are witnessed evidence of the same, that cause wreckage in human civilisations. Mishandling ourselves in provocative interactions with our environment have given rise to several diseases. A debatable one being COVID-19, that human race is still trying to battle.
Over the hundred thousand years, humans have shown massive changes. From beings with ape-ish anatomy like Homo habilis or Homo erectus to more modified species like later Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. We know that evolution occurs from differences in genetic sequences as we keep acquiring more knowledge and adaptations. That tells that Homo Sapiens, that is us, still shouldn't stop evolving. Questions that are often asked are how will we evolve in the future and what will our descendants look like?
As humans have been in a constant need and have been consuming energy, Thomas Mailund, associate professor in bioinformatics at Aarhus University suggests that humans will grow shorter to make use of lesser energy. This will help them as an adaptation to survive in a world where population is constantly escalating. Artificial selection, instead of natural selection, is also predicted. With the growing technology, we might be able to make changes to genetic sequences. Though it might be considered ‘wrong’ to do so, it can be possible in the near future. Bioinformatics is attempting to see demographic changes and trends in genetic variation and trying to link it to its further evolution. Science-fiction writers had caught onto the idea many decades ago, one of the most well known work in this genre being ‘The Time Machine’.
But what we know now is that there have been severe changes in all aspects of human life. Whether it's behavioral, physiological, or environmental, genetic variation has increased and allowed us to be modern humans or Homo Sapiens that we are now. And it is increasingly changing at a fast rate, so we are definitely not going to look or remain the same in a million years. Bioinformatics has helped us collect data on the same, and we will keep doing so until and unless we reach a definite conclusion.