We think we’re so civilized in the 21st Century. We have cars, boats, planes, computers, and a host of other technology.
But we aren’t. Scratch the surface of any human on the face of the planet, and you’ll find we’re all the same. We’re Homo sapiens Version 1.0, the “human race” as we call it. This “sapiens” version “shipped” about 140,000 years ago – and there’s no sign of an upgrade yet.
Homo sapiens V.1 – let’s just say humans from now on – is a hunter-gatherer, a member of a species which survived by gathering fruits, nuts, plants and vegetables, and by hunting other animal species (and in the past our own species, too).
Our perception system developed to do that. The human visual and aural systems developed to allow us to gather and hunt, and also to survive if anyone – of our own or other species – was hunting us.
140,000 years is a very short time in evolutionary terms. The latest research I heard about just yesterday, involving analysis of chimpanzee and human DNA, suggests it took some 4-5 million years for the “proto-chimp” and “proto-human” races to split apart into two distinct branches.
It’s well known that chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives; we share about 98% of the same DNA. Putting that another way, only 2% of our DNA separates us from the chimps.
DNA mapping has revealed some fascinating history of the human race. The book, The Journey of Man – A Genetic Odyssey – confirms that every human on the planet shares the same piece of DNA with a woman who lived in Africa only 140,000 years ago – and with a man who left Africa only 60,000 years ago.
We make a lot of the differences between the “races”. But we’re all the same, really. We’re all Africans, descendents of those few early humans who left Africa around that time. Some families (which later became tribes, races or nations) settled on coastlines where they could survive on fish, seafoods, and coastal plants. Some ventured farther in to continents; some of those settlers branched into separate bands of explorers. The branchings can all be traced through DNA mapping.
The American continent was the last to be settled. It had to wait for the invention of technologies which allowed us to navigate through the cold lands created by successive Ice Ages.
Jared Diamond’s terrific book, “Guns, Germs and Steel” talks about this diaspora in fascinating detail.
Because 140,000 years of human evolution is so short, we all still retain the same hunter-gatherer perception system.
We carry a “bubble of perception” with us as we move through the world. Our forward-facing eyes have about 207 degrees of peripheral vision. Our two ears give us binaural hearing which allows us to perceive the direction from which sounds are coming. They tell us when to turn our heads, so we get 360-degree peripheral vision when we need it – important when a lion, for example, is stalking us from behind.
This part of our perception system is unconscious and automatic; it runs all the time when we’re awake and our eyes are open. It has to – if you weren’t in survival mode all the time, you wouldn’t survive.
We are incredibly sensitive to two occurences. First, movement anywhere in our field of vision (or sound from behind us) is the highest priority signal. Why? Well, to a hunter-gatherer, movement represents either threat, or lunch.
We are also highly skilled at recognizing patterns, especially visual. After all, if you can’t tell the difference between the visual pattern of a plant that’s good to eat and one that’s poisonous, you won’t last long.
We learned to recognize the patterns. In hunter-gatherer times, we learned them from our families, especially our elders.
Stated in computer terms, human visual pattern recognition is like a device driver. The program is something like:
Start recognizing patterns
End recognizing patterns
If you believe in re-incarnation, add another line:
Loop until perfect
And there you have the whole program.
You think this is ancient history? No, you use this every second of every day, even today.
I’m sure we’ve all had the same experience. You drive somewhere pretty familiar, say on a freeway.
You get where you’re going, switch off the engine and then think, “Hmm… I drove about 40 miles on the freeway. I obeyed all the road signs. I avoided all the other cars on the road. Obviously I didn’t have an accident. And I can’t remember half the trip because I was thinking about something else”.
Continuous, unconscious, visual pattern recognition is like a safety-net that protects us all the time, even if we’re not aware of it.
Why it’s so easy to enter this state on a long drive is something I’ll talk about later.
There’s another part of our visual system that’s also very important. There’s a special area in our field of vision which is high-resolution, and works just like a scanner.
That’s the subject of the next blog entry,