We have an immense capacity for good. At the same time we risk driving our closest relatives to extinction and destroying the only planet we have ever called home.
Humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor more than six million years ago. Fossil evidence points to the way how we have changed. We left the trees, started walking and began to live in larger groups. And then our brains got bigger. Physically we are another primate, but our bigger brains are unusual.
We do not know exactly what led to our brains becoming the size they are today, but we seem to owe our complex reasoning abilities to it. It is likely that we have our big brain to thank that we exist at all.
When we – Homo sapiens – first appeared about 200,000 years ago we were not alone. We shared the planet with at least four other upright cousins; Neanderthals, Denisovans, the ‘hobbit’ Homo floresiensis and a mysterious fourth group.
We started to produce superior cultural and technological artefacts. Our stone tools became more intricate. Our technological innovation was key for our migration out of Africa. We started to assign symbolic values to objects such as geometrical designs on plaques and cave art.
We started with language-like symbols as a way to represent the World around us. Nefore you say a word, your brain first has to have a symbolic representation of what it means. These mental symbols eventually led to language in all its complexity and the ability to process information is the main reason we are the only hominin still alive.
It is not clear exactly when speech evolved, or how. But it seems likely that it was partly driven by another uniquely Human trait: our superior social skills. Humans will always help more. Children seem to be innate helpers. They act selflessly before social norms set in.
They will spontaneously open doors for adults and pick up ‘accidentally’ dropped items. They will even stop playing to help. Their sense of fairness begins young. Even if an experiment is unfairly rigged so that one child receives more rewards, they will ensure a reward is fairly split.