Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Evolution of Everything

Brian Villmoare

Writers from Polybius to Machiavelli to Twain to Toynbee to Tuchman have observed how events in history seem to repeat down through the centuries and millennia. How do we understand these occurances in the broader arc of the prehistory and history of the Earth?

The history of the World is often presented as a series of events over time, linked by the actions and reactions of peoples in distinct cultures, and delineated into eras or periods. These descriptions are necessary because we need to understand the events of history in context of the cultures and conditions of the time. However, history is also the story of humans as the products of natural selection: biological beings acting in similar ways when presented with similar circumstances across time and geography.

Temporally and geographically disparate events share more than is often recognized. The invasion of Eastern Europe by Nazi forces in 1939-41 was the kind of aggression that would have been recognized by the Neo-Assyrians, Alexander III of Macedon, Genghis Khan, and any number of conquering empires through history. The development of political and economic inequality in ancient Mesoamerica, the Zulu Kingdom, the Qin Dynasty, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, and medieval France show underlying similarities beyond the superficial.

Humans are biological creatures who respond to conditions and circumstances in similar ways. Overall, they tend toward maximizing short-term self-interest, generally without excessive consideration of the effect on other members of their species. They are susceptible to in-group cohesion and aggression towards outgroups. The biological urge to reproduce has put stress on the environment for millennia. Individuals and societies take advantage of wealth that is often derived from the chance distributions of geologic wealth, fresh water, and arable soil without consideration of others less fortunate. 


Figure legend: Violence in humans has deep evolutionary roots and has been remarkably similar across time, from (clockwise from top left) our ape relatives to ancient hunter-gatherers to early civilizations to the 20th century. These patterns are consistent with predictions from evolutionary biology, and only in recent centuries have we identified ways to mitigate the types of political, economic, and social conditions that have led to violence across the millenia. Credits: top left: Jill Pruetz, top right Marta Lahr, lower left: author, bottom right: Wikimedia commons

This book is an attempt to link the deep past of astronomy, geology, biological evolution, and complexity theory, to help explain the patterns of human behavior that are shared across our species over the last 5 million, 200,000 and 10,000 year intervals. The very presence of life on Earth is dependent on specific astronomical and geological circumstances; the dominance of tetrapods and mammals is the product of wide-spread and devastating extinctions deep in earth’s past; the very arrival of humans was contingent on the disappearance of long-standing rainforests that had supported diverse species of apes across the old World for millions of years.

As we move forward in prehistory and history we see humans behaving as rational animals, in complex social environments. Our instincts: aggression, sexuality, altruism, politics, and group identity, among others, all come from our ancestry as social apes. Despite vast cultural differences, patterns repeatedly emerge: hierarchical power structures, political inequality, and resource-focused expansion and warfare.

Despite the fatalism that we might adopt from these depressingly repetitive patterns, it is remarkable that, by adopting a scientific and humanistic philosophy over the last few centuries, we have been able to mitigate many of our worst impulses. By attenuating the external triggers on our biological instincts we have figured out how to break the cycles of the past. By reducing material want we can forestall (although not completely avoid) the kind of large-scale destruction that was common for the first 8-10,000 years of human history. The simple shift in the ability of women to control their reproduction has had monumental consequences – from demographic to educational to economic. The broader distribution of economic and political power has reduced (although certainly not eliminated) resource-based conflict.

Some people still struggle to view humans as biological creatures, subject to the same evolutionarily-framed decision processes as other higher animals. However, the more we step back and view history from a broad perspective, the more we can see that we are the product of the effect of evolution and biology. In many ways, the political struggles today can be framed as a contest between scientifically-driven rationality and our biological instincts. The future, of course, cannot be known, but at least we now have tools, scientific and philosophical, for engaging against our worst instincts.

The Evolution of Everything by Brian Villmoare

Title: The Evolution of Everything

Author: Brian Villmoare

ISBN: PB – 9781108797320, HB – 9781108495653

About The Author

Brian Villmoare

Brian Villmoare is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). His research interests range from broad questions of evoluti...

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