Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go From Here? Humans are still evolving, but cultural evolution is far outpacing genetic evolution. Our environment and technology are changing so rapidly that genetic adaptations can't keep up. So we're adapting by learning new things and passing that knowledge onto the next generation.
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Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?

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Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?

Evolving Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?

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Somebody listening to MORNING EDITION this morning is listening for the first time. And if that's you, welcome to the program. People who have been listening for a while know that all this summer, we've been reporting on how human beings came to be the dominant species - a series we call The Human Edge. And today we'll ask, where we go from here? There are no specific answers, but as NPR's Joe Palca reports, humans are in the unique position of being able to shape a future of their own choosing.

JOE PALCA: You can tell when summer is ending in Fairbanks, Alaska.

(Soundbite of cranes cawing)

PALCA: Sand hill cranes fly over on their way south for the winter.

Mr. PERRY BARBOZA (Biologist): When the cranes show up, it's when all these guys go into rut.

PALCA: These guys are a half dozen or so 700-pound musk ox covered in long dark hair. Biologist Perry Barboza is standing near a paddock at the Large Animal Research Station, a part of the University of Alaska. The cranes can't take the winters here. The musk ox don't seem to mind it at all.

Mr. BARBOZA: They have a very, very superfine sort of wool that's underneath this long skirt of hair. And that provides an enormous amount of insulation. And on top of that, or beneath that, they have about two inches fat as well.

PALCA: An exquisite adaptation for a long lean winter - but a disaster in the heat. Put a musk ox on a plane to, oh, say Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula

Mr. BARBOZA: They'd die almost as soon as they got to Dubai, because they cannot dump heat.

PALCA: Musk ox can only survive in one kind of environment. And that, along with a few other cosmetic details, is what makes humans different from musk ox.

Mr. ROBERT BOYD (Anthropologist, University of California Los Angeles): What we're able to do that other animals aren't able to do, is to rapidly adapt to completely new environments.

PALCA: Robert Boyd is an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Humans can live anywhere they like - in Fairbanks, where the winters get to 40 below, or Dubai, where the summers are routinely 100 above.

Mr. BOYD: Most animals, all animals except humans, would have to adapt to that by changing genetically.

PALCA: And that usually takes millions of years or more. But we can adapt to widely varying environments with hardly any genetic changes at all. In fact, just 10 or 15 thousand years after leaving Africa, the earliest modern humans started showing up near the arctic, and not just paying a visit, but living there.

Mr. BOYD: Humans adapt by learning things, passing those things on - the next generation, learn something more. And on time scales that are long by the standards of a human lifetime, but really short compared to what is normal for genetic change.

PALCA: So, instead of growing insulating wool or adding an inch or two of fat, the first humans to move to the arctic adapted by using their wits - they learned to sew.

Mr. ARON CROWELL (Alaska Director, Smithsonian Arctic Study Center): You could say that one of the most important tools for surviving in the north is the needle.

PALCA: Aron Crowell is Alaska Director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Study Center. We're standing in front of a display case filled with clothing in the Anchorage Museum. There are warm fur coats and waterproof seal skin boots. These garments aren't very old but there's good reason to believe they aren't all that different from what Alaska's first humans were wearing thousands of years ago.

Mr. CROWELL: Let's take a look at this garment here.

PALCA: Crowell points to a parka made from seal intestines, a thin material that looks a bit like rip stop nylon.

Mr. CROWELL: This one has a hood. They have drawstrings around the hood and the sleeves. And for hunters who were out in kayaks, they also often have drawstrings around the bottom that you would tie around the cockpit of the boat.

PALCA: Eskimos dont have a gene that tells them how to make a parka or build a kayak. That ability comes from cultural knowledge passed from generation to generation. Sure, we needed to evolve a brain that could conceive of the idea of a kayak or a waterproof parka, but UCLA's Rob Boyd says having a big brain is just the start.

Mr. BOYD: It's easy to see that it's not individual intelligence that makes us so good at adapting. It's important component, but we also need the ability to accumulate knowledge gradually over a whole population of people, over hundreds or maybe even thousands of years.

PALCA: Boyd says consider what happened to the Franklin expedition. Two ships set out from England on May 19, 1845 in search of the Arctic Northwest Passage - neither returned. Almost 15 years after the expedition set off, a search party found a single sheet of paper left in a tin can covered by stones in the Canadian arctic.

Unidentified Man: May 1847, wintered at Beechey Island, ascended Wellington Channel and returned by west side of Cornwallis Island, Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All's well.

PALCA: But scribbled in the margins of the paper, a more ominous note.

Unidentified Man: Sir John Franklin died on the 11th of June 1847, and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been, to this date, nine officers and 15 men.

PALCA: In the end, all perished, but not before the starving crew apparently resorted to cannibalism. Boyd says the irony is that there were Canadian Eskimos living near where the ships became frozen in the ice and the Eskimos survived the harsh winter just fine.

Mr. BOYD: The difference was the English sailors didn't have the knowledge necessary to live in the arctic and they couldn't figure it out on their own.

PALCA: For the last 10,000 years, it's largely been cultural changes that have shaped how humans have evolved and coped with their environments, not genetic changes. And just as geneticists have been looking at ancient DNA to see how new genes emerged and spread, anthropologists and archaeologists are trying to do the same for the emergence and transmission of new skills.

Mr. BEN POTTER (Archaeologist): This is the campus site, found in the 1930s on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

PALCA: Archaeologist Ben Potter and I are standing on some steps leading down from the modern university campus. Around us are trees, but at the bottom of the hill the trees disappear and a vast, flat plain stretches off to the horizon. This is a great spot for watching planes coming into the Fairbanks Airport. Thousands of years ago, it would have had other attractions.

Mr. POTTER: So, certainly it would have been a nice overlook for looking for game.

PALCA: A heard of reindeer would be easy to spot from here.

Mr. POTTER: We know they were butchering animals here. We do find bison, hare, I think they have some beaver as well.

PALCA: The kinds of stone tools and spear points found at this site begin to explain how Alaska's first human settlers became efficient hunters. Potter spends a lot of time visiting ancient sites like this one. He says you can think of them like a laboratory.

Mr. POTTER: An extremely important laboratory to understand how humans, when they're pushed to their limit, or when they are approaching an environment that they're essentially not equipped biologically for - how did that happen.

PALCA: Ten thousand years ago, the latest developments in arrowheads or stone microblades would have been passed from parent to child, or tribe to tribe. Now, the way cultural information is transmitted has changed dramatically.

UCLA's Rob Boyd says today there are institutions whose whole function is to be engaged in cultural transmission.

Mr. BOYD: Schools, religious institutions, and associations, and then there are things like NPR who are in the business of transmitting to zillions of people.

PALCA: There's a torrent of cultural knowledge flowing over us all the time, and we get to decide how to use that knowledge to shape our future.

Mr. BOYD: Where it's going to go, you know, your guess is as good as mine.

PALCA: Wherever it goes, if we don't like the outcome, we'll have only ourselves to blame.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And that's the end our series, The Human Edge. Here's part of your human edge: you get to listen to the reporting of Joe, the production of Rebecca Davis and Jane Greenhagh, and the editing by Alison Richards all right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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