The fact is, there are actually a lot more than 10 things you don’t know about humanity. There are more than 10 things that even I don’t know about humanity, too! But, this list is comprised of 10 important facts, and I hope they teach you something.

1. Humans have been using fire for 700,000 to 1 million years

Us humans didn’t get fire in our hands, and immediately turn into civilizations. Whereas civilization is at most 20,000 years old (with us generously adding 8,000 years onto the earliest claims of the writing of the Indian Vedas), humans had been living in productive smaller non-urban groups, with fire, for close to a million years. If we could live for over half a million years sustainably, why are we struggling to survive more than 500 of industrial civilization?

fireincave

2. Our chromosomes aren’t just composed of human DNA

That’s right, humans have at least 50 genes from sources beyond the human genome. Now, that might sound dramatic, but it’s actually a little less exciting… since the genes in question come from Earth-bound bacteria. How, and when, exactly humans gained these genes is still a question that needs answering.

humangenes

PETbrain

PET scan of the human brain

3. We literally all have the capacity to empathize

Everyone, from you, to me, to your local psychopath, have the neural capacity to care about and empathize with others. How much this reaches into the affective, and not just cognitive, worlds is a question of individual predisposition. We are all capable of learning through seeing, which requires the same hardware as understanding how someone else feels. No matter who you are: you have no real excuse for not caring about anyone else.

4. We all make irrational mistakes in our thinking, literally all of us

Have you ever checked out the list of logic fallacies/cognitive biases? Not only do I see them often, I occasionally notice myself making the mistakes! We are not programmed to think purely rationally, despite the protest of many people to the contrary.

We are truly requires to inform ourselves about pretty much any subject, including relative to opposing theoretical positions, to have any idea what the truth is beyond our current knowledge and perspective. Ironically, people most convinced that they know “the truth” are the least willing to learn, and thus end up among the most ignorant. That said, even Stephan Hawking makes the occasional irrational mistake in his thinking, so don’t feel bad: learn.

5. We can only really survive on this planet

This is something easily forgotten by most people who aren’t biologists. It is easy to forget that we evolved entirely on this planet, with all of our internal systems not only set for living on this Earth but also sensitive to the high levels of radiation seen outside of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The logistics requires to reach and then survive on Mars, or indeed any other planet, are beyond imaginable, and no level of work can really compensate for the fact that Mars has an irradiated surface, no atmosphere, and no molten core. If any of this is hard to swallow, please read my “8 ecology myths” text.

6. Human population has increased as we’ve grown food able to feed more people

Through a combination of artificial selection and using increasingly more land for agriculture, humans have been able to increase our numbers on this planet to over 7 billion people. We live in a world where Tokyo metro has a greater population than all of Canada (36 million in Tokyo to 35 million living in Canada).

1000 years ago it would not have even been possible to provide enough food to feed that many people living in such a small area, on an island, and yet today there exist a handful of cities that hold over 10,000,000 people. To deal with such high populations, and population densities, us humans have radically changed our food and how we grow it.

7. Humans have always had trouble understanding tipping-points

Humans have always struggled to understand non-linear systems. In the same way that many people are unable to correctly answer the question “If a lake is totally full with algae on day 48, and the algae doubled in size every day, when was the lake half full,” many people are unable to really imagine tipping-point based state shifts, even though we’ve all seen the concept in action.

If you’ve ever said “this is the last straw” or found yourself suddenly not making enough money to maintain your standard of living, you’ll recall that the shift to a different “state” was not gradual but instead seemed to switch past a certain boundary. Ironically, our inability to understand this concept is one of the reasons we are destabilizing and collapsing ecosystems globally, and that the extinction rate is through the roof.

Staudinger et al, 2012. Technical Input to the. 2013 National Climate Assessment.

Staudinger et al, 2012. Technical Input to the. 2013 National Climate Assessment.

8. Each of us is 99.99% similar to each other, and we are also 99% similar to chimpanzees and bonobos

The differences between us humans are actually pretty small, on the grand scale. We are so similar, in the fact, that we characterize minute differences as major (like music taste, philosophical beliefs, political affiliation) and sometimes kill each other over them.

We are not that different from our closest relatives either, and by relatives I mean species and not family. We share approximately 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and a similar identity with bonobos, and unsurprisingly act like a mix of the two in general. Whereas wild chimps sometimes form gangs and beat outsiders to death, and bonobos engage in meaningless sex, humans display behaviors reminiscent of both species.

What primarily differentiates us, aside from our general lack of body hair, is our neurons: our brain. There are distinct differences in the genes expressed in chimpanzee neurons and those expressed in human neurons: what we lost in relative muscle strength: we gained in thinking power.

apekids

9. Meditation is appropriate and beneficial for all of us: yes, you too

rockswaterMeditation is empirically supported to help with reducing stress, increasing mindfulness, and can even be used to increase overall life satisfaction and reduce depression. Like most things, it is a skill, and requires a corresponding mindset and practice. The act of turning off your active analysis is counter-intuitive to those of us in the west, but doing so offers a form of relaxation and freedom that some of us forget even exists.

I would be a reasonably rich man if I had $1 for every time I heard “but meditation doesn’t work for me” from someone who had never seriously tried it.

10. Humans have ushered in a new geological age

Yes, human existence on this planet has led to us entering the Anthropocene. Humans have not only changed the surface of the planet, and contributed to the loss of 52% of wild animals in the last 40 years, but we have changes the chemical makeup of both the water and the atmosphere while affecting climate and ecosystem states. You can seriously see the emergence of human civilization in both the fossil and geological records.

The question isn’t whether we have brought on a new age: that is scientifically solid. The question becomes whether we have the motivation and determination to change the direction we are going in. Are we prepared to turn mass extinction into ecological remediation, and invest more into cleaning up and preventing ocean dead zones than we do in creating them?