September 07 , 2007

Becoming Human

Our Past, Present and Future


Becoming Human: Our Past, Present and Future by the Editors of Scientific American

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We humans are a strange bunch. We have self-awareness and yet often act on impulses that remain hidden. We were forged in adversity but live in a world of plenty. How did we get here? What is to become of us? To these age-old questions, science has in recent years brought powerful tools and reams of data, and in this eBook, Becoming Human: Our Past, Present and Future, we look at what these data have to tell us about who we are. We know, for instance, that three million years ago, a group of primates known as the australopithecines was walking capably on two legs—the better to navigate the African savanna—and yet still had long arms suited to life in the trees. In Section One, "Becoming Us," we search for how and why this and other transitions occurred. In "Lucy's Baby," author Kate Wong discusses what the oldest juvenile skeleton tells us about how early humans walked the Earth. Another article, "The Naked Truth," examines why humans lost their hair and how hairlessness was a key factor in developing other human traits. Section Two covers "The Secrets of our Success," and we see that human evolution and culture are often related. In "The Evolution of Grandparents," Rachel Caspari shows us that as humans started to live longer, grandparents played a role in family life, which in turn made possible more complex social behaviors. In Section Three, "Migration and Colonization," we look at how scientists are studying the minuscule bits of DNA that differ from one individual to another for clues to our origins and settlements. "The First Americans" illustrates the findings that have pushed back the date at which hunter-gatherers colonized the Americas. And in Section Four, "Vanished Humans," the discovery of "hobbits"—a human species of small stature—has turned the science of human origins on its ear. Where is evolution taking us? We present two points of view in Section Five, "Our Continuing Evolution." In "How We Are Evolving," Jonathan K. Pritchard argues that selection pressure typically acts over tens of thousands of years, which means we probably won't evolve much anytime soon. But stasis is only one possible future, says Peter Ward in "What May Become of Us." In adapting to new environments—say, a colony on Mars—our human species may eventually diverge into two or more. Or we could go the cyborg route and merge with machines. Whichever option you prefer, there is plenty to ponder.

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