On my morning run, the local temperature read -3° F. That’s an unusually low temperature for this part of the world, but not unprecedented. Modern times makes extremely cold weather not much more than a curiosity. Everyone has shelter and plenty of heat. Even the poor have central HVAC in their homes and plenty of resources to get their energy bill paid for by others. The local bums had to be rounded up, but there are shelters for them as well. Otherwise, it is something to chat about at the office or experience at a distance.
This was not always true. Not long ago, extreme cold resulted in a lot of death and damage. A hundred years ago, deaths from cold were not uncommon in the northern parts of the world. Some of it was due to disease spreading quickly among people huddled together indoors. There was also the poor nutrition that came from not enough food in the winter months. Even so, people did not have what we have now to deal with the cold, so it was not uncommon for people to die when a serious cold snap hit the region.
Go back further and the problem gets even more perilous. A thousand years ago, humans living in areas that got extremely cold, or had long winters, were faced with unique challenges. This required long term planning in order to have enough food, heat and shelter for the winter. It also required a different type of cooperation. Specialization increases productivity so a people facing long winters would be more dependent on one another. Many hands make a light load, but many different skills make it even lighter.
It is generally accepted that humans migrated out of Africa about 60,000 as genetically modern humans. Most likely this meant following a path along the Red Sea and then into Asia and Europe. As the ice sheets receded, humans followed them north to settle into northern Europe and Asia. When the ice sheets began to expand again, these more adaptable and resourceful people moved south, conquering and displacing the people to their south. The slightly improved people became the stock of settled civilization.
Most of this is speculative, but genetics is slowly filling in a lot of blanks. The implication has always been the that harsh environment selected for more resourceful people, who figured out large scale cooperation, burden sharing and so forth. That sounds good until you consider that settled societies did not first start in the north. They began in the mild climates of the Middle East. The data says that the first settled farming communities were in Mesopotamia, which is why it is called the cradle of civilization.
Further, when the Egyptians were building the pyramids, the people in the British Isles were building Stonehenge. That’s an interesting structure, but it was built by people who were barbarians compared to the people of the Middle east. When the Sumerians were writing down things on clay tablets, Europe was lightly populated by people. who had just barely mastered stone tools. Even into the late Roman Empire, the tribes of Europe were hard pressed to do much more than organize a primitive village surrounded by farms.
Of course, all of this has changed. A great puzzle to the blank slate crowd is why it is Europeans rocketed ahead of the rest of the world, in terms of technology and organizational might, starting around the late Middle Ages. When Europeans arrived in Africa, they found a people, who had yet to master the wheel. The ancient civilizations of the Middle and Near East had fallen into squalor. In the new world, the Incas were about where the Egyptians had gotten 5,000 years prior.
It is widely understood that modern humans, homo sapiens, emerged from the speciation phase of sapient humans in Africa about 100 000 years ago. The genetic record supports this conclusion and it provides details in support of the dispersal. Not only are all modern humans walking around today descended from those original humans, a baby born today is not very different genetically from humans of 100,000 years ago. While there is genetic variation in modern humans, significant physiological evolution ended 100,000 years ago.
The archaeological record, what there is at least, says that humans dispersed around the world over the next 50,000 years without much change in behavior. Then seemingly all of a sudden, humans began to change culturally. The first agriculture appears in Mesopotamia and soon after large scale settled societies. New technologies spread in fits and starts as people figured out how to contend with and modify their natural environments. This is the period, up to today, that science refers to as the tectonic phase.
The sapient paradox is the puzzle as to why it took so long for humans to go from hunter-gathers to settled people. The genetic evidence and lots of wishful thinking say that people in Africa 50,000 years ago were not much different from people 10,000 years ago in the Tigris River area. Why did the people in Mesopotamia figure out how to plan and organize large agrarian societies, while the people in Europe were still living off the land in small tribes? Most important, why did it take so long for humans to accomplish it?
The tectonic paradox, a term I just made up, is the puzzle as to why modern Africans were never able to master the wheel or build a structure taller than a man. When Europeans were conquering the globe, the people in sub-Saharan Africa had yet to adopt a written language. At the same time, how is is that the English, who were no more advanced than Arabs in 1066, were the ones to lead the Industrial Revolution? The great gap in material and cultural progress between the big races is recent and unmistakable.
Genetics is starting to unriddle this great puzzle. Even though the genetic difference between human groups is tiny, it turns out that small difference can have huge downstream consequences, particularly with regards to cultural evolution. The high risk environment of northern Europeans, for example, is most likely the root of the wide variety of hair and eye colors that don’t appear anywhere else on earth. A small difference results in people who look like a different species from their close cousins in sub-Saharan Africa.
What this means is that human evolution is not just recent and local, but the behavior differences between populations is not amenable to social engineering, at least not in the short term. The Arabs flowing into Europe are going there because like all mammals, they seek safety and easy access to food and shelter. They are not Germans, however, and no amount of proselytizing will change Mother Nature’s mind on the subject. We may not know exactly why people are different, but we know they are and there’s no changing it.