Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life

Visualizing cognitive capacity


I just finished reading the following book about a subject I knew very little about (paleontology) that I wanted to share as it had some implications for how I imagine knowledge trees in general.

It outlines the spate of discovery and classification that took place in a very short period of time (basically the 20th century) that threw our ideas of our evolutionary past on its head. Ultimately the takeaway for this post is go read the book as it is excellent. I have also outlined a few of my takeaways below:

Diversity of experimentation and the fragility of the ‘winner’

The book outlines the different threads of skeletons found and how these represent permutations of evolution, some overlapping, some much farther along the road to homo sapien than others. It demonstrates a fairly transparent scientific process of analysis, of positing evolving characteristics as the lynchpins of the whole process (mostly brain size, upright gaits, etc.) and monitoring their development. What this book presented for me reaffirmed the overall patterns I receive from my social media and news sources daily. That experimentation is the lifeblood of evolution. That correct ‘answers’ aren’t always as important as investigations into the workflows or processes that got us there. The process matters.

So, the book presents the fact that there were many human-esque (Homo) species that appeared in parallel (roughly) with one another, but homo sapiens are the only extant one still around. The evolutionary process produced different permutations and if one survived, that was acceptable. Imagine a parallel with open learning and MOOCs (I am clumsily jamming this analogy in here). If one process and permutation is standing at the other end of this open experimentation and debate, it is more than likely the one most suited for survival. It has been tested through the process of selection.

What is also remarkable is that there were many passages out of Africa by the first upright creatures (Homo Erectus), but it was the last one, the Homo Sapiens that came to populate the earth. And that final passage was performed by an incredibly small, but highly cohesive, social group. They were highly interactive and interdependent and functioned both as individuals and as part of a larger, cohesive unit. Socialization proved to be an evolutionary asset, much as it is now. The passage that Meredith uses to describe this migration out of Africa is revealing.

The group making the crossing, according to genetic evidence, numbered only a few hundred. One estimate by geneticists in 2005 using mitochondrial DNA data put the figure at most as 550 women of child-bearing age, and probably far fewer. Another estimate suggests a much smaller number, a total of no more than 150 emigrants. What is certain is that the emigrant group contained only a fraction of the full genetic diversity of the existing African population. From the point of their departure, there is a clear divergence between the genetic inheritance of Africa’s population and the population of African emigrants who went on to populate the rest of the world.

This diversification spawned the endless cultural, linguistic, social permutations evident today. These same permutations are brought together with amazing urgency and force today through our physical and virtual exchanges.

As they spread out across the world, far-flung branches of the modern human family began to diversify, adapting variously to the different climates and ecologies they encountered. Local populations developed distinctive local features. In northern latitudes, they acquired a lighter skin colour in response to different levels of ultraviolet radiation. The diverse trajectories they followed led to a vast array of languages, cultures and religions. New techniques allowed agriculture and settled communities to flourish. Innovation became a way of life. Thus it was that a group of African hunter-gatherers led humankind to the threshold of a new world.

Innovation became a way of life, indeed. Not unlike the transformations we see now.

Outward gazes working in parallel: past informing the present and vice versa

The book also buttresses the argument that a gaze towards the past complements the future gaze and vice versa. The perpetual circling (like a tidal pool) of new information from the past informs and redesigns our understanding of the present and the future. The 19th century set the table for this redesign with any number of texts that questioned past narratives, from Darwin to Marx and beyond. These theoretical redesigns focused our energies in the 20th century on finding evidence to support or refute these claims. In short, the theory told us what to go look for and technology obliged and sped up this process. Bones from extinct species of upright humans might have been merely interpreted as being an extinct monkey species without the underpinning of evolution informing the gaze. The past informed the present and the future. Our theory informs what we look for so choose them carefully.

Challenge the overriding narrative

We use metaphors and narratives to frame our explorations and structure our open spaces. We do this quite a bit now with endless talk of walled gardens and the narratives of open access and open learning. We liken these activities to toppling this or disrupting that. We do so because we think and are comfortable performing with and within a narrative. But we are duty bound, as inquisitive people, to perpetually challenge the overriding narrative. This book did as it consistently demonstrated that the scientific narrative (hypothesis) was upended each and every time someone discovered a new fossilized skeleton and carbon-dated it. The narrative travel in the wake of the discovery, but immediately inform the processes enacted for future discovery. If it ceases to function as a narrative, it needs to be replaced.

We can take this to our own silos of activity and intellectual pursuits. Whether your narrative is nationalism, religious, social, historical, genealogical, pedagogical, or some fluid intermeshing of all of these, you are bound to alter, appraise, reflect, and restructure your narratives. Without this self-reflection, we have stasis. Old systems for new worlds. More importantly, we are gazing the other way when new evidence is presented, evidence we might overlook as it doesn’t slot into our narrative. Dangerous indeed.

Read and think outside your comfort zone or disciplinary silo

Regardless of whether or not you care about paleontology, it is important to read outside your comfort zone or the silo of activity in which you work. This reading should still have some systematic design to it, even if that design is to acknowledge that you know nothing about a particular area and would like to learn more. Learning, and especially reading, should be a two-pronged process of depth and breadth. We learn our area intensely, like a scientist digging deeper and deeper into the minutiae of the subject, and we learn related areas casually, like a flaneur meandering through the bookstalls of some antiquated city, diving in and out at leisure. At leisure but with purpose. To learn more, to be open to more, to know that these other areas inform our own. So we can configure our reading much like we do our research, two learning styles, two metaphors, two narratives to govern two separate activities.

And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that long-form reading is still a valuable activity and will continue to be. It will become a valuable evolutionary asset, at least in how it relates to innovation. There is always tension between understanding the larger composite or pattern and the individual variables that aggregate to that pattern, the forest for the trees. Long-form reading unlocks both, one of the few information models that do.

Let innovation became a way of life. And go read this book.

PS: I want to share my Kindle reading list here but am still trying to export and convert it (via Calibre), as recommended by a friend. If anyone has any other ways to share what could be a valuable artifact for everyone (I mean all our reading lists, not just mine), then please share.

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By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

2 thoughts on “Takeaways from Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life (& reading outside my comfort zone)”
  1. Thank you for your enlightening article about “Born in Africa”. I will put the book on my list. I also enjoyed your analogy to the ‘flaneur’ and the idea that exploring the past ‘informs our understanding of the present and the future’. I am reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” which I highly recommend.

    1. Many thanks for the recommendation on The Warmth of Other Suns”! It is on my tablet as we speak and I will begin reading soon. Glad that the flaneur analogy was useful for you as well. I think it is quite a useful way to imagine learning in wide-open and sometimes confusing spaces. Thanks for the comment!

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