Divergent evolution is a complicated topic but an important one. Divergent evolution shows us how an evolutionary advantage – or more precisely, a series of random evolutionary advantages – can change the way humans think and live.
Understanding the divergent evolution of our species, including what evolutionary advantages caused the divergence of humans from the great apes, can tell us a lot about ourselves. If done correctly, we can use our understanding to make better and more informed decisions.
For example, most of us know that humans are social creatures. However, if we knew exactly why we’re social, we could maximize our sociability, thereby increasing our baseline level of happiness and decreasing our emotional distress. And that’s just one of a nearly infinite number of examples.
Clearly, understanding your nature – including the nature of the people around you – is itself a huge advantage. If you’re in business, think about your sales abilities if you could understand exactly why people act (and react) the way they do. If you’re looking for greater emotional control, think about how much better you’ll understand yourself if you know exactly why you have the impulses you do.
To help, I read the book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, as well as conducted research of my own, to boil down divergent evolution into 5 evolutionary advantages that changed humanity, which you can read below. Once understood, you can use these evolutionary advantages to your…well, advantage.
What is Divergent Evolution?
Divergent evolution describes the process by which a single population of species evolves and diverges into a separate species from the original. Divergent evolution occurs when a subset of a species gains an evolutionary advantage, and over time, maximizes that advantage until it becomes a normal part of their genetic makeup. This eventually creates a new species.
Ok, we get it, divergent evolution is literally the process of evolution. It’s the act of diverging from an older species to become a new and (typically) better-equipped species. But why does it matter? It’s interesting, but how can divergent evolution help you in the real world?
Better understanding your divergent evolution will allow you to do the following:
- Understand the origin of your physiology
- Understand the origin of your psychology
- Learn why humans act the way they do (both yourself and the people around you)
- Realize that the way things are today aren’t they way they’ve always been (nor are they necessarily the “best”)
Ultimately, you’ll achieve more perspective, which will allow you to approach life with deeper understanding and a larger world-view.
It’s kind of like understanding the origins of your family. For example, if your parents are first-generation Americans from Russia, there’s a good chance they’re self-made. They probably had to work hard to achieve even close to the opportunities afforded to those who’ve been here for generations.
Now, if you knew that, you’d know why your parents act the way they do. You’d understand why they pressure you to succeed and why they’re so grateful for what they have. You’d be able to vicariously use lessons from their past to gain life-skills you otherwise wouldn’t have.
The same idea applies to your understanding of divergent evolution. If you understand where your species came from, just like if you knew that your grandparents grew up in Soviet Russia, you’ll have a unique perspective on life that can put you ahead of the rest.
What is an Evolutionary Advantage?
An evolutionary advantage is a trait that increases an organism’s chance of survival. Specifically, an evolutionary advantage is a genetic mutation that allows a group of organisms to dominate an evolutionary niche. Over time, that evolutionary advantage is passed on to future generations, thereby diverging those generations from the previous with a new way of life.
For example, aardvarks have an evolutionary advantage in that their snouts are able to suck up ants while other mammals can’t. Their evolutionary advantage is the length and circumference of their noses, and the niche they’re able to dominate is the “eating ants as a way of life” niche.
How many other mammals do you know with the ability to live off of ants? Sounds like quite the advantage to me!
But how did aardvarks get such long snouts? There wasn’t an aardvark one day who was born with a nose 2 feet longer than his mother’s. No, evolutionary advantages are only established over time, which means that divergent evolution also happens over a long period of time.
Evolution of an Aardvark
Of course, at one point, aardvarks had short snouts. They probably rooted around in the ground and found ants and other grubs to eat. As animal populations grew, however, the competition for food became increasingly more fierce. Aardvarks couldn’t just find bugs on the ground anymore, and instead, they had to dig deeper and find untapped food sources with their noses.
This means that the aardvarks with longer noses were more equipped to survive and thrive. Now, their “longer” snouts could’ve been just inches or even centimeters longer than the general population. Still, over time, as food became more scarce, the aardvarks with short snouts died off while long-nosed aardvarks lived and passed their genes on through propagation.
Fast-forward thousands of years as aardvarks had to dig deeper for ants with each successive generation, and the evolutionary advantage was maximized until they found a niche where they could eat ants while other mammals couldn’t, thus preserving their species.
Ladies and gentleman, I give you divergent evolution from an evolutionary advantage.
But now, think what would happen if aardvarks evolved to the point where they could mass produce ants and buy them in an aardvark store. They wouldn’t have to root around in the ground any longer. Huzzah! What an advancement for their species!
Yet, for some reason, the aardvarks still long to play in the dirt. They have everything they need to survive, and still, they feel unfulfilled because they’re not using their minds and their bodies as nature intended.
If an aardvark was able to understand why he longed to stick his nose in the dirt, even though it was seen as “barbaric,” she might be able to satisfy her urges and live a life with more contentment and fulfillment.
Important Evolutionary Advantages That Changed Humanity
Like the aardvark, humans have also changed the way they live with a successive series of evolutionary advantages. We diverged from our ancestral apes over time with niche-specific traits that helped us survive and thrive. And yet, while we no longer live in the world of our past, we still have these traits ingrained within us. We live in a new environment with an old set of skills.
To better understand yourself and those around you, it’s important to understand the following 5 evolutionary advantages that changed humanity:
1. Bipedal Movement
The ability to walk upright is arguably the biggest physical change that separates us from the monkeys of our past. As of today, we are the only ape (we know of) that walks upright on two legs. We might not be the only one in the history of the world, but as far as we know, we are the only ones today.
But why do we walk upright?
Well, similar to the aardvarks, for one reason or another, our ancestors were forced down out of their trees and onto the plains of the fertile crescent. The need for food and water is what probably caused this. However, while we previously escaped from lions and other large mammals using the trees, we could no longer do this out on the savannah.
Instead, we had to stand and crane our necks above the tall grass to look out for predators. Over time, as those who didn’t have spines up to the task were killed, the ones who could stand tall and look for threats survived and passed on their genes. As we continued to spread out through Africa, it became more and more of an advantage to stand and look around, and successive generations had an easier time standing up until it was common for our ancestors.
How Did Bipedal Movement Change Us?
Well, other than the obvious, walking upright completely changed the way humans socialize and interact with each other. As humans began to stand increasingly more upright, human hips changed and our females’ birth canals constricted, making it harder to have babies.
You see, in the past, women used to carry babies inside of them for well over a year. However, this means that babies of the past were born much larger than the ones today. Sadly, as we began to stand with more regularity, the readjustment of our hips caused increasingly more miscarriages and death during childbirth.
However, some women were able to have premature babies, which are babies born within the now normal 9-month pregnancy period. These women – and their children – survived childbirth, thus passing on their genetic quirk of premature births to future generations. The antiquated women who gave birth to larger babies, sadly, either couldn’t birth a surviving child or died in childbirth themselves, removing them from the gene pool.
Now, since we began to have comparatively premature babies, baby humans weren’t able to take care of themselves. Instead, early humans had to work together as a unit to crowd-raise human children. This made it very important to create and keep a tight knit community or tribe. Thanks to our bipedal movement, it became impossible to raise a child on our own, and we thus had to rely on other humans to help, strengthening the social bonds of our species.
Which, if you’re following along, made “sociability” an evolutionary advantage itself.
Today, we often think of gossip as a bad thing. Gossipers are frowned upon, even though the person doing the frowning is probably a gossiper themselves. Still, the word “gossip” has a negative connotation. Which is funny, considering it was one of the greatest evolutionary advantages ever taken by humans.
You see, before gossip and language, humans lived in small groups of 100 – 150 people. This is called the Dunbar number, which means that humans are naturally only able to personally know up to 150 people. During the early days of our divergent evolution, humans could only trust another human if they met and interacted with them personally.
However, as our mental capacity grew, which many people believe came about due to increased food sources and the need to interact with these new communities, so too did our ability to gossip.
But, rather than the negative word it is today, it was much more positive back then. This is because we needed a way to verify and trust other humans outside of our 150-person tribe. We needed to coordinate with increasingly larger groups of humans. What better way than to ask someone you know whether or not a neighboring tribe or group of humans were trustworthy?
How Did Gossip Change Us?
Gossip allowed us to trust and know more than the previous maximum of 150 people. Prior to gossip, there was no way a human could ever trust someone they’d never met. After gossip, humans were able to trust second-degree connections and beyond. In fact, before gossip, there was no such thing as a second-degree connection.
Once we began to gossip about each other, we were able to grow the size of our tribes well past the 150-person limit. Further, we were able to trust and interact with neighboring tribes and communities. This allowed us to begin coordinating as a larger group, rather than a fractal group of primitive primates.
Think about a chimpanzee. Chimps form social bonds through direct contact, such as preening. If a chimp hasn’t had direct contact with another chimp, they can’t trust them. This means that chimpanzee troupes are typically limited to 50 monkeys. Further, they can’t coordinate with other chimp troupes.
But we can. This coordination allowed us to better rely on others. It helped us leave the fertile crescent with a supportive group of individuals in an attempt to find newer and better land. This movement brought us out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. In fact, many believe that it’s because of this gossip-fueled coordination that we wiped out the Neanderthals, who didn’t have this ability.
Fast-forward to today, and we use our large social networks for almost anything. Think about your last job. Chances are it came from a second- or third-degree connection. Think about the last time you trusted someone you’ve never met. It’s probably because someone you know vouched for them. All of this would be impossible without the ability to gossip.
3. Complex Language
It’s not known what exactly came first, complex language, gossip, or access to greater food sources. However, some combination of the three led to advancements in our mental cognition. But it’s largely a case of “chicken or the egg,” because, without any of the three, our lives would be much different (and more primitive) than they are today.
For example, complex language, in addition to gossip, helped us better coordinate as a species and even find better food sources, which gave us more calories for brain power. Whereas other monkeys such as bonobos have proven words for “look out, a snake!” and “look out, an eagle!”, our language goes much deeper.
Where a bonobo can warn a friend about a snake, humans, over time, developed language that could say something like, “Hey, there’s a lot of animals to eat over there, but I saw a lion in the area yesterday around noon. There might be a chance he’ll be there today at noon, so it’s probably best if we hunted in the morning or at night.”
This level of detail completely changed how we interacted with each other and the world around us. Before, we relied largely on instincts to help us survive. Now, we could rely on our instincts as well as the information and intelligence of other humans.
How Did Complex Language Change Us?
Complex language allowed us to grow our communities of humans even further. For example, gossip coupled with more complex language allowed humans to say something like, “Hey, Fred over in the next tribe is pretty good at hunting, but he’s kind of a dick. Still, if you need help obtaining food, he might be your guy.”
A chimp or a bonobo would never be able to explain something in this level of detail. They could warn a friend about a snake, but they couldn’t tell their friend where exactly it is, what it’s tendencies are, and if it should be expected back in the future.
Some believe that it’s actually this complex language that helped mold our minds into the things they are today. Some, however, don’t. Still, it’s pretty apparent that thanks to this complex language, we were able to further push the limits of our communities past the 150-person limit.
We could also work together to get and store more food, which gave us more energy to grow our brains as well as more leisure time. Then, as knowledge was passed across humans and down to their kin, we were able to learn about and iterate on such things as agriculture, making it better over time and, of course, completely changing the way we live.
4. Belief in Shared Myths
Besides complex language, there was something else pretty amazing that humans could do while other apes couldn’t. Our species had an innate ability to communicate – and believe in – complex myths.
For example, while we could already gossip and ask someone we know about someone we don’t, our ability to believe in shared myths allowed us to trust anyone who believed the same things we did.
Think: religion. But it’s not only religion, only that religion is the most well-known shared myth. So, whereas before we had to be second- or third-degree connections with people, we could now have no connection at all, other than our shared beliefs. You might not know your neighboring tribe, but if they believed in the same animal gods as you (we were animists back then), then they were probably alright.
This, of course, allowed us to grow past tribal communities into complex social structures with hundreds and thousands of humans. We didn’t need to know people who knew people. Instead, all we had to know was that someone believed the same things we did, which could range from religion to capitalism to anything in between.
Shared myths are different than natural laws. They’re rules that we obey only because we agree that we should collectively obey them. If we all colluded to stop obeying traffic stops, for example, we could do away with traffic stops. The same doesn’t apply to natural laws like gravity.
How Did a Belief in Shared Myths Change Us?
The most apparent way it changed us is that we could now live in city- and kingdom-sized communities. But why, and how?
Well, in addition to our belief in religion, we were also able to believe in such things as laws. You see, even today, lawyers sometimes refer to laws as “believed fiction.” In reality, the laws that govern our land don’t exist. We made them up. The only reason we even abide by laws is because everyone’s agreed to collectively follow them.
So, while our belief in shared myths like religion allowed us to trust larger groups of humans, our belief in shared myths also allowed us to create social and political structures to govern these increasingly larger groups.
Think now about capitalism. How much is a dollar actually worth? Well, the cost to make it is probably mere pennies. However, if you have a dollar bill denoted with the number “100” (which is a number we also made up and collectively believe in), then the actual value is much more than a few pennies.
But why? Well, for the same reason we could organize larger communities due to collective belief in religion and politics and law. We all agree that money has value. Merchants agree and take your money while you agree and work hard to earn it. But if we all colluded and decided one day that the dollar had no value, then it wouldn’t have any value.
And yet, it’s because of this shared myth in the value of money that we’re able to build regional, national, and global economies. The world would be a much larger place if we still relied on the barter system.
5. Desire to Explore
You can argue that our desire to explore isn’t actually an evolutionary advantage. But I’d argue that it’s because of this desire that we were able to spread across the globe. You see, as of 75k years ago, humans were only on the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most species, upon reaching some sort of equilibrium, would stop growing in population. Not humans.
Instead, the human species expanded from the fertile crescent in Africa to Europe and Asia. But we didn’t stop there. Instead, we braved the extreme cold of the arctic to make it over the land bridge and into America. We braved the open seas to arrive at such islands as Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand, and Australia.
But why? Most – if not all – species of apes would’ve stopped when they hit snow or ocean. Not humans. Instead, we pushed the boundaries quite literally, becoming the first species to populate every single continent on Earth. This, while it might not be an evolutionary advantage per se, helped us continue the growth and divergent evolution of our species.
There would’ve never been humans in America, or in Australia, or inhabiting any island, without this desire to explore. Of course, this expansion caused mass extinctions and the eventual subjugation of different human populations, but still, the “exploration trait” is unique among humans, allowing us to conquer the world.
How Did the Desire to Explore Change Us?
How has it not? As recent as 200k years ago (or sooner), the entirety of humans lived in the fertile crescent of Africa. As recent as 45k years ago, there were no humans in the Americas, Australia, or any islands in any of the oceans. As of today, there are nearly 7 billion people in virtually every corner of the globe.
People have walked on the moon. People are planning on going to Mars. People continue to explore the few places still left to explore on Earth.
This desire to explore has caused us to invent such things as GPS, iPhone cameras, the Internet, and more. It’s helped us expand the horizon of our collective knowledge and figure out such things as physics, celestial movements, and the laws of motion.
Without our desire to explore, we would still be stuck in Africa, using stone tools to forage for food. Instead, we’re on the verge of living on other planets as well as living within computer simulations. The world today is an amazing place, and none of it would be possible without human’s innate desire to explore and expand.
Understanding divergent evolution and evolutionary advantages are the acts of understanding your very nature. If you can understand what evolutionary advantages caused our divergent evolution, you’ll be better equipped to excel in the world of today.
Just remember that our current society isn’t the society that once was. Like the aardvark above, we have a lot of old tendencies that aren’t needed today. Still, we’re all driving by these instincts, and identifying the traits that drive humans is nothing but a good idea.