Facts So Romantic

The Biggest Misapprehension About Human Origins

Certain features of human behavior recur regardless of culture.Photograph by NASA

Archaeologist Ticia Verveer recently posted a thread on Twitter showing that customer complaints go way back. And I mean way back. Verveer referred to a letter inscribed on a 3,700-year-old Babylonian clay tablet. In the letter, Verveer writes, “The copper merchant Nanni details at length his anger at a sour deal, and his dissatisfaction with the quality assurance and service of Ea-nasir. Nanni complained that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a gulf voyage and that there was a misdirection and a delay of a further shipment.” Damn, some things never change.

The complaint letter was translated by A. Leo Oppenheim, a cultural anthropologist. “His aim was to make Mesopotamian records as commonly understood as classical ones, which when quoted can stay in the original Latin or Greek,” a colleague of Oppenheim’s wrote. In one of his books, Letters From Mesopotamia, Oppenheim explains that clay-tablet letters deal with, well, nearly everything. “Law codes, royal edicts, and legal documents of impressive variety,” Oppenheim writes, “combine with an abundance of administrative records and letters, both private and official, to rough out the functioning of the main social institutions and the role of the individual in that constantly changing society.”

Today, of course, Mesopotamian civilization, like many impressive societies after it, are gone. But the human complaint remains. We may have Yelp to help us shop for copper ore. But if we’re sold the wrong grade, we are going to dash off an angry letter, though probably not on a clay tablet. Certain features of human behavior recur regardless of culture.

Does that mean that we are in some sense fine-tuned by natural selection to be a particular kind of creature? Nope, says Ian Tattersall, a paleontologist and the former chairman of the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. The notion that evolutionary forces sculpted humans in a certain way is misleading. In fact, he says, it’s the biggest misapprehension about human origins. “We can basically blame evolution for our shortcomings and look upon ourselves as somewhat optimized, and therefore not have to change our behaviors,” he told Nautilus. “We are not the product of perfectionizing. We are, in many ways, totally accidental. That to me is the big lesson. If we’re accidental, then we have the responsibility to exploit our own abilities in the most responsible way.”


Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @brianga11agher.

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