Homo Sapiens Dominance?


The following is a brief of an article recently published in the NewScientist magazine (I only get the newsletter). I’m sharing it primarily due to the final paragraph (highlighted). 

HUMANS today are uniquely alone. For the majority of the existence of Homo sapiens, we shared the planet with many other types of human. At the time when our lineage first evolved in Africa some 300,000 years ago, there were at least five others. And if you were going to place a bet on which of those would outlast all the rest, you might not have put your money on us.

The odds would have seemed more favourable for the Neanderthals, who had already adapted to live in colder conditions and expanded to inhabit much of Eurasia. Or Homo erectus, who had made a success of living in south-east Asia. By contrast, our direct Homo sapiens ancestors were the new kids on the block, and wouldn’t successfully settle outside of Africa until more than 200,000 years later. Yet, by 40,000 years ago, or possibly a bit more recently, we were the only humans left standing. Why?

Many explanations have been put forward: brainpower, language or just luck. Now, a new idea is building momentum to explain our dominance. Ironically, it may be some of our seemingly deepest vulnerabilities – being dependent on others, feeling compassion and experiencing empathy – that could have given us the edge.

While I would LIKE to believe this “new idea” related to the dominance of Homo Sapiens, it’s difficult to see these suggested “vulnerabilities” in much of today’s modern societies. 


34 thoughts on “Homo Sapiens Dominance?

  1. How do they know the other humanoid species did not also have those traits. I remember reading somewhere about finding a Neanderthal skeleton, an older male who had a lifelong deformity that would have made walking painful and halting. Certainly this person couldn’t hunt or gather. So they had to be taken care of by others of the tribe / group. Hugs

    Liked by 6 people

    • Oh you know scientists! They’re always exploring ways to explain things. And people. And while they definitely come up with some notable discoveries/ideas, they do miss the mark now and again. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

    • I read the Cosmos science newsletter; it’s from Australia. It said what Scottie wrote about Neanderthals, and that their ability to cooperate for the greater good seemed to be what kept them around longer than other species besides homo sapiens. I gathered, though it’s been a few weeks since I read about it, that Neanderthals didn’t last because ‘sapiens being ‘sapiens, they didn’t want the competition. But I also read that there was also some interbreeding, too.
      I have no answers. I find it all fascinating, and figure the more we learn from the past, the better off we are.
      I hope everyone’s having a really nice day today!

      Liked by 6 people

  2. I have actually been suggesting that for some time. An example is the loss of fur, which makes us more vulnerable. And then there’s the immaturity a birth, which makes an infant particularly vulnerable.

    The main point, at least as I see it, is that this is what tends to cause people to develop into social groups for mutual protection. And our social nature is what really distinguishes us from other species.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Chimpanzees are also highly social, as are many other species of primates. What’s unique about humans is something more subtle — we have the ability to accept individuals we don’t know personally as members of the social group. This allows our social groups to be of practically unlimited size. Chimpanzee social groups have a maximum size of about a hundred and fifty individuals, that being the maximum number that any one individual can learn to know and recognize personally.

      The extreme vulnerability of infants might be more significant. This arose because of the growth in human brain (and hence head) size, which meant that babies had to be born earlier in the development process, to avoid making birth lethally traumatic — that is, human babies are “premature” by the standards of other ape species. It’s been argued that that vulnerability led to (a) the human proclivity for long-term sexual pair bonds, which made fathers available to help mothers with infants, and (b) our much longer maximum life spans (most apes die soon after the age of menopause), which made grandmothers available for the same purpose. It’s not obvious how those things would have given our ancestors an advantage over rival human species, but they might have done; they are certainly substantial differences.

      Liked by 6 people

  3. Homo erectus probably became extinct out of sheer embarrassment that they would someday be called “Homo erectus”.

    Seriously, traits like compassion and empathy are not only more pervasive today than in any previous era, but vastly, incomparably more pervasive. The evidence we have about death rates from violence in pre-agricultural societies suggests that they were far more violent than modern times, even when episodes like World War II are factored in for the latter. Other apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas show some evidence of compassion and empathy, so those other ancient human lineages probably did as well. So it seems unlikely that our ancestors were far superior to them in that regard.

    The problem with this kind of question is that in most cases we don’t have enough evidence to test the various hypotheses. As far as I know, we don’t even know whether the neanderthals had language or not, nor how long out own lineage has had it.

    But it’s probably just as well that only one human species survived. We have enough problems with racism due to local micro-evolutionary differences within the one species. Imagine what it would be like if there were several distinct species of humans.

    Liked by 7 people

      • Rugby Union players were admired and used to be thought of playing the upper class game some years ago even in NZ when I was a boy and Rugby League players were called Neanderthals, hoons, Rugby rejects and all kinds of names. How things have changed, League and the round ball sport football has made huge inroads into Rugby Union. Sorry Nan that this did not stick with the post.


        • Same story when I grew up.
          Union players were essentially amateur. (I stand under correction, it’s been a while)
          Wales has at least one doctor if memory serves?
          Imagine actually being paid for doing something you love but are also damn good at!
          The horror!


  4. It’s great that we all look into the evidence of why homo sapiens may be the most successful, yet, among hominids. Present-day homo sapiens are the first with all these new tools to insure or survival as a species. But not one of us can imagine or predict what evolution has done and what it is still doing.

    Somewhere in today’s population, there are traits at work that we cannot recognize but which evolution is using for the furtherance of human life, and likewise in all flora and fauna. Even with all our modern medical wonders, while we can extend the span and the quality of life, evolution is still in charge. If evolution and eventual survival were left to us we would have disappeared long ago.

    Stephen Greenblatt
    The Swerve, Chapter 8, pg. 189

    Nature ceaselessly experiments.

    There is no single moment of origin, no mythic scene of creation. All living beings, from plants to insects, to higher mammals and man, have evolved through a long, complex process of trial and error. The process involves many false starts and dead ends, monsters, prodigies, mistakes, creatures that were not endowed with all the features that they needed to compete for resources and to create offspring. Creatures whose combination of organs enables them to adapt and to reproduce will succeed in establishing themselves, until changing circumstances make it impossible for them to survive.

    Lucretius 99 BCE – 55 BCE
    Lucretius explained that before life or anything else existed. all the atoms in the universe traveled in straight lines until one day one atom for no accountable reason, swerved into the path of another atom. That collision set off the chain reaction that we observe today as life. The atoms combined to create all the elements we know of today. No creation. No big bang. And in the face of all religious and scientific explanations, the universe and all life came to be.

    The Nature of Things. This is one thing we cannot interfere in. Evolution knows no gods.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Just to offer a different look, I think homo sapiens combined three traits that helped them survive other human species. First, fear of the unknown. There are those amongst us who literally still fear anyone or anything that they see as different, so they do not make many inter-species friends. Second is our natural greed. We survived by taking things we need away from others who might also need them, so we survived them. Third is our bullying nature. Again, many of us still pick on the weak (mental, physical, or both, with our mental abilities giving us tools that made us more powerful than we have any right to be!). These are, IMO, just the basis for gaining an advantage. All else proceeds from there.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes I agree, I believe the bad traits of modern humans today that include murder, rape and theft for example are what our ancestors used to survive and it will likely take a million years for the criminal traits that some act out on to evolve into something else through the evolutionary process.

      Liked by 3 people

      • IMO, it won’t take that long. The more people that reach a better consciousness, the faster the others will have to change to keep up. Of course, after Trump, we were set back horribly. 10,000 years now, not a million. Fingest are crossed!

        Liked by 2 people

    • Again, though, these or equivalent traits are common among animals generally, not unique to humans (I’m talking about animals in the wild, not domesticated). Many animals react to anything unfamiliar by attacking it or running away from it. Chimpanzees kill males from other social groups on sight, when they have a big enough advantage in numbers to get away with it at low risk to themselves. Many large herbivorous mammals are extremely aggressive toward strangers, whether of their own species or a different one. Animals have no concept of property and routinely take things away from other animals, if those things are useful/edible and the animal they are taking it from is smaller/weaker and thus unlikely to be able to resist effectively. Rape is common among chimpanzees and orangutans (in the latter case, much more common than among humans). Strong members of the group bullying weaker ones for fun is common in many primate species. There’s no reason to think that traits like these were any more common among our own lineage than among other human and semi-human species that were contemporary with them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Infidel, while I agree with your assessment of animals in the wild, I’m not sure where you’re going with this. IMO, comparing the traits of animals and humans, while accurate in many instances, doesn’t address the far superior reasoning powers and mental capabilities of human beings.

        What am I missing?

        Liked by 2 people

        • The comment to which I was responding proposed that the human traits of greed, bullying, and fear of the unknown were what enabled our lineage to out-compete and out-survive the other human lineages which went extinct (your post’s original question). My argument is that this cannot be the explanation, since those traits or close equivalents are common in animals generally (especially primates), so there’s no reason to think that traits like these were any more common among our own lineage than among other human and semi-human species that were contemporary with them. If such traits were common to all the competing lineages, they cannot be the explanation for why one lineage won out over the others.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. FYI, I have right-wing nutter cousins who think the tern “homo sapiens” refers to the fact that all early humans were gay. I kid you not. I ask them, if this were true, how did we EVER get little homo sapien babies? They have no answer. Yes, my family is FILLED with IDIOTS!!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Considering how many of these people believe that their high-school-dropout uncle Horace D Wermer who “does his own research” on Facebook is a better authority on covid-19 treatments than the consensus of doctors and scientists, I can’t say I’m surprised.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Nan, good post and comments. I think we sometimes give our species too much credit. Mark Twain is alleged to have said common sense is not all that common. Our species may be hastening its own demise by being poor caretakers of our planet and not asking important questions around the ethics of doing something. This especially true around AI. Just because we can, does not mean we should. Recently, life expectancy has fallen not gotten better. Part of this is due to COVID, but there are likely other factors.

    So, to me, we fail to learn important lessons and our own hubris often gets in the way of doing things or not doing things to avoid harm.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. A rule I’ve found to be useful in considering questions like this: If a proposed explanation serves to display the cynicism of the person proposing it, that explanation is almost certainly worthless.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There may be very little to add to the comments abowe – exept – that I am empathetically embarressed for the New Scientist for publishing that silly text even judging by this little piece you posted. I have to say, that this exerpt you presented here represents stuff, that would have been laughed at already during my studies of archaeology over two decades ago. It is hard to imagine, that anything they say in the entire article could remedy, what went wrong in that small piece.

    The writer has forgotten from their list of suggestions the aggressivenes and violence of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens as an explanation for why there are no other human species living today anymore. Put that aside, I think the notion, that our capacity for empathy actually has played a big role, but as someone already pointed out, we have absolutely no reason to think our specific species type is in any way more empathetic than any of the others and there is evidence of the contrary. In any case claiming, that empathy is a weakness or makes us somehow voulnerable may stem from an overtly individualistic, or perhaps even a bit fascist, cultural heritage. Weak individuals in cultures that admire individual and expect us to survive as individuals see co-operation as a weakness, when clearly it is our strength as a social species. In such cultures the weak admire the presentations of strength and authority.

    I can not help, that some sort of bias of the writer may be revealed when they try to list as strengths of the Neanderthal the fact, that they had adapted to cold environments and inhabitet much of Eurasia. If I were asked to list strengths of the Neanderthal, I would certainly not claim, that their specialization to a limited type of environment was any sort of strength on evolutionary scale. I would have noted their higher body strength, their better ability for oxygen intake and their relatively large skull to house a big brain.

    How some other species of humans had spread to particular parts of the planet was not their strength, but their weakness, as they had very slowly adapted to conditions there and were as such rather “conservative” and unable to change fast enough when faced new factors in their environment, such as the climate change from ice age to warmer era, or the fact that there appeared a new competitor who spread over the globe in relatively fast pace and was armed with terrifying new weaponry, such as the boomerang, Atlatl spear and possibly allready even the bow.

    Yet, the point about empathy and social adaptability propably did play a role and I think a big role to the success of our ancestors, who were able to form fairly big co-operative societies. Most likely some of the other human species still existing during the spreading of our ancestry were not infact so different from us and some interbreeding did happen. So, perhaps some of the individuals from our “cousin” species being somehow integrated to human societies may have been the result of empathetic ability on both groups, just like taming of various different animal species. Maily social species. Yet, the relationship may have just as well been that of slaves and owners – as it is about ownership with animals. We have plenty of examples of humans treating each other like that.

    Some human species had disappeared from the face of the world allready long before the emergence of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Framing the idea so, that first there were many species and then one of them won some sort of competition is just totally flawed. In general when humans work together and employ their empathy, they are stronger together and the society works better for everybody. Individualism may help some people to cheat priviledges for themselves, but in general it is a destructive force, rather than constructive.

    Liked by 3 people

    • rautakyy, thank you for expanding on some of the points that were included in my post.

      However, it’s important to remember that what I posted was just a summary since I don’t subscribe to the magazine itself. It’s very possible the points you addressed were expanded on in the full article.

      In any event, we Homo sapiens are here now, for better or worse. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  10. When I was in college (over 50 years ago), I became interested in Geza Roheim who was a (maybe the only) psychoanalytic anthropologist. His contention was exactly the same as this. Our neurological underdevelopment at birth is big. A baby colt can stand up, kick, and run. We are need months to crawl and walk. Roheim said this early period shaped the psyche and was tied to our ability to bind into cultural units. Of course, the underdevelopment creates vulnerability and the need for extended parenting. The dependency on the parents is psychologically tied to the sense of vulnerability.

    Of course, since Roheim wrote we have increasingly learned about neural plasticity and the need for environmental queues for normal development in early childhood. For example, successful language acquisition needs the correct stimulating environment during the early years of childhood. One side effect of underdevelopment is that we can make new neural connections after birth and in a cultural context.

    More recently we have gotten evidence that the maturation rate of the prefrontal cortex also distinguishes us from apes and from Neanderthals by about 5 years to 1 year.



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