April 26, 2001

Ehrlich Describes the Evolution of Humanity

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In a lecture entitled “Human Natures: Genes, Culture and the Human Prospect,” Stanford University biologist Paul R. Ehrlich gave an overview of genetic and cultural evolution of humanity yesterday evening in Kennedy Hall’s Alumni Auditorium.

In his lecture, he stressed that the most interesting human behavior is the result of cultural evolution.

The lecture was introduced by President Hunter R. Rawlings III and was sponsored by the Cornell Center for the Environment, which named Ehrlich and his wife Anne Howland Ehrlich as the 2001 Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecturers.

In his overview of human evolution, Ehrlich said, “the first thing you have to understand is that we are great apes,” noting that chimpanzees are our closest relatives.

Through evolution, small changes in our genetic makeup resulted in the apparent differences between us and other great apes, according to Ehrlich.

Skeletal remains indicate that, “we got to be upright before we got smart,” and for some reason, once we got smart, “we got smart very fast,” he said.

However, what really distinguishes us from other animals is that we have a vast collection of information stored in culture, according to Ehrlich.

Stone tools indicate that for thousands of years, culturally, we evolved slowly at first but then for “controversial reasons,” we evolved much faster, according to Ehrlich.

“Cultural evolution is very rapid,” he said noting its continuance.

It can occur during a discussion between people in a room, through the radio and by reading books, he noted.

Unlike genetic evolution, where only adults can pass down genetic information to children, cultural evolution can be passed by children to adults through communication, Ehrlich explained.

Now, “we have more information in our culture than in our genes,” he said.

According to Ehrlich, it is our culture that determines how we behave and not our genes.

To prove his point, he presented examples of identical twins who developed different personalities over their lives, despite having identical genetic makeup.

“There are not enough genes to program our vast number of interesting behaviors,” he said.

One of human’s unique behaviors is the development of ethics, which Ehrlich credits to our cultural evolution.

According to Ehrlich, we developed ethics because we are social beings and wanted to know how to treat others.

Ehrlich notes that as human ethics have developed over time, we must continue to expand our ethical focus while paying more attention to the environment.

“It’s time we develop a stronger environmental ethic or we will pay for it,” he said.

Ehrlich concluded the lecture by saying that we as humans need to continue learning about how culture changes.

“I thought it was very provocative,” said Prof. Jim Cordes, astronomy.

Doug Krisch ’00 said, “I enjoyed it because he’s a scientist that’s political. He applies his knowledge to address the world’s problems, specifically global warming.”

“He made me see how genetics determines not what we think, but how we think and that how we think is more cultural,” David Lewis ’02 said.

The lecture title was based on the title of Ehrlich’s latest book Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect.

He will be available at The Cornell Store today from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a book signing.

Archived article by Luke Hejnar