“The differences between groups sometimes cause conflicts—people can always find something to disagree about as long as they feel a need to create separation. We reject in others what we’re unable or unwilling to accept in ourselves, the things we prefer to keep in the dark. But at a microcosmic level, we’re all made of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. And from the perspective of other planetary systems, we’re all Earthlings.”
Kimo, Chapter 47, A Moment of Time*
Humans depend upon each other and probably always have. During early stages of human civilization, small groups of individuals gathered together into clans, tribes, and villages. Some tribes were more peaceful; others sought to expand their influence—either directly, by colonizing new settlements and expanding their territory, or indirectly, by passing on their genes and expanding their kinship ties. They wandered far and wide, by land and by sea, invading neighboring settlements and discovering new products and practices. Survival was paramount; ensuring adequate food, water, clothing and shelter for the group took priority. Ritual was also important, for the forces that impacted the group (drought, floods, etc.) were beyond the control of humans; they were the province of the gods.
After basic needs were met, time could be devoted to art and philosophy, to leisure and entertainment, to developing culture and traditions. Risks could be taken and new experiments attempted. A body of knowledge and experience was accumulated and passed on. Surplus could be shared; skills and goods could be traded. Curious about the world around them, people climbed mountains and sailed across oceans. Sometimes they encountered people very different from themselves.
Hunter-gatherers survived in Europe until 5,000 years ago (Stone Age), burying their dead in the same cave as the farmers that arrived 7,500 years ago. Recent evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer populations may have co-existed with farming cultures in central Europe for two thousand years, and that hunter-gatherer women sometimes married into the farming community.  These two populations had very different genetic backgrounds. 
Whether interbreeding occurred among early species of humans is a subject of debate among experts.  (I’m not talking about differences like race and ethnicity; I’m talking about different species!) Some geneticists and paleoanthropologists believe that early humans mated with Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) between 65,000-90,000 years ago  and Denisovans  and possibly with other “archaic human relatives.” 
What Does It Mean To Be Human?
Archaic humans and modern humans are all hominins—members of the tribe Hominini.  Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) is the only species of the homo genus that survives into the present. The homo genus emerged over two million years ago and is characterized by “an erect posture, a large cranium, two-footed gait, fully opposable thumbs, and well-developed tool-making ability.” 
Neanderthals lived across a vast range from Spain to Russia and survived in Europe until 30,000  to 40,000 years ago.  Some Neanderthals buried their dead, but little evidence of ceremonial practice has been discovered. Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA shows up in some modern human populations.  Researchers have identified over 31,000 genetic changes that distinguish modern humans from Neanderthals and Denisovans.  The most genetically diverse humans are found on the continent of Africa, not surprisingly, perhaps, as many of the oldest human fossils have been found on the African continent.
No two humans are genetically identical , but any two humans are highly similar, making even racial differences insignificant from a genetic standpoint.  And yet . . . the experience of life is vastly different for each individual—even individuals from the same family. We each have unique talents, beliefs, sensitivities, and opportunities, and our choices lead us to different experiences. No two people experience even a single event or interaction in exactly the same way. Humans interpret sensory data; we make sense of our world. Or, at least, we try to.
We seem to expect those who look like us to think and behave as we think they ought; groups often ridicule or ostracize individuals who seem too “different.” Yet, we can differ from each other in numerous ways. Some people are hard of hearing; others are sensitive to noise. Some people are colorblind—they do not even see colors in the way we think of as normal. Some people are allergic to pets; some are lactose intolerant; some cannot digest gluten. None of these differences (not to mention what goes on inside people’s heads!) are apparent to a casual observer.
“Normal” at any given time is what the majority (or influential minority) of the population experiences or agrees upon. Visionaries and geniuses and those who lag behind in intelligence or other abilities all fall outside normal ranges when measuring particular characteristics. (“healthy” is different from “normal”; members of an unhealthy population may all be obese, but obesity can hardly be called healthy, even if it has become the norm.)
We often focus upon our differences with others, creating laws against marrying “outsiders,” whether the outsiders are from a different race, religion, or caste. When we look at people from another culture, we see differences in appearance—size, shape, skin color, hairstyles, body art, dress. We judge people according to our own standards of beauty and propriety. We often believe that our way of speaking and doing is the right way, but we also learn from others (especially when they are natives and we are newcomers) and adopt (or take) what we desire. At first glance, we may seem to have little in common—except our essential humanity. If we ever encounter an alien species from another planet, the differences among humans might seem insignificant.
We Are All Earthlings
Humans understand each other on a fundamental level. We share similar emotions; we have the same body parts; we live on the same planet. Our lifestyles, religious practices, short-term goals, and philosophical ideas may vary widely, but our basic needs are the same. Whether we choose to focus on our similarities or our differences often depends upon our aims.
Individuals are capable of the full spectrum of human behaviors—we can be cooperative, or competitive. We kill, torture, rape, enslave, deceive and betray each other; we also nurture, teach, entertain, and sacrifice for others. We are capable of greed and selfishness, and of courage and heroism. We feel love, empathy, and compassion, and anger, envy, and hatred. Some of us embrace change and are curious about differences; others are timid and fearful of anything that seems to threaten their ideas or ways.
Cooperation is often an effective and efficient strategy. A group of hunters has a better chance of securing food for the tribe if the members spread out over a larger territory than one man could cover on his own. By pooling resources, large, ambitious projects can be undertaken; by combining tools, skills and ideas, a group can develop ingenious and workable solutions and products.
The expectations of the people around us influence our beliefs, goals, behavior, and ambitions. Many unwritten rules accompany membership in a group—whether a family, a tribe, or a corporation. Stray too far outside the lines and you will suffer consequences. Sometimes your family will be made to suffer as well, as a way of exerting pressure upon you to conform. Your right to self-determination does not extend to infringing upon the welfare of others. All groups place some limits on behavior, though tolerance for deviance varies widely. In some groups, any hint of disrespect brings swift punishment; others are more open to disagreement and individual expression. In closed, hierarchical systems, dissent is discouraged and sometimes dangerous. But even powerful individuals cannot completely ignore the will and opinions of the people.
The criteria by which we judge our similarities and our differences changes over time. People often identify their “kind” as those who come from the same region, family lineage, race or ethnicity. Yet, we can feel like an ugly duckling if those around us don’t understand us, think like us, or value the things we hold dear. If they oppose us, rifts develop. Feuds can be carried on for generations; hatreds endure as stories of wrongs done (or imagined) to “our people” by “other people” are kept alive. We are influenced by our beliefs, and our beliefs are shaped, in part, by the stories we adopt about ourselves, the world, and other people.
In tribal cultures, the rare deviant might be banished from the group, or he might leave of his own accord. In modern times, ease of travel to anywhere on the globe has resulted in widespread migrations as people search for better—or different—ways of living. Large urban centers like New York City have long been cosmopolitan melting pots; now, even small towns in sparsely populated states have residents who have arrived from a variety of countries; the religions, languages, customs and dress of these strangers may differ from earlier settlers who assimilated into American culture. (I’m speaking here of the United States but a similar trend is apparent in many countries.)
Communities are not new, but the forms that they take change. Whether barn-raising or fund-raising, we need each other. We seek out communities where we can share our knowledge and gifts, receive information and advice, socialize together, develop friendships, share common interests, create and build together. We want to belong somewhere, and modern life offers many opportunities beyond our immediate environs for us to find others who think like us and value the same things we do.
Given the freedom to do so, many people will divorce and remarry, leave one occupation for another, relocate, adopt children, and form new families by combining individuals who are biologically unrelated. “Family” comes to mean those we love, care for, and commit to, and may or may not include blood relatives. Those of us who have wandered away from our homeland must find new communities and establish new bonds. For some, the feeling of belonging might be found with a religious order or spiritual community; others may find camaraderie and adventure with a motorcycle gang. Lodges, clubs, and networking groups groups provide avenues for connection and friendship.
Our needs, priorities, and ambitions change across our lifespan, and we are likely to belong to many communities over the course of a lifetime. Teenagers often embrace styles and trends that are utterly foreign to their parents; they may seem at times to pay more allegiance to peer groups than to family traditions. Parents may socialize with other parents; single adults form social groups. Professionals attend conferences with colleagues and speak a language only they understand. Soldiers and veterans bond over shared experiences. Empty-nesters and retirees seek new outlets for their energies and may pursue interests that were put on hold many years before. They may join a writing group or photography club, volunteer their time and expertise in service organizations, take up a new hobby or sport. Whether you are a stamp collector or a hacker, you can find people who share your interests and enthusiasm. These days, a club or magazine, support group or online community exists for a wide range of interests, from health conditions to crafts to addictions. Whether you dream of living in an artist colony, an ecovillage, or a nudist camp, chances are such a place exists somewhere—and the World Wide Web is a great resource that allows people to find each other.
The communities in which we find acceptance and belonging, respect and recognition, appreciation for our gifts and talents, encouragement to be our best selves, and companions with whom to love and laugh and create and share will be the most memorable, meaningful, and life-affirming. No longer must we stay in a job or a marriage that brings us misery because of choices we made—or that were made for us—when we were young and inexperienced. As we learn about ourselves and the world, we are free (to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon circumstances) to change.
As modern society becomes increasingly complex and jobs become more specialized, we become more interdependent. For many people in Western nations, food, power, information, medical care, and the tools and technologies we rely upon are provided by outside sources. We recognize that we are part of one global community, and the health of one population—economically as well as physically—affects the whole. Advanced civilizations now have the means to reach other planets—and other planetary systems outside our solar system. We have the means to communicate and trade with people in distant lands. These advances favor a more inclusive view of the human family. Progressive communities encourage sharing and concern for others beyond the immediate membership; they recognize that human rights violations are an insult to all of humanity, not just the particular individuals involved in any given instance. Just as sports fans celebrate when their team wins a game or championship, we can all celebrate when new milestones are achieved by outstanding individuals.
Of course, even in paradise, conflicts will arise. The attitude and manner with which we respond to differences and disagreements is more important than the fact that we sometimes clash, even with those we love; in order to create a healthy and sustainable community, members must learn effective ways of communicating and resolving disputes, be willing to compromise and examine their own prejudices and lack of understanding, develop tolerance, and treat others with respect.
The universe is alive and creative. Most of the planets outside of our solar system that have been identified do not resemble Earth.  A recently discovered planet, eleven times more massive than Jupiter (the largest planet in our solar system), is estimated to be 13 million years old. (Estimates put Earth’s age at 4.5 billion years.)  The existence of Planet HD 106906 does not fit neatly into any current astronomical models. It is far more distant from its sun than we are to ours. (It is more than twenty times farther from its star than Neptune is from our sun.)
These are unprecedented times. Remaining herders, hunter-gatherers, and tribespeople remind us of our humble origins. Architectural and technological wonders—bridges, computers, skyscrapers and satellites—remind us of all we have achieved. War, tyranny, and environmental degradation show us how far we have yet to go. Homo sapiens is a relatively young species. Perhaps we, too, will someday be replaced by a more advanced civilization. For now, we’re all we’ve got. Celebrate being human. Celebrate being alive!
Happy holidays to All. Peace on Earth.
*Find out more about Kimo’s ideas in A Moment of Time!
1. “Hunter-Gatherers and Immigrant Farmers Lived Together for 2,000 Years in Central Europe,” ScienceDaily (October 10, 2013) www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131010142704.htm
2. “Genes Shed Light On Spread of Agriculture in Stone Age Europe,” ScienceDaily (April 26, 2012) www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120426143850.htm
3. “Neanderthals Did Not Interbreed with Humans, Scientists Find,” The Telegraph (August 14, 2012) www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9474109/Neanderthals-did-not-interbreed-with-humans-scientists-find.html (“common ancestry” can account for shared DNA)
Conclusions are sometimes drawn from small sample sizes; undoubtedly, more evidence will come to light in the coming years.
4. Ewen Callaway, “Ancient DNA Reveals Secrets of Human History, ” Nature (August 9, 2011) www.nature.com/news/2011/110809/full/476136a.html
5. Named after the cave in Siberia where remains of a 50,000 year-old girl were found. Analysis of nuclear DNA from a pinkie bone showed a close relationship with Neanderthals, but enough difference to warrant separate classification.
6. Paleoanthropologists call the earlier species “archaic humans” to distinguish them from modern Homo sapiens.
7. See National Geographic Style Manual, “hominid, hominin, hominoid, human” stylemanual.ngs.org/home/H/hominid (Accessed December 22, 2013)
8. “Homo (genus),” New World Encyclopedia www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Homo_(genus) (Accessed December 22, 2013)
Homo erectus (“upright man”) is an extinct species that may have overlapped in time with Homo sapiens. Homo erectus is believed to have arisen in Africa about two million years ago. Intact fossilized skulls of human ancestors were found recently, along with simple stone tools, at Dmanisi, Georgia; the remains have been dated to 1.8 million years old. Some experts now suggest that many of the remains of human ancestors that have been found in Africa that date to the same time period as those found at Dmanisi may be variants of Homo erectus, rather than different species, as they have been classified in the past (e.g., Homo ergaster). Ian Sample, “Skull of Homo erectus Throws Story of Human Evolution into Disarray,” The Guardian (October 17, 2013) www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/17/skull-homo-erectus-human-evolution
Homo erectus died out approximately 100,000 years ago. The earliest fossils of Homo sapiens date to 200,000 years ago.
The oldest human genome to be sequenced thus far is that of a 24,000-year-old boy from southern Siberia. Michael Marshall, “Oldest Human Genome Reveals Roots of First Americans,” NewScientist (November 20, 2013) www.newscientist.com/article/dn24616
Homo erectus occupied a vast area in China by 1.7 million to 1.6 million years ago. Charles Choi, “Early Humans Lived in China 1.7 Million Years Ago,” LiveScience (August 15, 2013) www.livescience.com/38917-early-humans-lived-in-china.html?cmpid=514645
9. Ewen Callaway, “Hominin DNA Baffles Experts,” Nature (December 4, 2013) www.nature.com/news/hominin-dna-baffles-experts-1.14294
10. Robin McKie, “Why Did the Neanderthals Die Out?” The Guardian (June 1, 2013) www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jun/02/why-did-neanderthals-die-out (“Previous research on Neanderthal sites which suggested that they were more recent than 40,000 years old appears to be wrong”)
11. Carl Zimmer, “Interbreeding with Neanderthals,” Discover Magazine (March 4, 2013) discovermagazine.com/2013/march/14-interbreeding-neanderthals
12. Charles Q. Choi, “Neanderthal Woman’s Genome Reveals Unknown Human Lineage,” LiveScience (December 18, 2013) m.livescience.com/42056-neanderthal-woman-genome-sequenced.html (DNA extracted from toe bone of adult female Neanderthal who lived in Siberia at least 50,000 years ago)
13. The first Homo sapiens are generally believed to have appeared in Africa.
14. Even identical twins sometimes undergo mutations during development. Tia Ghose, “Identical Twins Are Genetically Different, Research Suggests,” LiveScience (November 9, 2012) www.livescience.com/24694-identical-twins-not-identical.html
15. “Understanding Human Genetic Variation,” National Institutes of Health web site, National Genome Research Institute science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih1/genetic/guide/genetic_variation1.htm (accessed December 23, 2013)
16. Katharine Gammon, “Exoplanets: Worlds Beyond Our Solar System,” Space (May 15, 2013) www.space.com/17738-exoplanets.html
17. Denise Chow, “Giant Alien Planet Discovered in Most Distant Orbit Ever Seen,” Space (December 6, 2013) www.space.com/23858-most-distant-alien-planet-discovery-hd106906b.html