Homo sapiens sapiens became a distinctly ‘modern’ species no earlier than a quarter of a million years ago. (That is, ‘they’ anatomically resembled ’us’ as distinct from archaic Homo sapiens.) At that time, resources were sufficient for at least 4 other hominid species to co-exist with us. Then, 161,000 years ago (+/-) the climate changed. Drought crept across the temperate and tropical zones. Not a drought of months or even years, but a drought of thousands of years. Whole species went extinct. Hominid species survived by differentiating themselves; some (Homo Erectus) learned to live in the deserts and dwindling forests; some sought the ice (Homo Neandertalensis) while Homo sapiens collected at shore lines. There we learned to exploit a variety of environments. Note that this differentiation occurred at the margins of hostile environments, the fringes which supported life.
(Now stop a moment and consider. Savannah dwellers finding themselves ‘suddenly’ in tidal waters and on marshes would have wholly new problems to solve. There would be no knowledge of moon and tides, no tidal tables, no understanding of what was toxic and what healthy and in what seasons. Simply gathering shellfish would be a dangerous, potentially lethal, series of activities. All this had to be learned, and the learning came at the price of death.)
100,000 years later, the climate tempered, rain fell and we emerged again onto fertile plains. We may have emerged as a species of as few as 600 breeding individuals. Nothing was fated for us but extinction. Yet, we swept the world and its inhabitants with a fury that has not abated, extinguishing other species including other hominids. (One of the most useful tools for tracking the spread of Homo sapiens is to track the extinction of large animal species.) Given our adaptability and our fury, our insistence on being the sole hominid to people the earth, we are misnamed. We should dub ourselves, Homo opportunus or even Homo homicidium.
We contain, however, a fatal flaw. Our genetic variation is less than 3%. (To understand this, two comparative examples will serve. 10,000 years ago, another climate change destroyed more than 90% of the existing cheetah population [Acinonyx jubatus]. Today the genetic variation of cheetahs is barely measurable causing us to establish many cheetah breeding programs to increase that variation and cheetah numbers. Dogs [Canis lupus familiaris] while a subspecies of the gray wolf have an estimated genetic variation of +/- 12% – 23% with an average of 17% and sufficient numbers that require no endangered status.)
Now, 61,000 years is not long in the life of a species though long for a single organism. Most of us cannot recall 3 generations much less the generations that stretch back that far. (Statistically, historians count 3 generations per century, a statistic which may have to be altered given our life prolonging techniques now. This means 1,610 centuries at 3 generations each or 4,830 generations since our retreat and 1,830 generations since our diasporas. The mind staggers.)
Human minds may not recall those generations and that time, but our genes surely do, for our genes would have been even more sorely tested in that 100,000 year cauldron than even individuals were. What new toxins, new diseases, new mutations set on us? The mindless demand of genes is self-preservation, hurling their plasm into the future. Extremely limited variation (whatever the Victorian or Nazi propagandists may have wanted) is counter to the demand of genes themselves. The human genes ‘seek’ a larger pool, more random matings, more and more experiments in individuals, more opportunities for mutation to achieve a wider diversity. Beyond order then, humans, without perhaps knowing why, seek purpose, and that purpose is often achieved in disorder, in chaos.
We, as individuals and as a species, are then both sides of the coin of existence: meaning through order and purpose through the seeming randomness of chaos.