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Joe Watkins

Joe Watkins

Dr. Joe Watkins, Ph.D.
Supervisory Anthropologist
National Park Service
Washington, DC

Thoughts on Human Origins

I am a Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma. I was raised as a Southern Baptist, where religion was Hell-fire and damnation strongly laced with guilt, until the age of 14, when my mother allowed me to choose my own religious path. During the summers, however, I attended Luksukla Indian Church in Wright City, Oklahoma, with services conducted in the Choctaw language and all-day gatherings focused on community and fellowship. Since then, I have attended ceremonies in Catholic churches, Jewish synagogues, Native American Church tepees, Muslim mosques, and other celebrations of religious belief in formal and informal settings. All of these ideas, thoughts, and experiences contribute to my eclectic belief system as I search for “meaning” within the human existence.

To this base I have added a generous sprinkling of anthropology, philosophy, history, and science. I am a firm believer in the scientific explanations offered by the theory of evolution as a means of understanding the physical processes that underlie the mechanism whereby humanity has reached the stage where it exists today.

“Knowledge” and “belief” both provide me with sustenance, neither one precluding the other. Each one fills a different need within that which I believe is a part of Being Human.

 

Reflections on The Age of Humans (the Anthropocene) 

Given the impact of humans on the planet over the past 200,000 years, what might it mean to be human over the next century? 

The impact of humans on the plant over the last 200,000 years has been exponential, but more so perhaps within the last 200 years. The advent of “culture” allowed humans to move into nearly every environmental niche without the need for physical evolution. Human bodies no longer had to adapt to shifting climates or geographical regions since the products of human invention (clothing, architecture, farming, and so forth) served that function. The Industrial Age further hastened humanity’s shift from physical evolution to a cultural one and advances in social life and medicine led to a lengthened human life span. It no longer takes millennia for evolutionary practices to help humans occupy and flourish in marginal environments since warmer clothing and better health care makes it easier for individuals to survive. We continue to take advantage of marginal areas, occasionally to the detriment of other societies, but always putting a stress on natural resources. We continue to improve on our technology at a rate far beyond those envisioned even 25 years ago.

In mid-twentieth century science fiction stories, humans are portrayed with increased cranial capacity and decreased physical form, but the availability of technology makes it possible to carry millions of pieces of information literally at one’s fingertips – on a telephone, tablet, or other electronic marvels – that no longer make it necessary to “remember” non-important or trivial things. We more and more rely on external brains to do the work of our internal one. Many apocalyptic stories place humanity’s electronic creations as masters rather than servants, and draw attention to the subservient role humans as individuals seem to play in an electronic age. The number of people engaged in intense conversations with their cell phones far outweighs the number engaged in conversations with other humans.

If humanity continues on its current trajectory, we will need to redefine and reestablish our relationships with other humans. Climate change, in conjunction with the increasing human populations on the globe, will continue to place strains on our natural and social resources. “Being Human” will require us to work harder than ever before to replace our personal drive for individuality with understanding of the needs of society as a whole. “Being Human” will require us to maintain those attributes that separate us from other animals – a recognition understanding of our place in the cosmos; a commitment to making our shared spaces safe and secure for all; and an integration of social and cultural resources for the betterment of those not yet born.

Being human in the next one hundred years is going to require a commitment to treating other humans as equals rather than as lesser. As we continue to rely more on technology, we should turn our gaze inward to better regain an understanding of how different we are than the other animals with which we share the planet.

Dr. Joe Watkins, Ph.D.