Refugee crisis triggers basic human impulses

The impulse to bring Syrian refugees into Canada is a fundamental human characteristic. So is the suspicion that they are going to harm us.

Our human species, Homo sapiens, successfully populated the entire planet because of, not in spite of, these seemingly contrary drives says Professor Marean of the University of Arizona.

Homo Sapiens

At first, our ancestors remained contained in the mother continent, Africa. Shortly after we emerged, a global cooling trend that lasted from 195,000 to 125,000 years ago significantly reduced our numbers. But the next time a glacial cooling trend came along, we had changed.

“The emergence of the strange brew of killer and cooperator may well explain why, when glacial conditions returned between 74,000 and 60,000 years ago, once again rendering large swathes of Africa inhospitable, modern humans did not contract as before.”

What happened the first to second glacial ages was a genetic change that made us more cooperative. At the same time we acquired new weapons technology.

The genetic change that selects for cooperation happens when a food source is rich and concentrated. Under those circumstances, tribes find it beneficial to collectively defend those resources so that unrelated people, who may even speak a different language, cooperate to protect the resource. Professor Marean figures that one likely location where this change took place was Pinnacle Point on the coast of what’s now South Africa. The concentrated resource was rich shellfish beds.

Where food resources are thinly spread, it’s pointless to try to collectively defend them. “If the food cannot be defended or it is too costly to patrol, then aggressive behaviour is counterproductive.

“This principle still holds today: ethnic groups and nation-states fight viciously over dense, predictable and valuable resources such as oil, water and productive agricultural land.”

Add technology to the genetic trait and you have a powerful mix. Throwing spears, especially a leverage-assisted spear called the atlatl, allowed hunters to strike at a distance. The initial strike would not kill large prey but once the animal is run to its knees through exhaustion and blood loss, the final slaughter could be finished from a distance, perhaps with the aid of a poison-tipped spear.

Without spears, evidence indicates that Neanderthal hunters suffered serious wounds as the fallen animal lunged forward.

The first foray out of the mother continent, 100,000 years ago, went badly and expansion into Europe failed. The next time would be different. Equipped with the genetic disposition of cooperation and the technology of spears, Neanderthals and other human species could not compete.

And even when we made love, not war, with other human species we would out-compete them for resources. And make love we did. Humans outside of Africa sill carry genes from other species.

“When resources and land get sparse, we designate those who do not look or speak like us as “the others,” and then we use those differences to justify exterminating or expelling them to eliminate competition.”

Whether the impulse of inclusion or expulsion arises when dealing with Syrian refugees depends on how we view them. One inclination is to welcome them as cooperators in developing a rich resource. The other is to treat them as dangerous competitors for the resources of Canada.


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