How did our species come to rule the planet? Rick Potts argues that environmental instability and disruption were decisive factors in the success of Homo sapiens: Alone among our primate tribe, we were able to cope with constant change and turn it to our advantage. Potts is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and curator of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which opened at that museum last year. He also leads excavations in the East African Rift Valley and codirects projects in China that compare early human behavior and environments in eastern Africa with those in eastern Asia. Here Potts explains the reasoning behind his controversial idea.
Why did our close relatives—from Neanderthals to their
recently discovered cousins, the Denisovans, to the hobbit people of Indonesia—die out while we became a global success?
That is the million-dollar question. My view is that great variability in our ancestral environment was the big challenge of human evolution. The key was the ability to respond to those changes. We are probably the most adaptable mammal that has ever evolved on earth. Just look at all the places we can live and the way we seek out novel places to explore, such as space.
The classic view of human evolution doesn’t emphasize adaptability. It focuses more on the idea that we were inevitable: that famous march from ape to human. It’s a ladder of progress with simple organisms at the bottom and humans at the top. This idea of inevitability runs deep in our societal assumptions, probably because it’s comforting—a picture of a single, forward trajectory, ending in modern humans as the crown of creation.
But recently discovered fossils show an incredible diversity in the human family tree. That seems like the opposite of a ladder.
Right. The tremendous fossil discoveries of late have given us a lot more knowledge about the diversity of human experiments, and diversity is the theme that needs to be underlined. Yet in spite of the great variety in earlier human species, we are the only one that remains of a diverse family tree. That might seem to indicate something special about us, but in fact even we barely made it. Between 90,000 and 70,000 years ago, our own species almost bit the dust. Several genetic studies show a bottleneck back then, a time when the total number of Homo sapiens was tiny. So we, too, were an endangered species.
How did you come to see adaptability as the key to our ultimate evolutionary success?
I first got interested in this idea during my excavations in southern Kenya, where the changes in different layers of sediment, indicating different habitats at different times, were really obvious. Every layer suggested a change in vegetation as well as moisture, the kinds of other animals that were around, and the survival challenges faced by our ancient predecessors. I wondered if our lineage thrived precisely because our ancestors could adjust to those changes. I called this hypothesis variability selection—the idea that change itself was a selective pressure. Repeated, dramatic shifts in the environment challenged many species and may have actually selected for the features that have come to typify Homo sapiens, especially our ability to alter our immediate surroundings.
In the classic view, it was thought that we emerged on the savanna as conditions dried and cooled. We imagined our earliest ancestors in a backdrop of dry and grassy plains that basically forced the emergence of walking upright, tool use, and a larger brain, ultimately leading to language and culture and global success.
Now, it’s certainly true that there has been marked global cooling and drying over the last 70 million years. But during the period of human evolution [since the appearance of our first direct ancestors in Africa], there were actually very pronounced fluctuations between warm and cool, between moist and arid. One way you can tell is by looking at different oxygen isotopes in the fossilized skeletons of ocean microorganisms. A heavier isotope is present during cooler periods, and a lighter one in warmer periods. I plotted out the variability in million-year intervals and found that about 6 million years ago, that variability went off the charts and kept increasing. That struck me as really strange, because that’s the time when the human story begins. African environments showed especially strong shifts between arid and moist climates during the past 4 million years.
Our ancestors had to survive all these settings. I started to think, What if all that variability is not noise in the overall cooling and drying trend, but a very important test of the capacity of a creature to survive? This idea helps explain how we started out as a small, apelike, herbivorous species 6 million years ago in tropical Africa, and after a history of origin and extinction of species, what’s left today is us: a single species all over the planet with an astonishing array of abilities to adjust.