The Origin and Legacy of the Human Age

The Origin and Legacy of the Human Age

Whether we live a million more years or another week is up to us

Cover of the Q1 Special Edition of Scientific American.

Scientific American

It has never been a certainty that humans would survive on Earth. We’ve probably faced extinction several times in our evolutionary past, according to genetic analysis. In the past few years a global pandemic killed millions, the hottest months in human record baked much of the world, and thought leaders signed a global petition to rein in powerful (and potentially harmful) artificial-intelligence technology. These challenges remind us that there are no guarantees. And yet we are a species to be reckoned with. We have accomplished a great deal in our relatively short time here—extended our life spans, made startling discoveries about our environment and ourselves, harnessed resources to improve our quality of life, and developed rich histories of art and culture. The human legacy on Earth is unparalleled.

How did we get here? It turns out that our evolutionary story is not a linear progression from ape to human. Each fossil discovery adds to the messy tangle that is the path leading to Homo sapiens. Our large brains helped to solve the complex problem of primitive survival, and interpersonal relationships and altruism might have given us a strong advantage over other hominins. Both male and female ancestors shared the duties of hunting, according to new analyses.

And what a world we’ve created together. We’ve built a behemoth financial system, established global communication and trade networks, and unleashed information technology. The benefits of those systems are not evenly distributed, however, leaving many lacking basic resources and health care. Now some economists have started to wonder whether we’re using the proper tools to measure the true success of a society. Our life expectancy has more than tripled over the course of our two-million-year story. At the same time, growing inequality and poor future planning will undoubtedly give rise to new threats to health and longevity.

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Human progress has had a measurable impact on the ground we walk, even down to the layers of concrete, plastics and nuclear waste we leave behind—indelible enough to mark a new geological era. Glacial melting is happening faster than scientists predicted just a few years ago, a harbinger of change to come. That change will have disproportionate effects because the burden of environmental degradation is carried by the world’s impoverished and oppressed peoples.

The ingenuity that launched us to the top of the food chain could also fast-track major improvements. Cities, which house more than half of the global population, might become hotbeds of sustainable solutions that cut down on both resource consumption and pollution. And rural communities that manage their own food production and wealth locally are likely to end up more self-sufficient and in harmony with the natural world.

Of course, this story is far from over. Humans are an exceptional species. Whether we live a million more years or another week is entirely up to us. Whatever we choose as our legacy on Earth, it will be fueled by tenacious human creativity.

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