Jonah: I’m Jonah Chester
Clay: I’m Clay Catlin, and you’re listening to Animal/Human
Jonah: This show is a production of IU’s College of Arts and Sciences and a proud part of the 2018 Themester.
Clay: Each episode, we talk with a different IU researcher to examine where we, as humans, belong in the animal kingdom.
Jonah: We also examine the interactions of humans and animals in art, literature and science. For this, our final episode, Clay discusses our journey as a species from animal to human with Dr. Jeanne Sept of IU’s anthropology department.
Clay: The class Dr. Sept is teaching for this year’s Themester, titled Becoming Human, deals with this topic.
Jonah: Clay and Dr. Sept will be thinking about are animals ancestors in order to get a better understanding of who we are as humans.
Clay: Professor Sept, thank you so much for joining us today.
Professor Sept: My pleasure.
Clay: So my first question for you is: can you tell us a little bit about how your work in anthropology deals with this year’s Themester theme Animal/Human.
Professor Sept: Well, I’m a student of human origins and I actually do the archaeology of human origins which means I study the world’s oldest garbage, which is interesting. But if you're interested in human origins the question comes up: what are the differences between humans and animals? What makes us so different in the world? The record of our past can tell us a lot about that and we can imagine all sorts of things in the modern world but if you actually turn to the record of the past you can learn what actually happened. Turns out we’ve basically descended from animals and we’re still animals today, we’re just distinctive ones. We’re quite proud of our uniqueness but part of what's really interesting is to understand what we have in common not just what the differences are and the best way to do that is to understand ourselves as a species in the world today and to sort of go back through my time. My own particular interests relate to food and when we started eating, how our diet has contributed to our situation on the planet today and our uniqueness, and I’ve also, as part of that, we compare ourselves to our closest living relatives the chimpanzees. I got interested in one point in using the methodology that an archaeologist would use to study ancient human societies, to actually use that perspective to understand some aspects of chimpanzee behavior that can inform us about ourselves as well. So constantly, its a constant comparison back and forth between us and them and part of that process is coming to understand how artificial some of the dichotomies we often think of actually are and to really understand the continuity between us and all the other animals in the animal kingdom and that’s what studying human evolution is all about.
Clay: So you mentioned that you do work looking at the diet of early hominids, my question is what and how did our ancestors eat?
Professor Sept: Well depends on how far back you want to go. In a sense, we’re descended from primates. We are primate ourselves and if you look at one of the things we have in common with primates is that we’re all basically sort of fussy eaters and we’re all omnivores, were eclectic and selective in what we like to eat. We like to go for the best stuff. You could say we’ve inherited a sweet tooth from some of our primate ancestors, why mess around with certain foods that are dilute when you can actually go for something that's particularly tasty? And so, for example we’ve inherited the ability to have a very discerning taste when it comes to detecting sugars and other sorts of foods. So in the past, primates, if you look at primates living today they eat a wide range of foods and lots and lots of different kinds of plant foods and most primates also eat animal foods. So our ancestors undoubtedly came from that sort of realm and I think that, if you think about it, Maurice Sendak would probably be delighted to know that we ate wild things. And that's a fundamental difference between what our ancestors ate and what we ate today because the composition of wild things is really different than the agricultural products that we’ve bred for so many years now. And so one of the distinctions between our diets today and our ancestors’ diets in the past is the extent to which we’ve selected for things that we think are tasty. So things that are sweeter, things that have more sort of marbled fat in the meat, and domestic animals compared to wild animals and all sorts of things like that. And then we’ve packaged it all up and, you know, bred plants and animals to satisfy many of our tastes that we have but also to satisfy our sort of economic needs as a society to produce foods quickly and in massive amounts and that sort of thing. But in the past we ate wild foods on a sort of catch as catch can sort of basis. It's tricky to be able to know what's edible and we ate a mix of foods. So, eclectic omnivores. I mean one of the interesting questions is that at what point did cooking become part of our repertoire. We’re so dependent on cooking and processing stuff today and its a real interesting debate on how early did our ancestors come to grips with, when did we start to control fire for example and when did we decide to process different sorts of plants and animals and change them chemically by cooking them? It may have quite early on, the evidence suggests that its a slightly more recent time period than some of the other sorts of things. So that's one of the debates in human evolution is at what point did we control fire and start to cook our food?
Clay: That's so interesting cause we think of hot foods, cooked food as sort of being the standard for food you're going to eat. But that’s pretty, I mean this is… I don’t know about this word specifically, but it's almost kind of unnatural for us.
Professor Sept: Yeah, what is a natural diet is a real interesting question. You see it on cereal boxes and things. You pick up food these days and it says all natural and then you flip it over and start reading the labels. Michael Palin, you know, the journalist would say, you know, read those labels if you can’t understand what the words mean is that really natural? And it’s an interesting questions and so we’ve been, you can grow foods. And when I ask my students well what's a natural diet for students a lot of them would say lots of vegetables but they’re thinking carrots and the celery in the supermarket and you know these nice apples and things and those, all those foods that we’re so used to are so different than their wild ancestors too that we’ve manipulated them to enhance the qualities that we thought were important.
Clay: So this is a bit of a speculative question but if a modern human was to go back and eat like one of our ancestors and if one of them was to come to the modern day and eat like a modern human, who do you think would have a better time of it?
Professor Sept: Well I think our modern diet, depending on whose diet you're eating, isn't necessarily good for you. And there are lots of, there's a whole little subfield that would argue that many of the things that we have done to food, particularly industrial food and western industrial agricultural practices of, people would argue, of really taking a lot of the nutrients out of the food and enhanced qualities of food that aren't necessarily good for us. And if you can track some of the metabolic syndromes is one thing that people talk about, to what extent do our contemporary foods promote, or at east our willingness to eat so much of our contemporary foods, to what extent does that promote things like diabetes and cancer and all those sorts of things? Whereas if you look at wild foods if you or I were to go back and eat an ancestral diet well it wouldn't be that different from eating a wild food diet today. It would have a lot more fiber, things wouldn't taste nearly as sweet. You’d have mostly plant foods; berries, different kinds of chewy stalks and vegetables and things like that. Maybe a little bit of meat or a little bit of fish depending on where you're going but probably only just a small amount. It would have been something probably quite tempting to our ancient ancestors, a little bit of meat, but they would have probably had it quite rarely. And if you look today at advocates of like the Paleo Diet a lot of those, and this gets back to the theme of Human/Animal too. It’s like they're all about red meat and almost you have to eat lots and lots of meat in addition to the plants and that's probably really an exaggeration. This notion that we’ve been omnivores for a very long time but eating a little bit of meat is really different from eating the kind of every mouthful of meat.
Clay: Right, cause red meat back then has got to be one of the hardest things to get.
Professor Sept: Yeah, exactly. Yeah or you can snag a little animal or you can grab some eggs out of a bird’s nest or you can maybe get a fish or something or scavenge a little bit from some other animal’s kill. All those sorts of things, people will still scavenge today given an opportunity. The range of foods isn't that fundamentally different but we’ve transformed those foods in a way to make them, probably they would have been hard for one of our ancestors potentially to recognize. Now, they really enjoy it as well I mean you know you take some of these fast food concoctions and they’re put together in a way that you know, we love the fats in foods that carry the flavors and so we love the taste of fatty, salty, sweet and we’ve inherited those from our ancestors, those tastes and that enjoyment. Who knows if you handed a fast food burger to one of our ancestors they might have, it would have been kind of weird. I mean what do you do, what is this fluffy bread thing? I mean what is that really? But the meat and the odd slice of tomato and some lettuce and things those would have been unusual and maybe they would have turned their nose up at it because if you want to make a living off of wild foods you have be a little wary and taste something before you actually eat it because it might be poisonous. So the fear of the novelty of a food might have put an ancestor off in much the same way as if you or I went out to eat wild things and you pick a berry and it would taste mostly dry and its mostly seed and you sort of spit it out. It just doesn't taste very good. But that doesn't mean there isn't a little bit of nutrition in there you just have to eat enough of them to get it.
Clay: Interesting, so your upcoming class Becoming Human is part of Themester 2018 and deals with the scientific quest for human origin. What specific aspects of primate anatomy or behavior that shed light on our own journey as humans are you most excited to discuss with your class?
Professor Sept: Well, it's interesting because if you look at the poster for my class it's a, you know, a picture of a human face juxtaposed next to a chimpanzee face and that's typically something that students used to think about when you say: well what's our relationship with to humans? That's our closest living relative. And people, a lot of students, would just focus on the physical differences because there's a lot of it and students used to be unaware of our genetic relationship to other animals and things. But now, students grow up knowing about genetics and doing DNA testing and things like that. So those are the sort of things that students typically come to the class being aware of but one of the things I really get excited about is introducing them to the complexities and subtleties of primate intelligence and social awareness. Particularly now we’ve all got these little devices that we use to maintain our social networks. So students are really, think that they’re very familiar with social networks and making friends and doing all this sort of stuff but it probably has not occurred to most of them that that's such a fundamentally primate characteristic of us. That's something that we really share with all our primate relatives. Now, the odd, average chimpanzee or whatever doesn't have a little app they can use to connect but in many ways they live and breathe for the social networks that they’re imbedded in and to a great extent the primate mind seems to be very well adapted to remember social relationships and to navigate the social challenges of growing up in a complex, primate society. That’s very much something that we have to do too and it's something that really resonates with students now is the complexities of their social relationships we’ve altered them in the way we now have these technological things that can be proxies for real social relationships. I mean, it's always amazing when you see people walking down the street and they're walking with friends but are they talking to their friends? No, they’re looking at their little device. So we’ve sort of altered that, maybe sort of the way we’ve changed food through domestication as well, I don't know but it's fun to introduce students to how primates think in some ways or the best ways we can sort of get a sense of how primates think and how they communicate and how they navigate their social worlds. I think that's often a surprise for students so that's something fun, it's the behavior much more than how hairy are you or how long are your legs? Or you know that sort of thing, in terms of comparing us with our primate relatives so thats something I really enjoy luring students into and they seem to like it as well.
Clay: That's really interesting, so it's almost like, though all of our progress, we can't shake our primate need to be social?
Professor Sept: Yeah.
Clay: That’s really fascinating. What is one sort of common misconception that you find usually otherwise informed people have about our ancestors or about our journey as a species?
Professor Sept: Well, there are a lot misconceptions. For example, this notion of human difference and superiority and emphasizing the distinctions and all of that, that often I find that people will think that looking around the world today at all the people on the planet, that they’ll see the amazing sort of richness and variety of humans on the planet today and assume that, if they know something about evolution, they’ll assume that well all of that, all those are biological differences. And the, you know, superficial things like skin color or the shape of your ear or something like that that those somehow represent fundamental differences around the planet and that these differences have accumulated through time. They emphasize these biological differences and will use those biological differences to justify their own opinions. But in fact, if you look around the world today what distinguishes people is our cultural differences, things we’ve learned and taught ourselves through time, and biologically, other than a few simple, superficial sorts of traits, we’re practically identical under the skin. The human species is so, individual to individual, we’re so much more similar to each other than a chimpanzee is to another chimpanzee for example. That we’re very, very similar, we have very little variety as a species, that our differences are not biological differences our differences are cultural differences. In some cases there a few biological traits that have evolved in the context of culture, that we’ve become adapted to different sorts of things, but fundamentally as a species we like to emphasize differences but in fact i think similarity is the big lesson that we can learn out of evolution. And so, I think people often have a misconception that we’re all so different from each other when in fact, we’re fundamentally very, very similar to each other.
Clay: We sort of gotten into this already but I’d like to hear more of your thoughts about it. Has your work led you to think any differently about our status as humans, which is really a status that we’ve completely given ourselves just to separate ourselves from the animals around us.
Professor Sept: That always reminds me of a comment that I think Jane Goodall made at one point. She said, of all the primates and all the animals on the planet, humans are really the only animals that understand, and I’m really paraphrasing here, but the only animals that really understand the cruelty that they’re inflicting on others and have an appreciation for what the impact that what they’re doing is going to have on the other individual. And so, in some ways studying our relationship to other animals in an evolutionary sense, it really always gives me a sense of sort of humility and the idea that, well, for all the differences and for all the human achievement that we can claim on the planet, that we’re, if anything, we’re known for man’s inhumanity to man at this point. And so, we can do to just amazing, amazing things and yet we chose to do in some cases awful things to each other and to other animals and to you name it for a myriad of reasons. We always find a justification for it, right? So in some ways it's sort of the big picture, you really step back and you think, well we are animals and we, you know, can do amazing technological things and amazing philosophical and literature and you name it. We’re amazingly talented, creative creatures but we choose what we do with our mental and emotional abilities and so often we seem to make, what I think, are the wrong choices. So, it's sort of a… that's a strange thing to think of when you’re thinking about the archaeology and evolution and humans. But ultimately I come away thinking about how precarious our lives our and if you study our past you realize how final extinction is, there’s no going back. There are lots and lots of other species that were very similar to us, that, you know, branched off from our family tree and, you know, had a go of it and ultimately didn't survive. Well, we’ve survived so far but there are no guarantees. We may be unusual but we’re not special in the sense that, you know, we better be careful with what we’ve wrought and, you know, there's a precariousness to our lives that we have the ability to destroy things so easily that we need to use our big brains wisely I think. So, it reminds me of that.
Clay: Right, so we need to be sort of mindful of the status we’ve given ourselves.
Professor Sept: Yeah, kind of a downer really.
Clay: It is kind of a downer but it is also like, like you said, there's way out of it I guess you could say. Or at least a better option.
Professor Sept: Oh sure, oh we’ve achieved so much.
Clay: So popular cultures sees our hominid ancestors, even neanderthals whose aren't I guess you'd say that far off in the grand scheme of things as sort of...
Professor Sept: We share their genes!
Clay: Right! Very animallike, grunting, hitting rocks together, things like that. But do you feel that it is fair of us as humans to mark this difference between our ancestors and ourselves as being a difference between humans and animals.
Professor Sept: Sure, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The stereotypes of neanderthals, you mentioned neanderthals, a colleague has said, “every generation of scientists gets the neanderthals we deserve.” So in a sense, scientific interpretation of how humanlike were neanderthals, how human were they, has varied through time and at points in time they’ve been sort of stereotyped as brutes, you know. “Just as bad as those brute-like animals that we think our so inhuman!”
Clay: Right, you would call someone a neanderthal if they did something stupid or cruel.
Professor Sept: Right, exactly it's an offensive thing. Well that not only doesn't do justice to the neanderthals, it doesn't do justice to animals that you’re comparing them to. So in a sense what it does is it creates this false dichotomy of difference that gives us a sense of, “oh, we’re superior!” And you know, “we survived for a reason,” and all of that. That it helps us, that it puffs us up. It helps us feel smug but it may not be real and other folks have looked at the sort of remnant of neanderthal culture and said, “you know they were very sophisticated, they lived for hundreds of thousands of years.” We just don't have the evidence and tools available yet to fully appreciate what their lives were like. They were different in some respects, but if you met one on a subway would you have recognized them as human or not? Could they carry a tune? There was a wonderful film years ago called Iceman. It was about some scientists who found a body of a neanderthal frozen up somewhere in the arctic. And then they thawed him out and he came back to life and there was this whole debate about what to do. Should we kill him and dissect to learn more about him scientifically or should we keep him in a zoo so that we could study him? What do we do? And I think ultimately the hero of the film, the scientist, lets him go free but anyway so it's an interesting film. But one of my favorite scenes in the film is that it portrays this thawed neanderthal as humming and it portrays some of his dreams, he’s remembering his family members and things like that. And those are the questions that we just, we don’t know. Part of it is, how can we understand our ancestors on their own terms? As opposed to always looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying: well we’re better, we’re different, we’re shinier. You know, whatever it is and it's one of the challenges of evolutionary science in a sense for studying human evolution. You want to be able to go back and understand the lives of these creatures, not were they halfway houses to becoming humans but what were their lives like? And to do justice to them. Being fair to our ancestors in comparing them to animals, I mean maybe to get back to the Animal/Human theme, one of the things I try to help students with by the end of the semester. A lot of the students come into a class like this thinking that it's an insult to be called a neanderthal, or a gorilla, or, you know, your mother is an ape, and that sort of stuff and thinking that's insulting. What I hope is by the end of a semester they’re no longer embarrassed to think of themselves as closely related to chimpanzees or gorillas, that they’ve learned enough about them to appreciate the complexities of their lives. And the same thing with our sort of close cousins in time the neanderthals or, the you know, this long trajectory of humans and our ancestors through time. It just, you know, just because they weren't us doesn’t mean they didn’t lead fascinating lives.
Clay: It's almost like, this is just a final point to end on, its almost like we use these ideas of our ancestors like the neanderthal as a way to sort of exorcise ourselves from the darker, more animal-seeing parts of ourselves, you know hitting each other on the head with clubs, but also the more hopeful parts of ourselves that wants us to be part of this tradition of sophistication and intelligence, the neanderthal dreaming or humming a tune. So it's sort of completely out of the neanderthal’s control at this point, but we use them to try to understand ourselves
Professor Sept: Absolutely, and its, you know, what are the deep human traits? Are we animals and then we have this sophisticated moral life that we’ve applied on top of our deep, animalistic roots? Or were our ancestors fundamentally buccholic, loving creatures and we’ve transformed this lovely ancestry of ours into this evil modern thing? Well neither of those are true. But this idea of sort of distilling humanity into these kind of simplistic dichotomous ideas, is something we love to categorize. Much more than chimps do as far as anybody can tell and you know, maybe we need to think of, instead of putting boundaries on things and separating things into different categories and slicing and dicing the world up, if we think about looking for similarities and continuities, sometimes you can learn a lot more that way at least. Whether or not at the end of the day you have a better sense of yourself or not I don’t know.
Clay: Well thanks a lot for coming on, this has been a lot of fun.
Professor Sept: Well, thank you for the opportunity.
Clay: This show has been a project of the Indiana University College of Arts and Science Themester. Thank you to our guest for this episode, Dr. Sept, for taking time out of her day to speak with me.
Jonah: Editing, hosting, and mixing for this episode was provided by Clay.
Clay: This is our final episode, but if you’re interested in more stories and interviews with IU faculty like the ones we did this year, feel free to check out both the 2016 and 2017 Themester podcasts on Soundcloud and at themester.indiana.edu
Jonah: And, even though we say it every episode, one more thanks to all of the fantastic IU faculty and researchers who sat down with us this year. Nearly all of them are teaching a class or have some kind of programming for the Themester. You can check those out and learn more on the Themester website.
Clay: And, one last time, I’m Clay Catlin.
Jonah: And I’m Jonah Chester. Thanks so much for listening.