Mabuhay the mongrels!
One reason I continue to teach in my senior years is that it forces me to keep learning, brain exercise to delay dementia but just generally fun and exciting. In particular, I’ve been enjoying developing biological anthropology at the University of the Philippines Diliman, team teaching two undergraduate classes and helping them to realize the field is not just about bones and the past but about people in the present, moving into a precarious future.
Evolution is a keyword here, originally taught—including when I was a student a half-century ago—as physical anthropology. We were made to memorize kilometric fossil names; fortunately, there weren’t that many at that time. We also had to memorize the changes across these fossils, particularly the size of the brains, the length of arms and legs as we became more bipedal (standing on two legs), and the type of teeth.
The newer discoveries are now analyzed by transdisciplinary teams, providing intriguing insights into how we humans evolved. The research has made it into mass media, redefining literacy to include knowing who our ancestors are.
There’s a wonderful new book entitled “Human Origins: A Short History” written by Sarah Wild, modestly described in the promotional materials as a freelance science journalist but turns out to be someone with a master’s in bioethics and health law, which she pursued by studying, hold your breath, physics, electronics, and English literature. Now that’s transdisciplinary.
Last weekend, The Guardian featured an article she wrote about more “recent” events, focusing on hominins, the biological tribe that covers the species after evolution split off, one lineage into chimpanzees and the other into humans.
Wild describes how we modern humans, Homo sapiens, emerged around 300,000 years ago and how, until about 40,000 years ago, several Homo species or hominins coexisted. She discusses nine, of which five existed in Asia: H. longi in China, H. erectus and H. floresiensis in Indonesia, H. luzonensis in the Philippines, and of course H. sapiens.
The other eight are long gone. We’re the only one left now, as a species but in terms of numbers, that’s eight billion noisy creatures that might actually be driving ourselves to go extinct.
But let’s be optimistic and think of how and why we might have survived.
Our now-extinct hominin cousins tended to live in small groups—the Neanderthals are estimated to have numbered only about 52,000 at the maximum—and tended toward inbreeding.
Wild writes that Homo sapiens had more social resilience. We were more adventurous, exploring new environments. It’s clear now from genetic studies that we also interbred with some of the other hominins, in particular Neanderthals and the Denisovans. The Denisovans are intriguing—they evolved in Siberia but their genes are found all over Asia and Oceania, including the Philippines.
Social resilience is really “sosyal” resilience and we’ve been at it through most of our 300,000 years. This “out-breeding” was to be an important part of our survival. It wasn’t all adventurism that made us venture into new environments—because of our out-breeding, we felt safer knowing that out there, we were likely to find relatives, rather than enemies. This reminds me of my master’s adviser Norman Thomas who firmly believed humans should keep finding mating partners from other lands because we’d then think twice about going to war and bombing out places where we might have relatives. Think of the Filipino diaspora and our role in making every human someone’s relative.
Outbreeding creates hybrid vigor, meaning improved traits like faster growth, larger body mass, greater immunity to diseases, stress tolerance, even fertility. In contrast, there’s something called inbreeding depression—purebreds are more prone to illnesses, have more genetic defects and, I’m looking at my pack of purebred and mongrel dogs now, are just so much more noisily neurotic.
It’s not just about genetic exchanges. Social resilience was about cultural exchange, which shortened the time needed for innovation … and survival. Take something as simple as weaving. Once we discovered how to tap plants for their fibers, weaving these into clothing and shelter, we increased the chance of survival in harsh environments, especially for infants and children. By sharing those skills with a family in a greatly expanded sense, we enhanced our species’ chances for survival.
The fossil record speaks to us across hundreds of thousands of years with a simple message: we are all mongrels, and hallelujah for that.
My father was the stereotypical ethnocentric Chinese—I’m avoiding the “r” term—but in his old age, he would refer, with undisguised favoritism, to my son with the Hokkien Chinese term “chap-jieng-a.”
“Where’s my chap-jieng-a?” he would holler, boasting that the kid was the smartest and cutest on the planet. Chap-jieng-a means “ten breeds,” the same “chap” in Cantonese became chop suey.
Long live Homo sapiens, chop suey, aspin, mongrels, and all!