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Humanity includes the assumption that we would not have developed differently and not even better as human beings. Man is a unique and superior organism created either by nature or by God. We even think of the rest of the world as a huge building site and continuously look for flaws that we could fix there.

When we characterize ourselves as “humans”, what do we mean? Do we mean the opposite of “bestial” barbarism and irrationality—even though we produce more violence, brutality, betrayal and selfishness than the bestial animals? Yes, we often mean that. However, human evil cannot indefinitely be defined as an exception. We should also describe humanity without any of the attributes of “a good myth”. Good myths are visions and ideologies, which have been known to be false or misleading, but which are supported because of their positive consequences. Humanity stands clearly on the debatable zone between hard facts and social harmony. If you want to tell the truth about humanity, you will destroy social harmony, and if you want social stability, the truth of humanity is to be sacrificed. Humanity is the core of man, and it makes us speaking, acting, cheating, fighting, loving and thinking creatures. It is misleading to imagine that it would be just things like kindness, tolerance, sympathy, and virtue. Humanity is much more draconian than just the part we are willing to show. The true essence of humanity lies far beyond our ethical boldness.

This deification of man has hampered, however, people to understand themselves. In particular, the problem has been that this uniqueness of man has not been allowed to question. Human uniqueness is a fact, not an issue. This is clearly reflected in humanistic studies, where the tacit aim has been to maintain men at the top of nature. Some anthropologists argued that the appearance of men was to be expected and that it was even very likely. Even though Darwin’s natural selection theory reasonably explained plants and animals’ adaptation, it failed to explain humans’ evolution to intellectual and cultural creatures. The evolutionary doctrine has been one of the most important scientific theories influencing the humanistic worldview, though it still fails in dethroning a man. The disputes about evolution have generally been concerned with whether only the external conditions and random variation produce a new basis for intelligent human-like creatures. The emergence of such conflicts reveals the very issue: man questions the random variation in evolution much rather than his own uniqueness. For this reason, the man himself is a speciality and still a mystery even though the world is no longer to be fully explained only from a human point of view.

Some problems of interpretation arose after the invention of American biochemists Allan Wilson and Vincent Sarich to measure human separation from great apes using genetic diversity. With the help of a molecular clock, humans became a much younger species than previously thought. The age of hominids was now about 5 million years instead of the previous 10–30 million years. Sarich summed up the central fears and aspirations of human controversy by saying that “we have attained such an intellectual maturity that it is impossible to deny the truth of human evolution openly. However, its positive acceptance is all the easier, the longer the time distance separates us from our supposed ancestors”. Finding the roots of humanity is motivated by curiosity and the desire to manipulate the past to be more pleasant and less embarrassing. Although it is essentially a matter of science, the wider audience is also interested in it.

Can adulthood disappear?

The explanation of the peculiarity of the modern man is, paradoxically, also sought by exploring human underdevelopment. Findings have been made by biologists, geneticists, palaeontologists, anthropologists, and even astronomers. In these studies, scientists considered emphasising current human physiological and mental characteristics related to lifetime childhood. For example, human curiosity was regarded as being particularly related to children and, therefore, seen as a phenomenon of its biological background; among the animals, curiosity is a characteristic of the juveniles. Human curiosity and learning ability have been explained by the fact that many characteristics of our childhood period remain intact throughout our lives. In 1836 a French zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire drew attention to the significantly different skull shapes of a young and an adult orang-utan. The jaws of an orang-utan grew bigger and projected forward until they reached a typical appearance. By contrast, the head of a young orang-utan resembled a human one with a small jaw and flat face. Saint-Hilaire assumed that the shape of the skull of an adult orang-utan was caused by the stagnant growth of the brain and a simultaneous strengthened increase in the jaw. Human characteristics, therefore, had to be a result of an opposite development.

In the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin described transitions of animal forms and how some animals reproduce at such an early age that all of the features of the adults had not yet developed. “…some animals are capable of reproducing at a very early age before they have acquired their perfect characters; and if this power became thoroughly well developed in a species, it seems probable that the adult stage of development would sooner or later be lost; and in this case, especially if the larva differed much from the mature form, the character of the species would be greatly changed and degraded.” (Darwin 1878, p. 149).

But could this also happen to people?

Scientists discovered the delayed development and the lengthened childhood of the early Homo genus at least since the 1800s. The observations led scientists to believe that the emphasis on childhood features could be related to later-generated special human nature. The man was also found to be born too early compared to his closest relatives. This was thought to affect the fact that roughly, the child was hairless and weak-sensed for the first year. According to the studies, premature birth was due to the essential fact that the birth canal passing through the pelvis could not expand, even though the head of a child would have been willing to grow. This inevitably led to premature childbirth. Therefore, a child’s complete dependence on its mother during the first year of growth meant bringing up a fetus.

When the human perception, motor skills and the nervous system were still undifferentiated, they were relatively easily prepared for the desired form. It is now accepted that, compared to animals, humans are born prematurely and practically lives the whole year as a fetus outside the womb. With the human body structure and the apes, the human pregnancy should take about 21 months, and according to some estimates, even 26 months. Thus, we will follow the rate of growth of mammalian, but not their birth schedule.

The rise and fall of human neoteny

Adolescence has been a well-known biological phenomenon for quite some time and has a scientific name of neoteny (or juvenilization). It means to stop at the larval stage in certain characteristics while the individual grows adult and sexually mature. More generally, it means the survival of juvenile characteristics in the adults of a species. Neotenous species extend their juvenile stage and, in addition to that,  develop an ability to reproduce. This is a downturn or a form of a recession. These features occur particularly among salamanders, which reach sexual maturity already in their larval stage (progenesis). The term neoteny was initially introduced by a zoologist and a professor of anatomy at the University of Basel, Julius Constantin Ernst Kollmann, in 1885.

The neoteny was applied for the first time to human research by a Dutch anthropologist and a professor of anatomy Louis (Lodewijk) Bolk (1866–1930) in his book Das Problem der Menschwerdung in 1926. Bolk’s explanation of human neoteny meant that the man was a reproductive primate fetus. As Saint-Hilaire had done before, Bolk drew attention to the skull shapes of monkeys (Macaca nigra) in different ages and also to the hairlessness of man. In examining the shapes of skulls, he observed that the human skull resembled the skull of a young ape with the missing protruding jaw, the low brow and the bone ridges above the eyes.

He considered human hairlessness equal to the early stage of development of great apes and monkeys when they were also hairless. The hair coating grows first on their scalp and then spread to the body and limbs. In humans, similar development would then be halted in the childhood stage. Bolk thought that the peculiarities of the human hair coating were already an underlying feature with apes, but it had just not come out to them. This led him to define human nature as childlike or immature.

These traits reflect our strong liking for puppy-like traits—pictures of puppies on Google search. 

Despite the respectable discoveries, Bolk himself was not able to objectively interpret his own theory. His idea of neoteny echoed the ideas of his own time. Like other theories of evolution, it also supported—under the guise of science—the dominant white race and its colonialism. In the European and American studies of the Colonial period, shortly after Charles Darwin had published the Origin of Species in 1859, the biological evidence of human sophistication and superiority was enthusiastically being tried to rationalize. Bolk wanted to be there at the forefront with his scientific arguments to justify the prevailing views. However, the results of Bolk’s research differed from the existing scientific explanation quite a bit. In fact, he argued for the human status with a relatively opposite argument than Ernst Haeckel in his “recapitulation theory”.

It was primarily not a matter of a shift in the worldview because scientists took human uniqueness for granted; instead, the western world searched for someone who could definitively prove man’s superiority. Since Bolk was unable to upend the focus of his investigation, it finally turned him over. The interpretation became quite comical, and it lost its explanatory power in the end. When the study was designed to explain human uniqueness and superiority, it certainly was seen, although the discoveries had proved to be quite the opposite. Bolk certainly believed to have found something, but he failed to see the true context of his discoveries and how he should have interpreted them.

In human studies, neotenic arises from time to time, even if the practical implications of the theory look suspicious due to its political connections. However, without this evolutionary interpretation, Bolk’s discoveries provide an indicative picture of the human adolescent and light up the problematic nature of human evolution in an interesting way. Bolk listed 13 neotenous features characteristic to young individuals.

These were: a non-protruding, flat face, lack of body hair, loss of pigmentation in skin, eyes, and hair (Bolk argued that black peoples are born with relatively light skin, while ancestral primates, dark monkeys, were as dark at birth as ever), the form of the external ear, the epicanthic (or Mongolian) eye fold, the central position of the foramen magnum (it migrates backwards during the ontogeny of primates), a relatively high brain weight, persistence of the cranial sutures to late childhood, the labia majora of women, the structure of the hand and foot, the form of the pelvis, the ventrally directed position of the sexual canal in women, and certain variations of the tooth row and cranial sutures. In addition, together with other researchers, he added further features to the list later: absence of brow ridges and cranial crests, thin skull bones, the position of orbits under cranial cavity, brachycephaly, small teeth, the late eruption of teeth, no rotation of the big toe, prolonged period of infantile dependency and also prolonged period of growth, long life span, and large body size.

Bolk’s list is thought essentially correct up to these days. This list showed that adult humans were an actual combination of childhood traits and thus physiologically like adolescents.

Scientists had addressed childhood traits even before Bolk

According to the German philosopher’s Ernst Haeckel’s theory based on the “law of biogenetics”, individual development was the repetition of species development. The doctrine of recapitalization meant the appearance and disappearance of a structure in individual development that survived in nearby organisms even after the corresponding stages of development. The individual, Haeckel said, went through the development of the whole species from having gill slits and the tail up to the final humanity at the fetal stage. Spiritual development also recurred in the same way, he said. Haeckel’s views influenced Sigmund Freud. When Haeckel’s Naturliche Schopfungsgeschichte (Natural history of creation, 1868) was interpreted, the result was that the childhood traits observed in humans represented underdevelopment, noticed most in children, women, southern nations, and non-white races.

Haeckel’s racial theories were naive and straightforwardly racist. Haeckel regarded «Hottentots, the Papua New Guineans, niggers and kaffirs» as the least developed »woolly haired». Haeckel supported Darwin to such an extent that he also regarded society as the result of natural selection; superiority had fallen to the white race and especially to the Indo-Germans. However, many of the interpretations he represented were not derived from Darwin’s discoveries and were certainly foreign to Darwin. Haeckel’s theory ceased to be scientifically plausible, often after scientists argued that no biogenetic law ever existed. The theory disappeared at the latest in the early decades of the 20th century when the new genetic science entered was born.

Since the research was led by the established idea of human superiority over other creatures, Bolk interpreted the neotenous features of man more sophisticated than the following features of an adult that occur in most animals, even if the claim was totally incongruous. He saw—rightly so—clear features of childhood in a western man. When he connected this idea to the undeniable success of the Western culture, the biological interpretation of childhood was inevitable to defence man’s neoteny. So when the black adults were formerly believed to be at the level of white children, now, according to Bolk’s theory, dark-skinned children had to be regarded as developed as white adults.

The theory led to an embarrassing paradox. It declared that man was the most advanced because he was the most regressed; therefore, he was a regressed human ape. Bolk attempted to correct the embarrassing outcome of his theory by saying that the white race was the most advanced since it—unlike formerly had been thought—had retained the most of features of childhood. For a while, some scientists demonstrated this claim by listing hallmarks of the white race. Bolk also believed in the existence of human races and differences between them, and he thought that the different human races were also able to be ranked based on the grade of neoteny. He said to believe that other races will achieve the level of the white race someday. 

Researchers like Bolk are partly to blame for the bad reputation associated with the study of human youth traits. Have we still learned that discoveries and their interpretations are completely different things? And that the same people shouldn’t necessarily be involved in both.

Human research gets politicized

Bolk lived closely in the cultural and political atmosphere of his time, which wanted the Western countries to be seen as more advanced than the rest of the world, the white race better than the other races, the city dwellers better than the country people, and men better than women. The human superiority in the animal world did not even have to be justified. So the neoteny was seen as the genius forming instrument in men that chimpanzees and gorillas could not achieve. In addition to that, the neoteny appeared among the people: the people representing the top of humanity were the white western city males. They retained the most youthful features by guiding their development to the intermediary stages of their growth and preventing their decline as much as possible.

While it is easy to see Bolk’s interpretation’s errors and preposterous conclusions, the discoveries reflecting juvenile features are neither false nor absurd. Maybe it is for that reason the idea of neoteny has not vanished. In scientific research, the neoteny was used as a theory to explain the extension in youth through the transition of early individual features to an adult. In his book The Eternal Child, Clive Bromhall also confidently declared that a man is indisputably immature.

With a good reason, one might guess that the neotenous features identifiable in human physiology and listed by Bolk are reflected in the human psyche. It is easy to imagine that neoteny strengthens the existence of the aspects of psychic childhood and eliminates the genuine features of adulthood. Our affection for small, pretty and touching tells that, in a broad sense of the word, neoteny is also emotionally real and controls human choices. For example, the breeding of pets may mean that we want to make animals neotenous creatures, similar to us.  Breeders might express, as they have, the neoteny in a nutshell: “Scientists call these puppy-like features neotenic  – most of us just call them cute.”

Some researchers like Bromhall and the German philosopher Max Scheler that have drawn attention to the immatureness of humans have, without exception, interpreted immatureness as our strength to rise above nature. When Scheler said that man is “a dead end of nature” and, therefore, twisted from nature’s point of view, he understood this as nature’s intention to guide people above inborn vitality (i.e., animals) and towards the spiritual life. Generally, accepting human deficiencies leads both to defending the dignity of man and to making impossible scientific theories.

Although the biological neotenic or immatureness supported by many researchers would be true, could the same phenomenon explain the culture? Do we compensate our biological immatureness with intellectual sophistication, as some people think? And how and why this strange immatureness gathered on us in the first place? The answers are certainly not related to nature’s need for an intelligent and spiritual being. It has been reported recently that the man has developed genetically less than the chimpanzee after they separated from their mutual ancestor 6-7 million years ago. This observation would seem to support the human biological immatureness, but the human cultural creation remains unexplained. Biological neoteny may influence the background, but it isn’t easy to imagine that it would be the fundamental cause behind human origin. A species can not arise simply because the children of species survive, as we could interpret some documents; it is impossible to create a physiological change in individuals and species just by wanting that.

The biological neoteny as an explanatory factor for the birth of modern people crashes just here. Humanity is rooted elsewhere.

The modern man (left) and his adult ancestor.

Not neoteny, but a genetic drift

Many researchers have drawn attention to the dramatic reduction in the human population in the late Pleistocene epoch about 100.000 years ago. That episode in our development, the so-called bottleneck, somehow gave birth to the human race. From these survivors grew the “advanced” modern people. At that time, thousands of years long devastating drought drove people to the brink of their extinction and cut the size of the population, perhaps only to some thousands of individuals. Of course, the small size in the community meant a small gene pool and a low level of genetic diversity, which should have, in all probability, provided the human species with less chance to compete with other species, but this did not happen.

Modern humans originate from this small group of survivors. The cut down of the population was, paradoxically, the reason for surviving, but how this could happen? Therefore, the cut down must also include a key to human survival because those people did not only come out alive from the drought, but they also “changed”. If a modern man can be accused of taking the human image of the Bible Genesis as granted, he gets no better explanation from science when asked about the stages of human change. The different aspects of humanity have, still, remained a myth.

The nature of man speaks of obvious features of youth, but they are not what the views outlined above represent. The nature of human youth is not fundamentally so much in external features, but in the human mind, in the way, modern man experiences his environment and perceives himself. It is not about changing as a species, and it is not about races and their differences, as was imagined 100 years ago. All people are alike if the benchmark is their mental landscape. There are neither advanced nor undeveloped. All are equally flawed, although some momentarily experience the world in the right way.

The shift in the current human population did not mean a change in the species. Actually, it happened in two phases: the decrease of population in the form of the elimination of specific individuals and, therefore, the narrowing of the genetic diversity originally included in the species. Those left alive undoubtedly belonged to homo heidelbergensis but carried a genetic defect that affected their mentality. This did not mean that humans were better adapted to drought, but, quite contrary, as opponents of adaptation, they relied on their juvenile skills.

The old drawing depicts four fairly common human traits: pride, boastfulness, arrogance, and ambition.

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