Humanity’s superpower | Interview with Rebecca Wragg Sykes | Darwin Day Lecture Medallist 2024

1 February, 2024

In anticipation of our Darwin Day Lecture on 6 February, we are excited to present this exclusive interview with the distinguished recipient of this year’s Darwin Day Lecture Medal, Rebecca Wragg Sykes. In this in-depth conversation, Rebecca delves into her latest findings, sharing insights that challenge conventional perspectives and open new windows into our past. As a passionate advocate for science communication, she also discusses the role of public engagement in advancing scientific literacy and fostering a deeper appreciation for the natural world something, as humanists, we take a keen interest in.

Diving straight in! Your Darwin Day Lecture explores the question: ‘What makes us human?’ What are the significant factors that differentiate us from other species?

One of the most important outcomes of scientific research in general over the past two centuries is actually how very similar we are to other animals, and in particular to other primates. All sorts of things that in the past were claimed only to be human characteristics or achievements have turned out to be things other creatures also do, to greater or lesser extent. Having said that, there do seem to be some areas which mark out humans, which include being ‘obligate’ technology users, in other words we could not survive without artefacts of some kind, and our abilities in critical thinking and reasoning – which are the foundations for science. Also, the scale of human social networks is quite obviously unique, along with our staggeringly diverse and inventive imaginative expression, whether through the arts or other means.

Could you touch a little upon ‘humanity’s superpowers’ – community and empathy?

Yes, this is part of the distinctiveness of human sociality. Scientific understanding of other animals’ cognition has developed enormously alongside that of ourselves, and we are very far now from believing our fellow creatures are entirely different to us, somehow automata without sentience at all. And we now recognise that nature is full of examples of cooperation between organisms at many levels. But while the issue of self-consciousness, theory of mind and empathy is still being explored for some other species, these things are clearly extraordinarily well-developed in humans. Moreover, while acknowledging the fact that people are capable of callous, even sadistic behaviour, it is undeniable that humans display a remarkable capacity for large scale co-operation, and a drive to act collaboratively for the benefit of others outside their families or even broader communities. In some instances that is driven by the prospect of reward, in others it is primarily empathy. Perhaps one of the most wonderful things that is special to humans is that we have the ability to conceptualise how to make the world a better place for others, and to act to make it so.

How do you think our understanding of Neanderthals informs our perception of human history and evolution?

Neanderthals will never not be fascinating, because they represent the first time we truly understood that our form of humanity was not an exception, and that other beings very much like us had once existed – moreover, we actually met them. The latter fact of course wasn’t known in the mid-19th century when the first Neanderthal bones were recognised, but the wider impact of their discovery on Victorian world-views cannot be understated from scientific, philosophical and religious or cosmological perspectives. 

Since then, as archaeology itself has developed as a discipline, the amount of information we have about Neanderthals’ bodies, lives and the vanished worlds they knew has exploded. We are able to reconstruct incredibly intimate details of individual lives and places, as well as examining phenomena such as anatomical evolution, technological development and population shifts over hundreds of thousands of years, and across half a continent. Yet as we learn more, and in some ways the behavioural gaps between them and us shrinks, their allure persists. They remain our closest evolutionary and scientifically best-studied relations, but we still have so many questions. One of those is why they disappeared, but I prefer to focus on their long success, and the question of what made them their own kind of human.

The advent of paleogenomics which proved just over a decade ago that there had been contact and interbreeding – the legacy of which remains in all living peoples’ DNA – probably engendered the most significant transformation in our ’feelings’ about Neanderthals since the 1960s, when evidence for burials were first widely published (from Shanidar cave, Iraqi Kurdistan). For me, the most interesting thing about the interbreeding is not which Neanderthal genes we have today, but what those encounters tens and hundreds of millennia ago actually meant in social terms.

What lessons do you believe the fate of the Neanderthals and the early humans who met them in Eurasia can teach us about facing future challenges?

Scientifically and culturally, the disappearance of the Neanderthals has been the focus of a huge amount of attention. While there has been progress in tying down the chronology for this (they appear to be gone by roughly 40,000 years ago across their range), the precise causes and mechanisms for their extinction are still proving tricky to detect. It’s looking like a variety of things were going on. The deteriorating and unpredictable climate in the final 10 millennia beforehand was certainly challenging and having an impact on other animals, yet Neanderthals had survived such extremes before over more than 300,000 years.

Speculation had also long existed – and is reflected for example in literature such as William Golding’s The Inheritors – that we, or our fellow early Homo sapiens ancestors, might have been responsible. There’s no direct archaeological evidence for conflict per se, although DNA tells us people were encountering Neanderthals within the last few thousand years of their existence, and some hybrid babies survived. Theories involving contact and competition have got more complicated too however, as we now know that H. sapiens populations were already in Eurasia many tens of millennia earlier, meaning that their mere appearance could not have been a sudden trigger. Recent work however is pointing to a later dispersal of humans after 60,000 years ago who were culturally different, bringing with them new hunting technology and more extended social networks. That might have been enough over time to better survive common challenges both species faced.  

As someone who has shifted from academic research to public engagement and science communication, what challenges and opportunities do you see in making complex scientific ideas accessible to the public?

I usually try to see more exciting opportunities than challenges! I am very lucky in keeping a foothold in academia as well as focusing on public scholarship, and I find that working across these contexts brings useful skills to each. One difficulty in public contexts, whether writing, making television and films or creating an exhibition, is to provide balance between details – which is what really hooks people’s attention intellectually and emotionally – and the need to keep contexts and concepts relatively easy to understand and relate to. But it’s a very fun challenge to have. 

When working on my books, I go very deep into research rabbit holes in order to find the ‘texture’ of something I want to talk about and evoke, which means a lot of time and masses of notes, some about stuff I might never use in the end. But I have to sift through it all to find the gold: tiny, vivid details about people or places that connect us to the past.

A wider and worrying issue that is increasingly appearing is the trend for people to disregard or even be suspicious of certain types of expertise. When applied to science, it can not only lead to misinformation, but also be dangerous. Even in relation to prehistory, what were quite fringe ideas and conspiracy theories are too often being given space, with claims that ‘mainstream archaeology’ has a hidden agenda. That bears no relation to the reality of the discipline.

Your forthcoming book, Matriarcha: Prehistory Re-imagined, aims to tell the stories of women in prehistory. Why do you think this perspective is important, and what can it add to our understanding of human history?

Publishing my first book Kindred was a life-changing experience, but in a way I wrote it for myself, as a means to express my own passion for studying Neanderthals. It was only thanks to the hundreds of readers who wrote to tell me they’d discovered an entirely new appreciation of and even relationship to Neanderthals, that I grasped the power of books like this to enable people to ‘time-travel’ and truly connect with humanity’s ancient heritage. Sharing the fascination and wonder of archaeology in this way is a great honour, and I’m incredibly fortunate to now be working on something even more ambitious and thrilling: a journey backwards in time through all of prehistory  – 5 million years of it! – exploring the great human story afresh by centring women’s experiences. 

Matriarcha is essentially a ‘Big History’ book, but built from the dirt up using the fascinating and often surprising details we find in archaeology and related fields. It’s about reconstructing and exploring female lives through the entire Homo genus, and further to our lineage’s ancient origins. We meet individuals around the world from the comparatively recent metal ages right back to when the Earth was a world of hunter-gatherers, and even the first women to stand upright and stride across the land. 

Writing something like this encompassing the whole glorious span of humanity is fabulously exhilarating and very demanding, but I’m driven by both joy and a sense of urgency. The book is not only concerned with the phenomenal richness and intimate diversity of women’s stories, but is also about exposing and picking apart male-biased narratives and theories in how we think of and interpret archaeology and human evolution. Critically re-examining our knowledge in this way is not simply an abstract, academic concern, but a vital social and political recalibration, given the long history of belittling, ignoring or even erasing women’s agency and contributions (sadly even Darwin as a Victorian man was guilty of it!). Matriarcha searches out both the dazzling and the devastating, the majesty and the misery, and along the way shows women have always been intellectuals, inventors, athletes, warriors, and leaders. By re-imagining our past in its actual, marvellous variety, I hope we might conceive of different, richer futures for all. 

Are you a humanist? If so, what resonated with you about the humanist approach to life?

I am an atheist and humanist, but at the same time I understand that what religion and spirituality can give some people – a sense of connection and transcendence – are powerful and important to many of us, and have been through much of the past. Personally I find those things in non-religious aspects of life, such as music, literature, sensory elements of wild places, the astonishing scientific knowledge we have about the cosmos. And of course, in thinking about humanity’s deep past and future. I also find space for meditations and small devotions of my own that are focused on life past and present: taking time to walk and physically encounter my local forest and trees, lighting candles of remembrance and sitting quietly in old churches and cathedrals, or absorbing the atmosphere at prehistoric monuments and burial sites, spaces where vitality, contemplation and emotion have soaked in.

Are there any Humanists UK campaigns that are close to your heart?

As an archaeologist, the value of anthropology is very clear in helping us step outside ourselves and welcome diverse perspectives. For this reason I appreciate education about religion as an aspect of human culture, and think it should be included from primary school age, but as part of a broader emphasis on philosophy and critical thinking – children are perfectly able to deal with complex concepts and ideas, they are after all what motivates their endless inventive questions! I believe education for all is best within a secular framework, without schools themselves being explicitly religious organisations, and where humanist perspectives can be included too.

Notes

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The Darwin Day Lecture explores humanism and humanist thought as related to science and evolution, Charles Darwin, or his works. The Darwin medallist has made a significant contribution in one of these fields. The lecture and medal are named to mark the annual global celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin, celebrated each year on 12 February.

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