When the clearing of throats ceased, Dr Daniel Kurtenfeld got up to speak. The delegates had been awaiting this moment. Kurtenfeld had been the lead author of so many research papers on the origins and development of Homo sapiens (HS) over the years and he was about to release his findings into the latest member of the homo family that he and his team had discovered, writes Dr Bob Murray.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “Let me begin by saying that we have made a lot of progress over the last few years in tracing the genetic and behavioral evolution of the genus homo from its beginnings with Homo australopithecus through to what is now generally known as Homo sapiens sapiens (HSS) – us.
“All of us thought that HSS was the last of the line, the apex of the genus. All the other forms of homo had died out – Erectus, Neanderthal, Denisovan – we thought we were alone.
“Then, while looking at the results of the Framingham study and other research we discovered something really surprising. HSS was not alone. There was another related subspecies living amongst us: Homo avocatus (HA).
“To all intents and purposes HA and HSS look alike. Their brain cavities are basically the same, their limbs function as ours do, their essential biology is similar. But genetically they are quite distinct and this leads to a number of behavioral differences.
“It is thought now that they – like us, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans – are descended from Homo erectus and left Africa concealed among us some 65,000 years ago.
“Let me begin with the main genetic differences between HSS and HA. To start with they have quite different alleles in their dopamine receptor genes (DRD1—DRD4). This means that they don’t experience pleasure in the same way that we do.
“Whereas HSS derives satisfaction in things like enduring relationships, cooperation with other members of their tribe, praise and acknowledgement HA does not to these stimuli to nearly the same extent.
“Rather HA has increased activity in the cortisol receptor genes – the stress production system. This drives them to seek pleasure in extreme work, in competition with other tribe members, in alcohol (to overcome the DRD gene problem), and other addictive drugs.
“Unlike HSS, members of which come from a wide variety of parental and other backgrounds, HA has a very narrow range of childhood experience. For example most have had similar educational backgrounds and parental expectations. Overwhelmingly they were pushed hard to get top grades at school and were only really praised for attainment.
“This has an inevitable effect on the expression of other aspects of their genome – the way that their genes dictate their behavior. They tend to be perfectionists and to have insecure relationships. Although, like HSS, they do practice marriage, their marriages tend to be much more transient. This
genetic perfectionism is closely linked to depression and even suicidality meaning that their
longevity, on average, is less than that of HSS.
“As with HSS their depression is highly heritable but with HA it is about 40% genetic in origin. A number of studies have shown HA parents are predominately depressed, perfectionistic and critical of their offspring.
“The question is, of course, how long can this species last? HA arose, so the so behavioral anthropologists tell us, as a direct result of the codification of hunter-gatherer rituals and taboos. So perhaps the first HA was a member of the council of elders of a HSS band maybe 500,000 years ago. The genetics that promoted the attainment of that status would have become selected for and so HA eventually developed as a separate subspecies of HSS. Ultimately this subspecies disguised itself as a “profession” – lawyer – which enabled HA to survive undetected, and even protected as in some way useful, by HSS even after the other rival Homo species had been eliminated.
“That profession, due to the rapid technological advance of HSS and the consequent elimination of most other ‘professions’, will soon be eliminated leaving HA bereft of cover. Like the other Homo subspecies its genetics will no longer serve an adaptive purpose and it will die out or be forcefully eliminated. Indeed technology may render HSS extinct as well, but over a longer time-scale.
“HA’s problem is that its genome is now so specialised to the profession of law that its chance of adaption is slight. For the last 10,000 years groups of HSS have been trying, unsuccessfully, to eliminate the profession, not realizing that we were in fact dealing with a separate subspecies. Perhaps we will need to extend the endangered species laws to cover HA just as we do for species of frogs threatened by urban development.
“Of course I leave that decision to others. Right now we will continue our studies into our newly recognized cousins so that we can better understand them and therefore, perhaps, ourselves. Thank you.”
Dr Bob Murray is the principal at consultancy Fortinberry Murray and co-author (with Dr Alicia Fortinberry) of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.
DISCLAIMER: The above is written as a satire piece with Dr Daniel Kurtenfeld a fictitious character, however the studies mentioned throughout are accurate.