The paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga, in the library of the Center for Human Evolution and Behavior, poses with a reproduction of the Neanderthal fossil from Kebara (Israel), in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva
The paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga (Madrid, 68 years old) says that our brain feeds on glucose and stories. And he is a counting machine. To begin with, he explains that he is in this world thanks to Real Madrid. His father, Pedro María Arsuaga, played as a left winger for the white team at the end of the 40s. He was injured and was sent to the stands to watch the games. There he noticed a young woman who always sat next to him. The soccer player knew that his career would be short, so he enrolled in economics at the Complutense University. One day, going down to class on the tram, he ran into that girl again, who was studying philosophy and letters. They talked, they liked each other and that’s where Juan Luis came from.
The story comes to mind because Juan Luis Arsuaga’s mother took him to the Prado Museum a lot. Unlike most visitors, they always started with the Greco-Roman sculpture. Now, many years later, Arsuaga uses the shapes of some of the statues exhibited in the Madrid museum to structure Our Body (Destiny), a book in which he explores why we sapiens look the way we do, thanks to seven million years. of evolution. His mother, says Arsuaga, is still a Real Madrid fan at 94 years of age.
Ask. What has led you to write this book?
Answer. There are a lot of manuals with many illustrations, but why do we need them if we have our own body? Better touch it [empieza a dar codazos en la mesa y a tocarse los brazos, la espalda] These are the epicondyles, the flexor and extensor muscles, the acromion. Or better, touch it to one or one. It’s much better in pairs.
Q. We are the only human species left on the planet. Why is our body so different?
R. We are the only ones because we have not left anyone else. We do not allow there to be others. We are about to wipe out our relatives, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. We are killing our relatives.
Q. Do we kill the Neanderthals too?
A. Without a doubt. Not in a war, but by competition.
Q. Is there something that can end us as a species?
R. The species, no. Civilization maybe. There may be horrible misfortunes and a bloodbath. When people get apocalyptic they say “we are going to end the planet”. But no one ends with the planet. He can more than us. Life will go on and evolution will continue. The ones who are in danger are us as a civilization. It doesn’t take the apocalypse to be worried. In fact, the apocalyptic narrative is bullshit, because it doesn’t solve anything.
Q. The apocalypse is a biblical story. Is there room for God in his book?
R. I am not a believer. Now, the religious phenomenon is fascinating. As the book Chance and Necessity, by Jacques Monod, says in the final sentence: now we know that we are alone in an indifferent universe. That’s the worst. We are not in a cruel or hostile universe, but we are in an indifferent universe to which we have emerged by chance. Now we know and we can choose what we want to be. There is no scientist who believes in a god intervening in human affairs. But there are many people who have a transcendent idea, like Baruch Espinoza’s. Something that represents the totality of the world, of the universe. The dream is to become one with it. I don’t believe in this either. I am epicurean. My idea is materialism and the pursuit of happiness.
Q. And where do you look for it?
R. One of the most important things now is to prove my theory about our body. Upside down it appears with Homo erectus, and we would basically be like it. Neanderthals evolved, they became very wide and strong for climate and ecological reasons. Instead, our body would be the primitive. A narrow body like ours is very good for the endurance race, for the marathon, for a species that travels long distances, that has a very wide territory. To get an idea, the Hadza of Lake Eyasi [norte de Tanzania], who are the last hunter-gatherer people, travel in a year the same distance that there is from East to West of the United States, about 4,500 kilometers. It seems outrageous. But think about the Camino de Santiago. From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) to Santiago there are just over 700 kilometers. And we usually do it in a month. Is not that much. We are made for that and for long-distance races. We are an incredible machine, which is why it is almost impossible to lose weight.
A. We are too efficient. Running we consume one calorie, or kilocalorie, per kilometer and kilo of weight. You, who must weigh about 70 kilos, would expend 70 calories to run a kilometer. If you hit a chest, say, five kilometers, you spend 350 calories. Nothing compared to what you get with some pancakes with cream. People think that we are badly made, but the problem is that we don’t use fuel. So try not to eat because then you don’t let go.
Q. Since when are we so efficient?
A. The other model, that of the Neanderthals, is for explosive efforts. We don’t know what kind of muscle fibers they had yet, we’ll know soon enough, but we’re guessing they were fast-twitch. Almost all scientists say that those who are specialized are the Neanderthals and we would be the primitives. I say it’s the other way around. It’s like Copernicus. Here one of the two is very wrong. Either the Earth revolves around the Sun or vice versa. I am going to prove that I am right using fossils.
The paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga, in his office at the Center for Evolution and Human Behavior, in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva
Q. Does our body give us a clear advantage?
R. Biomechanically it is very good. The problem is that you had to be very strong to survive out there. We were very strong until the Neanderthals. We substitute the strength of the individual for that of the group. We became long-distance walkers because we establish social networks, we exploit different resources, we forge alliances, our biology is social. Also because we kill from a distance, with thrusters or traps or by exhaustion. If you have to kill melee, you have to be very strong. But if you have a social system, no. There are Eskimos who hunt without weapons. The whole group chases the reindeer, boxing them in and throwing them off the cliff. Everything consists of intelligence, organization and control of the territory. And control of the territory is given to you by having a network of informants and alliances. Art and symbolic objects also come from here. Because if you go there, how do you know that a group is from your ethnic group? Your identity objects allow you to identify them. From this concept of body size comes everything else that makes us unique.
Q. Are we made for a life that we no longer lead?
R. The problem is that you have to recover the sensations. Most of the time we do not know that we have a body. We are not cold because we wear a coat, we are not hot because we are air conditioned. We go to the beach and we take a chair. The first thing is to feel the body, and therefore this book. Now modern neuroscience has reversed the terms and says that it is not that the mind has a body, but that the body has a mind. The owner of the self is the body.
Q. In your book you say that beauty is only human…
A. Only we sapiens have it. Animals have no sense of aesthetics. They only value beauty in their kind. What a robin esteems is the red color of another robin’s breast, but the yellow of the oriole does not care. For us, on the other hand, the oriole is as beautiful as the peacock, the leopard, the moon or the rainbow. And I believe that we are also unique in that.
Q. Neither the Neanderthals or other human species?
R. It’s hard for me to believe it, because it’s a delusion, an aberration. All things that seem normal to us for our species are delusional. The flags, a colored cloth, or the cross and crescent, for which we are capable of killing ourselves. The delirium that people live in a football match. The human mind is a permanent aberration. There is nothing logical, there is nothing practical. And even so, Mozart, Shakespeare, Cervantes come from there.
Q. You were talking about the end of civilization. Do you share the fear of some experts for artificial intelligence?
R. I listen to what people say with respect, but I don’t believe everything, at the moment. And I wish artificial intelligence was a threat, because if that would mean it is a very powerful technology. To be stronger than us it has to be the bomb. And if it is very powerful, then it will be like any other technology, which will have a good use and a bad one. Evolution has made us more empathetic than our ancestors, more sociable, more cooperative, more supportive. Why wouldn’t a computer be not only more intelligent, but also more empathetic and generous than us?
Q. Do you plan to retire?
R. As a scientist, never. But I’m starting now! I have investigated, I have excavated, I have given classes, I have written books, but working, I have never worked. I have enjoyed life and plan to continue to do so.
You can follow MATERIA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits