History

The remarkable success of the English as colonists, compared to other European nations, has been ascribed to their "daring and persistent energy "; a result which is well illustrated by comparing the progress of the Canadians of English and French extraction; but who can say how the English gained their energy? There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, are the results of natural selection; for the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country, and have there succeeded best. . . . Obscure as is the problem of the advance of civilisation, we can at least see that a nation which produced during a lengthened period the greatest number of highly intellectual, energetic, brave, patriotic, and benevolent men, would generally prevail over less favoured nations. Natural selection follows from the struggle for existence; and this from a rapid rate of increase. It is impossible not to regret bitterly, but whether wisely is another question, the rate at which man tends to increase; for this leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide and many other evils, and in civilised nations to abject poverty, celibacy, and to the late marriages of the prudent. But as man suffers from the same physical evils as the lower animals, he has no right to expect an immunity from the evils conse quent on the struggle for existence. Had he not been subjected during primeval times to natural selection, assuredly he would never have attained to his present rank. CHARLES DARWIN, THE DESCENT OF MAN

WITH SETTLEMENT and the invention of agriculture, human societies embarked on a trajectory quite different from the foraging life that had hitherto been their only choice. The new behaviors that had now been developed allowed people to construct complex societies and urban civilizations. They learned to treat strangers as kin, at least in the context of reciprocal exchanges and trade. They coordinated their activities through religious rites. They defended their territory against neighboring tribes, or attacked them when the moment seemed propitious. With settlement came specialization of roles, administrators to take control of surpluses, priests to organize religious ceremonies, headmen and kings to manage trade and defense. The first cities started springing up in southern Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago. Uruk, in what is now Iraq, sprawled over some 200 hectares (500 acres) with large public buildings. The city required armies of laborers and an administration to recruit and feed them. As societies became more intricate, their operation demanded more sophisticated skills and perhaps more specialized cognitive abilities, ones at least that no forager had had occasion to exercise. The invention of writing around 3400 BC opened the way to the beginning of recorded history. The first great urban civilizations emerged in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China. The next phase of the human experiment had begun.

Genetics, which illumines many aspects of prehistory, yields even greater returns when applied to the historical past because it can be related to known people or events. DNA can be used to analyze populations, saying who came from where, which helps understand mixtures of people like those of the British Isles. DNA faithfully records who slept with whom throughout the ages, a matter of historical interest in cases like the secret family of Thomas Jefferson. And with populations that have married within themselves for centuries, like those of Jews, DNA can reach back to the time of the patriarchs. Geneticists may in future be able to trace back human lineages or pedigrees to all times and places, providing a genetic framework for exploring almost every historical period. Meanwhile a promising start has been made, as is evident from the following cases.

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