Some of the least complex toys are the most powerful.  In the 1950s, my parents seemed amused that Slinkys and Hula Hoops had captured my sisters’ and my attention.  These toys were so simple.  Nevertheless, they were compelling.  Some of the simplest metaphors or processes can suggest or reproduce seemingly complex relationships.

Seeking to understand human evolution by focusing on individual adaptability to circumstance offers some unique and useful perspectives.  Exploring human evolution by examining humans in society can in ways simplify the play of transformation.  Raising the scale, shifting to society from individual, can simplify our understanding of the process.

Marian Annett’s explorations of the brain changes that compelled a shift to speech revealed a “balanced polymorphism,” or seamless arch of human features from those humans with little speech facility to others cerebrally lateralized so intensely for speech that they are handicapped in communication.  Those in the middle, she suggested, had a heterozygote advantage by retaining some of the useful pre-speech strengths in combination with speech proclivities.  Speech facility demands that the right hemisphere be pruned of some of its potential growth and subtlety in combination with a brain bridge reduced in size.  Odd that a reduction in hemispheric communication and the number of synapses leads to enhanced interpersonal communication.

So, at the one end of society you have the older genotype with a large brain and a robust brain bridge.  At the other, you have the newer genotype with a diminished right hemisphere and a smaller brain bridge.  Annett suggests that they are both integral to the folks in the center, where most of societies’ productions are undertaken.  In addition, those older pre-speech folks often offer unusual gifts that are useful to society, but these gifts are sometimes accompanied by physical and mental deficits.  Societies want to keep those people around.  You might view this as a child within a Hula Hoop, the center representing the majority of folks, with the pre-speech and too-much-speech people revolving around the status quo, often feeling flung about the center.

Contrast this with a Slinky view of the exact same process.

Consider that Annett’s balanced polymorphism is a snapshot or frozen slice in time of a dynamic movement of society as it moves through centuries.  At the left end is the older genotype, the matrifocal, high-testosterone, high-estrogen females paired with low-testosterone, low-estrogen males.  These are the folks with pre-speech larger brains with larger brain bridges sporting consciousness that is relatively undifferentiated.  At the right end is the complementary opposite, the patrifocal, high-testosterone males marrying low-testosterone females with split brains, females who are self referential and primed for speech.  A single society may flip, like a Slinky, from highly hierarchical, male-dominant society with relatively few of the matrifocal folks around to a society with surges of egalitarianism with an emphasis on female and human rights.  The reverse can occur.  A matrifocal society suffering from outside incursions might quickly adjust to produce commanding men and cooperative women.  Even flipping, the Slinky’s momentum is still forward.

The center of Annett’s balanced polymorphism shifts to the left or right with the heterozygote advantage changing over time.  The balanced polymorphism can adjust and change to modifications in the environment, with individual brains changing over generations, resulting in dramatic societal transformation.  The most powerful brain-changing environment is the woman’s womb.

Amongst the Slinkys, Hula Hoops, eight balls and board games one Christmas, my sister got a Suzy Homemaker oven.  It was a decorated cardboard box with a light bulb.  In went dough.  Out came dough with crust.  I was fascinated.  Not allowed to cook (this was the 1950s and I was male), I often encouraged my sister to produce her magic.

The woman’s womb produces more magic than we can know.  A woman’s testosterone level determines her sons’ and daughters’ testosterone levels, maturation rates and social structure proclivity.  A mother’s testosterone levels are easily influenced by a host of environmental influences.  For example, changes in light, diet and stress at the same time can radically influence her uterine environment, creating children with inclinations toward a different social structure than her parents.  The balanced polymorphism shifts, the Slinky flips and the oven produces an unexpected outcome.

Evolutionary biologists often emphasize that change occurs at the gene level or at the level of the individual.  An anthropological perspective suggests that by observing society, groups of individuals with collective features, we can relatively easily interpret how evolution unfolds.  Though the crucible of transformation may be the womb, evidence of those changes may be mating customs and the particular societal conventions revealing the degrees of respect or human rights connected to being a woman.  Changes can be subtle.  For example, little boys today, if they show interest, are more likely to be encouraged to play with cooking toys, a subtle elevation of a woman’s world.

Toys are fascinating because of the dynamics they elegantly represent.  They are what they are at the same time that they suggest far more.  Toys are poetry for children, physics for tots.  The next time you observe a child playing, displaying the elegance that play implies, consider that the child is not just exploring the dynamics of evolution, but that the child itself is the product of such play.


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