In the Washington Post, Susan Okie writes: "About 45,000 years ago, members of our species, Homo sapiens, reached Europe after earlier migrations out of Africa via the Middle East. The newcomers’ arrival must have come as a shock to the Neanderthals, a separate human species that had inhabited Europe for some 300,000 years. The new arrivals would have carried a baffling and frightening array of technologies–not only new kinds of weapons and tools, but also perhaps sewn clothes, musical instruments and carved figures. It would have been like a scene from a science fiction story of a people confronted by a superior alien race."
Modern humans owed their advantages to a development some 40,000 years before they arrived in Europe, something happened speeded up their ability to learn, adapt and acquire new strategies for taking over the planet: Okie says, "Homo sapiens had acquired culture."
She quotes author Mark Pagel as saying that our cultures are "responsible for our art, music, and religion, our unmatched acts of charity (and) our sense of justice, fairness, altruism, and even self-sacrifice," but also for our self-interest, our ethnic and racial prejudices, our distrust of strangers, our wars –even for our willingness, at times, to kill our children or ourselves for a religious, ethnic or national cause.
But what makes us modern may also destroy us: Okie writes: "A critical question is how humans’ ability to cooperate will fare as national boundaries grow more fluid and our societies continue to become bigger, more diverse and more interconnected. Through most of our history, our cultural groups have remained relatively small and cohesive, competing with other groups and typically fostering distrust or exclusion of outsiders."
She quotes Pagel as saying that our species’ future will depend on our ability to look beyond ethnic and other markers of cultural differences, to become increasingly willing to trust members of other groups, and "to encourage a sense of shared purpose and shared outcomes."