Nasty, Brutish, and Short

Article excerpt

Those who dig into the human past are finding hard knocks and dirty little secrets that give new substance to Thomas Hobbes's famous description of life (quoted in my title, from Leviathan). Fossils of Java man and Peking man (a.k.a. Homo erectus) suggest these close evolutionary relatives were frequent victims of physical violence (see "Headstrong Hominids," by Noel T. Boaz and Russell L. Ciochon, page 28). Some of the thick skulls and beetle brows of H. erectus show signs of head trauma that would have crushed the skull of any modern person. To Boaz and Ciochon, those skulls portray a group of protohumans whose survival depended on withstanding terrible blows to the head-lovingly delivered, in all probability, by their fellows. To these hulks, a punch landed in a barroom brawl would have seemed like a pat on the head.

The human genome, too, points to hard times in our past. Our own DNA is interspersed with bits of DNA from ancient viruses, suggesting that long ago our forebears were attacked by viruses that inserted their own genetic material into our genome. Such attackers, known as retroviruses, are still very much with us; the most infamous example is HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. TV. Rajan, who recounts this human-virus history in "Fighting HIV with HIV" (page 38), takes heart from the finding. Our ancient viral DNA may once have been lethal, but its benign presence today in healthy human beings might well be a tactical clue to the eventual defeat of AIDS. …