Who are you

This is the third planned post about human evolutionary history, preceded by Who you aren’t and Who you are. This time, it’s about good ol’ Homo sapiens. My nefarious plan is to reorient the topic away from an origin myth.

Here’s some good reading from almost thirty years ago: Roger Lewin’s Bones of Contention, itself inspired by Misia Landau’ graduate work. The thesis is that the whole sweep of studying human evolution has been tainted, even co-opted, by standard heroic-origin mythmaking. Terms like “evolved” and “adapted” are simply inserted into the basic story of an unusual child who shows great promise, undergoes early trials and testing, achieves heroic status, and ultimately recognition and cultural prominence. Note the core feature of the myth: that human biological history is unlike all others in being a matter of effort and will, resulting in a special and different result, the “uniquely unique” creature. Everyone else had selection happen to them; we selected ourselves.

To put it in into the terms of this blog, discussion of human evolution shifted at the outset from an investigation of how we’re an animal into an achievement-arc of why we’re not. Which is to say, such discussion isn’t evolution or even biology at all.

That’s not really a surprise. A great deal of effort even within biology has been exerted to exempt ourselves from it, despite the remarkable power of William Lawrence’s initial lectures (1814-1819), in which he introduced “biology” to the English language and quite pointedly placed us well inside it with no exempting permitted. Arguably evolutionary theory would never have been accepted by British establishment culture unless it had been massaged accordingly. Although Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley never succumbed to it, everyone else did.


Beautiful and important + criminally under-read

Most “evolution” most people know today, even scientists, is from Alfred Russell Wallace and Herbert Spencer, both human exceptionalists and the latter about as far from being a biologist as one can get.

I’ve already written about one severe misstep in the course of human-fossil scientific history as well as the crucial issues of mosaic evolution, relict status, and tricky issues of selection including “survival.” Here I can try however hopelessly to extricate Homo sapiens from the allure of being ever-so-adapted, with its implications of “matched” and “finished” – and yet without falling into the other pit of exceptionalism which exempts us from all biological processes and replaces the vague/inaccurate justifications of specialness by natural selection with the equally flawed justifications of specialness by culture.

Here’s the thing: sure, we have plenty of features which are probably directly affected by selection. But whether they are – for lack of a better word – uplift adaptations is the broken narrative I’m trying to get you past. Furthermore, lots of them “belong to” if you will, i.e., they originated in, species besides our own, and let’s not forget that our species was around for a long time, with its combo of features, before we did the stuff we’re so proud of. Which is to say, we didn’t evolve the capacity to write “so that” we could write, nor in the context of writing conferring such reproductive benefit that it became more common via selection.


Count on this series getting a post of its own

You know the words “sapient” and “sentient,” right? Sure you do; most readers here are science fiction/fantasy readers and that subculture is deeply committed to stories of humanity “gaining” qualities called by those names. But what they mean in real-life science language is something else entirely. Sentience = flooded by and responsive to sensory input, allowing for limitations of range; sapience = responsive in a goal-oriented fashion, allowing for limitations of range. Which to say, every living being on the planet. This ties back to my earlier points that studying our genus’ speciation history is too easily co-opted into a search for a fictitious “human moment,” when the mists cleared from our eyes and we started being, you know, thinky. Moral. Self-aware. Important. (/sarcasm)

We’re still an ape, man! I haven’t yet presented my thoughts on what culture really is, and since my upcoming book goes into that in some detail, I’ll hold off. But for now, I’ll preview by saying (i) that nothing real is ineffable, no exception for culture; and (ii) that it’s a cumulative effect, not a quality or core-causal entity.

All that said, we do get to enjoy an impressive example of single-species dispersal. The timelines for it still undergo debate and refinement but you can see that although these two depictions vary in timing, what happened is not controversial at all.

Why they call it “migration” I don’t really know, unless it’s the same reason we call human organs the appendix and thumb whereas in other creatures they’re the caecum and hallux. Migration means going back and forth in a seasonal or annual sense; dispersal means extending or transferring the species’ range into new areas.

You may remember from the 1980s and 90s, there was a dust-up between the multi-regional vs. out-of-Africa narratives of H. sapiens‘ origin. Fortunately that’s resolved now – it’s both-ish and not like either narrative as originally framed. There are multiple regionsĀ in and out of Africa across which very close relatives are found, close enough to have lived much like we did at the time, and H. sapiens “proper” if you will, originated in eastern and somewhat northern Africa.

One thing you can take from that is not to get too excited about specialness based on this dispersal history; at least two other species of Homo wandered far and wide and arguably could have done more so given geologically-momentary opportunities like the frozen-over Bering Straits.

Now for the part everyone’s skirting around. I could have put it off for another post but I’m getting tired of saying that all the time. So, a brief look anyway, at ethnic diversity.

  • The major “arrows” of dispersal were not short-lived single-group events but a long-term, many-times repeated, ongoing set of events in each case.
    • Minor features of human appearance became more common within each one
    • There is no “African” ethnicity; instead, almost as much change of this kind occurred among the dispersals to various parts of Africa as to the rest of the world
  • The variables most informative about this history include
    • Facial proportions
    • Nuclear and mitochondrial DNA
    • Linguistic subdivisions of language (that’s not redundant)
    • BUT NOT skin/eye pigmentation
  • No selective history for any of these variables has been validated nor is indicated by prior plausibility – I consider them strictly the result of founder effects

The single major point is that ethnic diversity is a matter of outcomes, both for the broad-sweep variables and for the more minor ones that mix & match across later, smaller-scale human dispersal. No one knows either what the earliest individuals of Homo looked like in these terms, although my bet’s on “mainly beigey-brown with a few regional variants” just like today. Nothing about human ethnicity tells us anything about the populations beginning and throughout those large-scale dispersals.

All excited now? Good. Now I’ll say, more for a later post. Sweet dreams.

Next: Circle of nitrates


9 thoughts on “Who are you

  1. On “sentience.”

    You gave this as the biologists’ use of the term:

    “Sentience = flooded by and responsive to sensory input, allowing for limitations of range; sapience = responsive in a goal-oriented fashion, allowing for limitations of range. Which to say, every living being on the planet.”

    This is pretty much Aristotle “On the Soul,” Book II, Chapter IV!

    What the Philosopher calls “soul” is not some detachable spirit double, but the form or pattern of a living being’s life. So any living things that reproduce have “souls.” Plants have souls and sentience in that they respond to exterior input.

    In some weird way, Aristotle’s notion of soul is non-anthropocentric, even if it is highly metaphysical. Human soul has faculties of forethought and deliberation. But if anything lives, it has a soul.

    Whether all beings are “superbad” only future research will determine. Someone get on the NHS grants website and put out a proposal.


    • Deeper waters than I care to enter = whether Aristotle’s concept translates to a fully physical context, no “meta” in the mix. Having sat at a small table with Michael Ruse and Leigh Van Valen battling in harsh debate on this topic, I consider myself qualified to know which one I consider cuckoo, but I also recognize that as a personal position.

      I’m also inclined to say “screw Aristotle, no one thinks that any more if they ever did.” Which would be rude and very much a betrayal of my alma mater, temple of the enthroned intellectual that it is.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess a science educator has to be focused on people getting it right. In my corner of the universe I am happy if I can just get people thinking differently than they do right now, & to understand how differently people thought at different times. Hearing people try to talk about sensation and intention and goal-directed behaviour without using the terms “consciousness” or “free-will” or riffing on 18th century philosophical empiricism is an eye opener.


  2. “The single major point is that ethnic diversity is a matter of outcomes, both for the broad-sweep variables and for the more minor ones that mix & match across later, smaller-scale human dispersal.”

    Ron, pardon me, but I’ve read this a few times, and for a non-scientist I don’t know what it means. (I followed the bullet points immediately above.


    • Probably a matter of me getting ahead of myself, post-wise. The bugaboo of race-and-biology discussions is the idea that somewhere there was a point of origin for each or any recognizable group or entity tagged as a “race.” And since then, it’s remained “pure” or it’s been “mixed,” in any given place. This notion of a real or original or pure or [fill in] status for human ethnicity is just plain wrong, and we biologists are the ones who keep telling everyone that.

      Ethnicities are real historical phenomena, but they are stews of whatever ordinary human variables happen to have landed together or come together in any given spot. There are two effects to consider.

      1. In the very broad sweep of human history (the arrows in those images I included), what we see are sequential founder effects – that is, whatever variants happened to be most common in the precise individuals who landed in that spot ‘way over there in the map, well, that’s what “we” look like right there, average-wise. So people in Mongolia look a certain way (again, average-ly) because they’re a further-along subset of whoever went across northern Asia, and people in the Americas are more or less a further-along subset of that.

      2. More locally and at a more rapid pace, there’s also re-cross and backtracking and trading routes to consider, by which certain areas are “stirred up” constantly by people visiting and – well, you know – having lots of sex too. The Levant being the center-of-trade throughout the history of humanity that it is, is nothing more than a concentrated spot of “hey let’s get it on again!” throughout human history and therefore right up through today will show you just about any combination of human ethnic variables. A more recent and historically-focused version of the same phenomenon is Brazil.

      So I’m saying that any characteristic visible “look” for a given human location is real, but it doesn’t indicate some group who originally looked like that going there or somehow originating there, but instead, what-all has ended up there. It’s a focus on variables’ frequency and recombination in populations rather than on individuals “being” anything.

      Again, pigmentation is flat out of this issue. Focus on details of face and feature instead. And don’t forget how narratives interfere with observation … for example, the epicanthic fold is characteristic of the entire northern-margin across Eurasia, and thus isn’t “eastern” or (groan) “oriental” at all.

      Let me know if that helps or makes sense.


      • The “pure” and “impure” language might category errors or just plain lazy thinking. But are they also residues of centuries of non-scientific animal husbandry talk, people talking of breeding and bloodlines and mating selected individuals in the hope of producing a particular outstanding individual? The talk of genetics and heritage you get in sci fi like Dune, despite the sprinkling of a little scientific terminology, seems to owe more to the talk of horse breeders scouting for signs of the Godolphin Barb in a newborn colt than to any talk of population diversity or the frequency of a set of variables.

        Liked by 1 person

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