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Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences
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The biological myth of human evolution
Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA Available online: 27 Jun 2012
To cite this article: Jonathan Marks (2012): The biological myth of human evolution, Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, 7:2, 139-157 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2012.691989
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Contemporary Social Science Vol. 7, No. 2, 139–165, June 2012
The biological myth of human evolution
Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA
Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012
The most signiﬁcant paradox in the study of human evolution is that human evolution over the last few million years has been bio-cultural evolution, and it is thus perversely unscientiﬁc to try and imagine it as simply a succession of biological processes and effects. Without confronting the cultural aspects of human evolution, one cannot approximate the reality of human origins or human nature. The failure to do so explains why biologically reductive theories of human evolution are generally rejected by anthropology.
Introduction: the Pioneer Plaque In 1972, NASA launched Pioneer 10, an unmanned space probe, on a voyage outside of the Solar System. In the event that the probe was intercepted by aliens, astronomer Carl Sagan vigorously lobbied for the probe to contain a depiction of the senders. Sagan prevailed, and eventually the probe went up with a drawing supervised by Sagan (and astronomer Frank Drake) and vetted by NASA (Figure 1). Of course, the two people in the picture do not represent the actual senders of the spacecraft, but rather represent the group in which the actual senders intended to convey their own membership—not the nation, not the ecosystem, not the neighbourhood, but the species. That is why they show a youngish, well-built male and female. What sense that might make to alien minds is a good question, but is not the question I am interested in posing here. Nor am I going to pose the question of whether the male is issuing a generalised greeting of some sort (‘Hi! Welcome to the galaxy!’) or a warning (‘Halt! This is a private nudist colony!’). Instead, I want to ask the question of why indeed they are naked and depilated. After all, when the aliens trace the probe back to Earth (a map is conveniently featured on another part of the plaque), would they not be surprised to ﬁnd the humans
Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC 28223, USA. Email: email@example.com
2158-2041 (print) 2158-205X (online)/12/020139–19 # 2012 Academy of Social Sciences http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2012.691989
with only the man looking you straight in the eye. And yet not only is that a lie. one stripping humans of their culture. if all they can match to the illustration is our face and hands? Or would they be angry at us for lying about what we look like. Detail of the Pioneer plaque clothed? Would they recognise us. but also it is a lie about a lie. let us hope the aliens do not see it that way. as are the gendered postures and gazes. but a real question remains. for that is not what the aliens will see when they land among us.) I use this example to illustrate two points: (1) the cultureless human is an artefact of the imagination. it nevertheless conveys cultural information. Marks Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 FIgure 1. Certainly the haircuts and bikini waxes are cultural. Why choose to send aliens an image of what we look like. for in imagining itself to be free of cultural information. and (as discussed below) a non-Darwinian imagination at that. and proceed to annihilate us on that basis? We probably do not have to worry too much about that. and .140 J. except while showering or having sex? The answer is that the astronomers intended to convey a ‘natural’ image of our species. that would be a threat gesture. (To a baboon. and then show us differently from what we actually look like.
The most famous is the story of Adam and Eve (literally. although his ‘level of expertise is signiﬁcantly below that seen in Oldowan hominids’. but it invariably answers the question: What were we like before we were ‘civilised’. the knowledge of good and evil. when we were like the animals. and sought to understand. That is the myth I wish to discuss in this paper: The idea that you can analytically separate human biology from culture and meaningfully study only human biological evolution. or that there is a ‘natural history’ of being human that is not a ‘natural/cultural’ history. or in a mythical time and place.1 In the ﬁrst. 2003). With short thumbs and small brains. The mind that imagines a person with the beastly nature. and subsequently must lead ‘real’ adult human lives of labour. . 2002. 139). .’).5 million years ago. ‘Earth’ and ‘Life’). The phrase was popular among the 18th-century French philosophes. and the imagined creature had even been introduced into political polemics by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651). of modern people is a pre-Darwinian mind. The transformation took place in the dim historical past. They are a shorthand for anthropologists. So these implements mark a point in the evolution of our species. explain or at least explore that fact. Culture is actually inextricably part of the story of human evolution in three distinct ways. or before we were fully human? What was the basic nature of humans like before the acquisition of humanity—brought about in one case by the knowledge of good and evil. The myth of human nature without culture The earliest philosophers and mythologists that we know of appreciated that they lived in a different state than do wild animals. then. who exist in a baby-like state of nakedness and amorality until the snake and the fruit. and is inconsistent with modern knowledge of human evolution. all we need to do to reconstruct that primordial nature is to imagine what that ‘man in a state of pure nature’ might be like. childbirth and. sense. The next most famous is the Babylonian story of Enkidu.The biological myth of human evolution 141 (2) the vacuum created by removing culture from the human object is readily ﬁlled by the imagination of the scientist. Nevertheless. Such a thought experiment is independent of Darwinism (contra Konner. insofar as they are not so much the Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . p. according to Schick & Toth. that is. as stone tools. or morality. it had been used by Thomas Aquinas (‘Sed quia possibile fuit Deo ut hominem facere in puris naturalibus . of course. by 2. The point is that the state of being human is the result of a transformation out of an earlier state. and in another by the love of a good harlot? What these stories share is the fundamental assumption that there is an imaginable state of humans without humanity. however. Perhaps. whose transformation from animal into man (and friend of Gilgamesh) is mediated by a sexual seduction. and most basic. and Pinker. or human nature before the acquisition of human culture. 1994. the origin of technology. but lacking the humanising culture. living apes do not make stone tools (a bonobo named Kanzi was taught to make and use them. culture is detectable in the material record as lithic technology.
This is known as ‘developmental plasticity’ and is widely thought to involve reversible modiﬁcations to the DNA. That is. the hair on our heads would be a sensory nuisance. nor would bone or wood implements. The biological feature had to co-evolve with the cultural ability to take care of it.. 1954. 1961) of the human condition. Maternal stress and diet affect the developing foetus. imbuing it with symbolic social meanings. The point is that we have been co-evolving with technology for over 2. natural selection has as much adapted us to it as surely as cultural selection has adapted it to us.5 million years. for in human societies generally. for example. And indeed. is not simply utilitarian. for example..142 J. and their living spaces have only the subtlest elements of a human archaeological site (Mercader et al. Our hair. which those stone tools would have been quite useful for making. as the ﬁrst tools identiﬁable as such in the archaeological record. Its social and symbolic value must have outweighed what a pain it was to develop in the ﬁrst place (for apes have neither long facial hair nor long head hair). The twigs and rocks used by living chimpanzees. Jablonka & Lamb. with Upper Palaeolithic technologies they groomed a biological feature of negative survival value. lead to less exercise for the developing jaws. would not be identiﬁable to archaeologists. 2005). and must have been there from the very beginning (Thierry. for example. 2002). That tending. Detail of the ‘Willendorf Venus’ . the very ﬁrst images of the human form that we have—the 25. Marks ﬁrst tools. which in turn leads to a reduction in adult facial size. one’s hair and other manners of self-decoration symbolically announce aspects of one’s status. Unlike the apes. Animal and plant domestication. or epigenetics (Kaplan. is distinctly different from that of the apes in several ways. 2005). however. covering our faces unless carefully tended. Bateson et al. dietary. Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 FIgure 2. would not be recognisable as tools. and the same might well be true of the sexually dimorphic human facial hair. Rope or nets. Culture is thus an ultimate evolutionary cause (Mayr. 2004. behavioural and social features that constitute human ‘culture’. and to ascribe meaning to it. linguistic.000-year-old ‘Venus ﬁgurines’—show the hair carefully tended (Figure 2). The second sense in which human biology is inevitably cultural is in the sense that the environment in which any human develops it itself constituted by the local traditional economic. for example.
Meskell. but also physically. Darwinism situates a person in a particular cognitive universe of other species and other people. However. in Natu (1868. solved the problem by creatively inserting the non-European peoples of the world into the slots connecting Europeans to the apes. the major differences in health risks across populations are attributable to economic and social causes (Gravlee. English translation. The environment in which every human being develops is a cultural environment. As a consequence. state. they play a small role in explaining health-risk disparities. With the aid of over a century of hindsight. Darwinism. In modern society. for example. Why there is no escape While the fruitﬂy biologist has the luxury of studying things that have very limited political meanings. A story of an animal ancestry is not terribly unusual either. is a theory of kinship. Culture is thus also a proximate cause (Laland et al. is routinely co-opted for nationalistic ends (Abu el-Haj. Nor can one escape that situation: scientiﬁc work on human beings has always incorporated cultural values. Kuzawa & Sweet. scientiﬁc narratives of human evolution share many of the features of hero myths (Landau. Archaeological work. And the third sense in which human biology is invariably cultural lies in the very nature of the science itself. 2002).The biological myth of human evolution 143 child-rearing practices affect children not only psychologically. narratives of origin invariably contain political information. since origins are histories and histories are political. are not a major factor in explaining the average seven-year difference in life expectancy between whites and blacks in the United States. in that it speaks of descent from an ape ancestor. Haeckel was rather quick to sacriﬁce the full humanity of the non-white races. like other theories of kinship and descent. but of course Darwinism is not about werewolves. Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . and produces knowledge that has immediate cultural relevance (Coon. the anthropologist is obliged to study entities that are themselves the products of political history (nation. The History of Creation. 1968). and of origin narratives generally (Stoczkowski. and ´ vi-Strauss. The very ﬁrst generation of Darwinian biologists were faced with the rhetorical challenge of presenting the descent of humans from apes in the absence of a fossil ¨rliche Scho ¨ pfungsgeschichte record documenting that transition. 1984). tribe. but neither is Darwinism about totemic clans. 2001. Ernst Haeckel. In particular.. integrates elements that resonate meaningfully with the audience (Le 1962). but with the modern cultural authority of science behind it. 1876). ethnicity). such as sickle-cell anaemia. 2002). as in the skull shape associated with the practice of strapping an infant to a cradle-board. He had little difﬁculty in solving the scientiﬁc problem with the cultural knowledge of his day. it can be seen that in order to score points against the creationists. 2011) of the human condition. in explaining who we are and where we came from. The mythmaker brings common elements in general circulation to the listener. Although genetic differences among populations exist. for example. That makes it political. Rare genetic diseases. 2009). as any origin myth does. 2009. The story of a transformation of animal into human is not in itself terribly unusual.
p. we will see modern American gender relations inscribed upon monkeys (Sperling. 1971) to manipulative strategisers (Goodall. take this literature at face value. 1991) and australopithecines (Lovejoy. 1992. p. much less of any idea how they might classify terrestrial life if they did Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . Darrow reads the textbook (Hunter. studying our own ancestry and diversity. invoking science ﬁction as fact. this seems to represent the normative ideas of the biology community. This inﬂuence stems from a fairly straightforward biological fact: that we are humans. In the earliest work of human evolution. for they have signally failed to criticise these ideas. and evolves within a year from biology’s greatest defender to its greatest basher. works pro bono for the only time in his career. photosynthesis and Darwinism. sterilisation as its remedy and old-fashioned (even for 1925) white supremacy. Once again. Faced with the blurred distinction between scientiﬁc subject and object. John T. We are not humans studying ﬂies. and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals’). simply is not there.’. Somehow. prohibiting the teaching of human evolution (not Darwinism per se. . The intellectual distance implied by classical laboratory science between the subject and object. [The Rise and Fall of] The Third Chimpanzee. because we know that the science is an intrinsically cultural science. then. Thomas Huxley (1863) attempted to convince his readers that they ought to be zoologically classiﬁed with the apes because they are so physically similar to apes. Darrow (1925) immediately begins attacking them. 1996). We will see chimpanzees evolve from primordial hippies (Goodall. The greatest trial lawyer in the United States. Scopes (Larson. but humans studying ourselves. between the observer and the observed. the student is introduced to the innateness of crime. 2) explained. despite the non-existence of extra-terrestrial zoologists. Tennessee passed the Butler Act. would certainly see things his way. one from the planet Saturn. Huxley creatively argued that an unprejudiced zoologist.2 biologist Jared Diamond (Diamond. 137) for their views about living people. 1997). but it does mean that we cannot. 1926. has proved to be remarkably resilient. narratives of human diversity were entwined with narratives of human ancestry. One way of getting around the problem is to deny being human. and do not. that is. In preparation for the trial. 1981). Clarence Darrow.144 J. the historical became political. This trope. the biologists had come to think that the fact of ape ancestry was more important to ﬁght for than the fact of social injustice—a priority not shared by the lawyer. In the ensuing decades. This does not mean that there is no reality. on behalf of the defendant. ‘A zoologist from Outer Space would immediately classify us as just a third species of chimpanzee . . What he discovers is that after hygiene. studying humans. and the scientiﬁc community found its ‘Darwinian’ politics more difﬁcult to defend than its Darwinian biology. 1986) to paramilitary units (Wrangham & Peterson. but speciﬁcally ‘any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible. In his science bestseller. History shows very clearly the pervasive inﬂuence of cultural ideas upon scientiﬁc narratives of human evolution. Moreover. and the scholars whose views on extinct ﬁsh he had valued so highly now become ‘irresponsible fanatics’ (Darrow. Marks Some decades later. 1914) out of which Scopes is accused of teaching.
p. German anthropology actually stood in opposition to German evolutionism. 1983). Unfortunately. because the science is structured in a way that prevents them from being so. then. he would produce an important and fruitful reform of anthropology. Haeckel drew the immodest conclusion that after reforming biology. . however. 2010). Uncontroversial as this proposition may sound today. and we understand it in a highly cultural context. but one founded upon the solid ground of comparative zoology. Indeed. (Haeckel. 367) Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 Eventually. In this case. The best one can do. because the subject is a politicised and mythologised one. From this new theory of man there will be developed a new philosophy. 1876. and consequently we can never escape the cultural value that such reﬂexivity brings to a scholarly enterprise. is to recognise what cultural knowledge is incorporated into the scientiﬁc facts. 1868). but it is a different kind of science. the diversity of classiﬁcatory systems simply among human societies suggests that the aliens might well employ criteria that we have not even thought of. It can be scientiﬁc because it is premised on the reality of being a human studying humans. for our brains are actually wired differently than those of other peoples (Marks. they are not objective and cannot be objective. 1982). 1947). one is obliged to appreciate that nature and culture co-produce scientiﬁc facts about our ancestry. 1987). and try to transcend the silly mistakes of one’s predecessors (Lewin. One simply does not theorise oneself in relation to boron or Jupiter as one does in relation to the neighbours or to the ancestors (White. a principle called ‘the psychic unity of mankind’ was being codiﬁed among German anthropologists (Ko ¨ pping.The biological myth of human evolution 145 exist. we simply are stuck as humans studying our own place and history. and it is possible to understand diverse people from other cultures because our brains work the same way. although we recognise this in principle as well as practice. Anthropology biologised At the time that natural selection was being codiﬁed as the central principle of British biology. It was relatively simple: we are a single species. at different distances from the apes (Haeckel. ethnology or early anthropology) would effectively be possible. not like most of the airy systems of metaphysical speculation hitherto prevalent. the most popular version of which held that humans comprised multiple species. and so our biology is effectively a constant in understanding the diversity of human lifeways. and that however authoritative one might wish one’s pronouncements to sound. we hardly ever talk about it.e. which is certainly a ﬁrmer scientiﬁc ground than pretending to be a Martian. Consequently no enterprise of cross-cultural understanding (i. An alternative way around the problem is to acknowledge that however much we might like to keep the distinction between subject and object clear. one in which cultural ideas invariably pervade the process. and it is predicated on knowing what mistakes have already been made. From these premises. his followers on that solid ground would produce the worst anthropology the ﬁeld has ever known. then. and why they are mistakes (Eldredge & Tattersall. This can be scientiﬁc.
1961. Nevertheless the human geneticist Charles Davenport. some American biologists were actually working against the Civil Rights Movement—notably. Franz Boas’s paradigmatic The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) showed that biology (i. 1995). His stature in medical (and palaeo-) anatomy ensured that his ideas would be aired. Nevertheless his anthropology was an exercise in anti-intellectualism. This came at a time when anthropologists had begun to appreciate the creative abilities of diverse indigenous peoples. 2012). not a state of achievement. Marks Haeckel. in contemporary anthropology. the anatomist Wesley Critz George and geneticist Reginald R. Schaffer. his anthropological methods were not as rigorous as those that real anthropologists had been developing. and he eventually managed to see all manner of mythological. Historically minded American anthropologists such as Alexander Goldenweiser (Goldenweiser. Unfortunately.3 In the footsteps of Smith. Thus he categorically rejected the ideas about culture.’ During the First World War. however. artistic and technological motifs as identical to. 2007). By the 1960s. Darlington (1969) attempted to explain social inequality naturalistically by recourse to other imaginary properties of the gene pool. posited alleles for feeblemindedness to explain political. 2005). Most commonly these have been reactionaries writing on the issue of race. I will now correct them because I have no intellectual prejudices. also produced a strange template in casting himself as the voice of modern scientiﬁc. Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . and decades later the plant geneticist C. 1915. it looks like this: ‘Anthropologists are fundamentally mistaken about their subject because ignorance and closed-mindedness have impaired their critical faculties. we have become accustomed to the bluster of the autodidact in the name of creationism or ancient astronauts (von Da ¨ niken. ‘race’) was an irrelevant variable in explaining ‘civilisation’. 1968). and the histories of diverse and ancient peoples ‘put forth ex cathedra by the majority of modern anthropologists’ (Smith. Ruggles Gates (Jackson. or more generally. and had recognised that civilisation is a complex historical process. although real Egyptologists were also very critical of his work (Crook. for the latter was actually the result of historical cultural processes. Leroi. when confronted by recent advances in race theory (Sarich & Miele. led by Boas and his communist/Jewish anthropological associates (Putnam. 2004. biological scientists have challenged normative anthropology from time to time. vi)—and invented his own. economic and social stratiﬁcation in his Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911). 1922) found Smith’s work valueless.e. and younger British anthropologists simply abandoned historical speculation for functional analysis (Stocking. p. descended from or cognate with all others (and ultimately from Egypt). Astonishingly. for example.4 Paramount among their arguments was that American anthropology had been intellectually hijacked by an ‘equalitarian’ agenda. In paraphrase. 2005). the Australian–British neuroanatomist Grafton Elliot Smith used that template in challenging anthropologists with his pet theory that all civilisations had arisen in Egypt.146 J. vestiges of this argument can still be seen in the work of some contemporary biologists. and his knowledge of Egyptology was impressive. D. Darwinian biology as a contrast to the foolish anthropologists. the genetic interpretation of history.
I cannot say whether either of them actually believed their own words. As our knowledge of heredity clears and the mists of superstition are dispelled. but saw no injustice. but as a tool for visualising the otherwise invisible naturalistic basis for social inequality. If a . indeed eponymous. the statements are full of political meaning. made near the beginning and end of the 20th century. the ostensible statements about ‘nature’ are actually full of ‘culture’. this was ﬁrst formalised by radical scholars of the 19th century (Marx. however. history and economics.The biological myth of human evolution 147 So why does the genetic explanation of history not just die. for example. 1867). 1905. 60) We used to think our fate was in the stars. 67) Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 Both statements are obviously rubbish as biology. The basis of that aristocracy is invisible. 1853). and the other of the ‘Watson–Crick double helix’. (James D. Social class being signiﬁcant in the course of a life. but simultaneously in a cultural universe of morality. Permanent progress is a question of breeding rather than of pedagogics. 1989. to them. or more broadly it might simply be the belief that everything signiﬁcant in the course of one’s life is innate. there grows upon us with an ever increasing and relentless force the conviction that the creature is not made but born. possibly ‘good’ for genetics by raising public interest in it. (Punnett. Science is irrelevant to the ﬁrst explanation. respectively. The fundamental question of relevance here is: why is there social inequality? One answer might be that it is the result of long-term injustice and exploitation. However they may have been intended. but certainly they remained scholars in good standing after saying them—which would not have been the case if they had said. cited in Jaroff. To the extent that some people had more than others. in large measure. where the issue is simply social justice. for the very reason outlined above. and having his subsequent speaking engagements in the UK summarily cancelled. but any possibility of visualising it would be politically very powerful. Radical writers on the other side of the political spectrum. The science might be as specialised as the IQ test. politics. or brain size. science may be very useful to the second explanation. the social inequality was merely an outward manifestation of an underlying natural inequality (Gobineau. consider the implications of these two statements. aside from some self-interested public relations work for genetics? Of course there is. Watson. they deserved it. the statements were scientiﬁcally false. (Watson’s fall from grace would come two decades later. once again. after explicitly querying the intelligence of Africans to London’s The Sunday Times. and therefore we should work against inequality and for social justice. our fate is in our genes. and morally ‘bad’ by reinforcing social hierarchies and rationalising the perpetuation of injustice. that the Earth was created in 4004 BC. The statements exist not solely in a naturalistic universe of heredity and DNA. a matter of gametes. p. Now we know. p. or skull form. But regardless of their biological vacuity. but both are from important.) Thus. genetic sources—one of the ‘Punnett square’. like the geocentric Solar System? Is there something else at stake. also universally memorised by biology students. identiﬁed the inequality. not of training. universally memorised by biology students. for they constituted a natural aristocracy.
the spine more curved. rather than in front of it. Their equivalence is not a fact of biological evolution.. and note how they are to be understood bioculturally. language and sexual dimorphism. narratives of human origin are bound up in narratives of human diversity. the foot more stable and less ﬂexible. rather than simply biologically. Whether these structural variations had biomechanical consequences. but biocultural features with biocultural histories. as the bird’s plumage is.148 J. 2012). hip and knee supporting the body’s weight. Zipfel et al. Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 Human evolution is not biological While it may be attractively pseudoscientiﬁc to imagine human evolution as simply biological history driven by simple biological processes. say. and we actually have little precedent in zoology for understanding human evolution. brain. p. And second. well. or whether they represent anatomical noise. with an entirely different ontology. evident in the form of nearly every part of the body—the head atop the chest. 1992. Nevertheless. and both are highly mythologised and political. the anatomy of the ankle appears to be more variable in Ardipithecus and Australopithecus than was thought a decade ago (Lovejoy et al. which became increasingly clariﬁed over the course of the 20th century. these are not homologous to the human condition. Bipedality We identify the two-legged stride as the initial feature separating an evolving human lineage from its ape ancestors. then. 2011. First. but an artefact. which might suggest different kinds of walking in different hominid species. but a metaphor—like equating a tree and an umbrella for both providing shade. and has only been in existence for a few generations. skin. and the big toe adjusted for weight-bearing rather than for grasping. we must grapple with two unique scientiﬁc issues. To understand any aspect of human evolution as if it were like bird plumage may thus be very misleading.. They are not biological features with biological histories. Haile-Selassie et al. The sports car is not a biological fact. like the fact that about half us have a big toe longer than our second toe and about half of us have a longer second toe.. 2010. To study human origins rigorously. or ‘courtship’ in birds. although it is tempting to see ‘slavery’ in ants. the hands relieved of weight-bearing. rather than trailing after it. behavior or diversity. the most fundamental aspects of human evolution belie that assumption. Brieﬂy consider the ﬁve principal features of the human condition: bipedality. Nevertheless. bird plumage and sports cars in attracting mates (Diamond. the pelvis. 175) is to ignore the fact that the sports car is manufactured and sold. Marks background in molecular biology or entomology did not prepare one for the polysemic aspect of scientiﬁc pronouncements about human origins and diversity. that is why anthropology is its own specialty. the very use of bipedalism as an evolutionary marker conceals . To assert the equivalence of. is unclear.
not cranial.000 years ago. or the integration of what was originally a behavioural choice into our genomes. I wonder if there is a way to subjugate and control it?’ That has been a popular way of thinking about why we have such big brains since the Enlightenment—the better to solve problems with (Falk. who evolved from something that could be bipedal to something that could be nothing but bipedal (Stanford. but many tens of thousands of years elapsed before representational art appears. our ancestors chose and learned to do it. ﬁrst appeared in Africa between 150. 2006). Humans adapt today. but they do not lie. as language made it easier to mix them up. Language is the way we evolved to communicate. their descendants. but it arose in an effectively Lamarckian fashion.The biological myth of human evolution 149 a shorthand. it actually takes a few years. Our foreheads and chins. was not the change from a quadrupedal state to a bipedal state. The expanding communicative power of modern computers has necessitated the development of spam ﬁlters. Clearly. that is. There are other possible reasons than utilitarian problem-solving. along the lines of. we learn how to move like adults. but rather a constraint on the locomotor options of the ancestor. And like other learned things. ‘Say. and that being smart enabled us to think rationally. and we do it because language permits us to.000 and 200. We like to think that it made us smart. that ﬁre stuff is both dangerous and useful. chimpanzees and gorillas can and do walk bipedally under certain conditions. Chimpanzees have been observed to exhibit deceptive behavior. What evolved was obligate bipedality from facultative bipedality. but a choice to concentrate exclusively on one of the things that it had been doing occasionally. Brain We can readily document the three-fold expansion of the chimp-brained Australopithecus afarensis to the human-brained human. and our brains have had a lot to do with it. principally culturally. though. there are many ways of walking. antivirus software and identity-theft protection. We have come a long way from chipped stones to nuclear bombs. the marks of modern humanity. but it also strained our ancestors’ limited thought processes as it permitted them to communicate better nonsense and bolder ﬁbs to one another. In other words. The evolution of bipedality. It is certainly conceivable that the expanding communicative power of language in early human ancestors necessitated the development of intelligence to distinguish truth from lies. of course. 1992). But the history of human adaptation is technological. are programmed to do it (West-Eberhard. much less metallurgy or the wheel or sliced Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . the enhancement of our thought processes may have been a response to the new communication system rather than to any environmental challenges in nature. 2005). and they differ by place and circumstance. we are also not born doing this biologically innate habit. As infants. Only humans lie. ‘innate’ and ‘learned’ are not antonyms. And yet. and now we. After all. It was not the acquisition of anything new. Bipedality is as ‘hard-wired’ as any human feature. therefore.
is the mother of invention. and were eventually discovered culturally. like the ability to type or drive a car. the primary pattern of variation in Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . the skin is the site of body art. That suggests latent capabilities that were always there biologically. our most familiar example of natural selection on the human species involves the relationship between melanin content of the skin and global latitude (Jablonski & Chaplin. First. it is involved in thermoregulation. Second. is effectively disconnected from human history. Physiologically. and whose function is to retain the smelly secretions of specialised sweat glands. which is a social and technological history. Necessity. it seems they began to do it very nicely. Nevertheless. rather than by panting. to the extent that biological difference may correlate with technological difference. which itself has those dual functions. social and thermoregulatory. and working upon the appropriate social and cranial substrates. involving the capacity of banding together to augment personal memory with social history. 1936). it is non-causal. and the switch away from panting was made necessary by having co-opted the tongue for communicatory purposes. and also communicating social information. presumably having been decorated initially by natural pigments. some never learn it. such as ochre and ashes. to permit humans to dissipate heat by sweating. therefore. Presumably the reduction of body hair was necessary to make the evaporative cooling process efﬁcient. That prehistory involves humans adopting technologies and adapting to technologies. 2010). Human biology is thus again relegated to a constant in understanding technological difference. whatever selective pressures may have been operating on the skin were certainly altered by the practice of making and wearing clothing. at puberty we develop regions of hair growth in the axillary and genital regions. Most fundamentally. some can do it better than others. and becoming increasingly reliant upon them for survival. Finally. eventually produced history (Childe. our skin leaves no fossil evidence. And we do not have a learning curve for it: When people ﬁrst began to carve and paint. But the disconnect between physical form and technological difference creates a paradox. which in turn produces recurrent cycles of innovation.150 J. our skin’s function is different from that of the apes in two signiﬁcant ways. not neurology. Unlike the apes. The most crucial aspect of gradually substituting technological for biological adaptation is that we reached a threshold at which the technology became autocatalytic. and our knowledge of how it evolved is at best indirect. which do not have homologues in the apes. adoption and improvement. our skin also serves a complex set of social functions. Skin Although it is one of our most conspicuous differences from the apes. We can all do it. although in this case visual rather than olfactory. The modern human head. since we do indeed associate technology with cranial form for over 2 million years of prehistory. and for most of human history nobody at all did it. which then leave a material record. Marks bread. however. And third.
although the aspect that is most often modelled is their lack of sexual dimorphism. non-dimorphic canine teeth—which suggests a unique evolutionary history for them. in chimpanzees it is within-group variation. for the fact remains that we are the only anthropoid primate species with small. which consist of local rules of conduct (i. culture)—how to think and act. Further. This is commonly understood as the product of a diminution of the competition for mates. how to combine them appropriately (grammatical). what correspondences to make between sound combinations and objects or states (lexical). Second. what other animal takes several years just to earn how to communicate? Most signiﬁcantly. reduction of the canine teeth is another classic aspect of the human condition. Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 .The biological myth of human evolution 151 human skin is quite different than it is in chimpanzees. Chimpanzees often darken as they age. larynx and brain for the purpose of learning to communicate in this unique symbolic fashion might have been at work on our canines as well. and it is certainly conceivable that sexual selection had nothing to do with it—and that same natural selection that restructured our tongue. as cultureless nature. And again. to try and understand language biologically. Unlike walking. as weakened sexual selection. Pronunciation. unlike the canine teeth of the great apes (see below). vocabulary and other aspects of language help to tell us who we are and who we are not. One would be misled quite readily in trying to understand much about human skin—its function. variation and evolution—by recourse to chimpanzee skin in any other way than as a contrast. First. and we have no wellgrounded idea what a partly formed language might even be like. we have little in the way of a material fossil record to tell us anything about how and when talking evolved (the tongue and larynx do not fossilise). out of the many possible ways of thinking and acting. language is a microcosm of general human thought and behavior. and the inﬂections of tone or movement that modify or emphasise the sounds. talking is both innate and actively learned.e. that is. they encode social information. and not related to latitude (Montagna & Yun. In humans the primary pattern of variation in this trait is betweengroup variation. 1963). The thing about rules. is not very illuminating (Everett. and the rule says to do it this way. Nevertheless. but also it gives us a unique marker of group identity. Or perhaps they worked in complex synergy. for human skin can only be fully understood bioculturally (Jablonski. language is rules: rules about what sounds matter (phonetic). but like walking. Further. Language Our mode of communicating is of course quite different from that of an ape. is that they are inherently arbitrary. such that lightly pigmented and darkly pigmented individuals may be found in the same group. Considering language as rule-based behavior reveals two signiﬁcant features. interlocking canine teeth. 2006). We have rules because there are various possible ways of doing things. Yet all existing languages have equivalent expressive capabilities. that is. it is awfully difﬁcult to speak intelligibly through large. 2012). not only does it help us communicate. though.
none of which has a homologue in our close primate relatives. once again. The alien would also observe that the relationship between the familiar and the natural is a complicated one. and some have low levels of sexual dimorphism (Zuk. In generating a Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . The reason that human patterns of sexual dimorphism are different from those of other primates. but are not so in humans? By that feature. and that the act of naturalising the familiar is a political act. whose canines are the same size in both males and females. sexual selection would explain the differences between the sexes as the result of competition for mates. would instantly guess that we belonged to a mildly polygynous species’ (p. Humans. the aliens would see us as similar to the monogamous gibbons. would conclude that there is no natural form of human socio-sexual organisation discernible from the patterns of human sexual dimorphism in the context of primate sexual dimorphism. which in turn suggests that what we experience is not in large part the result of a universal human nature (sex). and which thus imply a different. . and explains that ‘[a] zoologist from Outer Space . 1949). or subcutaneous fat deposition. but not vice versa. or mastoid process on the bottom of the temporal bone of the skull. and defy our placement into a simple taxonomic scheme of primate socio-sexual relations. 2003). for the aliens would testify that biologically we are somewhat like Hamadryas baboons. which are also sexually dimorphic in polygynous primate species. In the mid-20th century we began analytically to bracket off the cultural expectations from the natural physical differences as ‘gender’ in opposition to ‘sex’ (Mead. . was political: were the social inequalities experienced by women facts of nature or facts of historical injustice? The ethnographic data showed that many aspects of the social relations between men and women that we consider ‘natural’ are actually different elsewhere. 71). for this discussion is not about natural.5 Or suppose they look at our sexually dimorphic facial hair. but about biocultural matters. has to do with our evolutionary history. What does evolution tell us about the naturalness of human socio-sexual relations? In The Third Chimpanzee. have biological differences between the sexes. who examines the totality of the information. of course. Natural selection explained the differences between species as the result of competition for resources. Diamond (1992) points the reader to the sexual dimorphism in human body size. But suppose the aliens looked at our canine teeth instead. non-comparable pattern of sexual dimorphism in our species? Or suppose they note the sexual dimorphism in who tends to cut their hair short and who tends to augment their facial coloration. Marks Sexual dimorphism The differences between men and women have been of evolutionary interest since Darwin’s (1871) work. but there are also cultural differences in the form of rules and expectations for girls and women versus boys and men. have different patterns: some have ﬂamboyant males.152 J. biological matters at all. other ﬂamboyant females. The implication is that it is natural for a husband to be unfaithful to his wife. however. unlike any other primates? I suspect that my alien. but of a parochial local history (gender). Diverse species. The arena.
In general. Marriage creates in-laws. both compared with one another and compared with women. also has an eight-year-old who cannot fend for itself. that is.. the system of familial obligations that constitute marriage (as opposed to ‘pair-bonding’) operate to provide the human female with another source of assistance that the chimpanzee female does not need. while many things may correlate with snapshots of human mate choice in the modern age. Caspari & Lee. and a 12-year-old who may still be a decade away from the maturity implied by erupting wisdom teeth. 2009). Mate choice in humans is also not predicated on just biological features. it is not even clear to what extent humans have generally chosen their own mates. 1998. but on cultural features as well—reputation. stories of caliphs with 900 children notwithstanding. strong male to dominate the others physically. Thus. not between individuals. someone else is around to help (Trevathan. stronger males would likely be mitigated by the evolution of foresight. wisdom. if not outweigh. evolution not only increased the size of our head. 2011). which permits them to give their own daughters the assistance at motherhood they require (Hawkes et al. Richardson. one of the most obvious consequences of marriage is to tend to equalise the reproductive output of men. to support this evolutionary reliance on culture. but also extended our period of immaturity. human birth is almost invariably social. but their relevance to understanding our evolutionary history is minimal (Rose & Rose. Chimpanzee females breed more or less until they die. 2005. That is. 2004). Why do not anthropologists ﬁnd much value in speculations about sexual selection in humans? Because once again the relevant ontology is not biological. Assuming a four-year inter-birth interval. language and weaponry to make it increasingly more difﬁcult for a single big. Expelling a largeheaded infant through the birth canal makes a human mother’s task more difﬁcult than a chimpanzee mother’s task. 2009). Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . Where would that help come from? The answers seem to be: menopause and marriage. those obligations will extend beyond the spouses themselves. proﬁciencies of various kinds—which are likely to randomise. any small biases in favour of speciﬁc biological features. a chimpanzee mother with a newborn infant will be weaning a four-year-old and leaving an eight-year-old on its own. linking their families into a network of obligations and expectations.The biological myth of human evolution 153 species so dependent upon social learning for its survival. 2007). Moreover. Additionally. human females stop breeding. McKinnon & Silverman. In other words. it is very unlikely that such small biases have been either universal or consistent enough to be an evolutionary force upon our species. but do not die for another few decades. The 12-year-old chimp already has its wisdom teeth. 2004. consequently. however. wealth. whatever genetic properties might accrue to the descendants of bigger. marriages have often been between families. pair-bonding does not (Barnard. Nor does it end there. Schultz. but biocultural (Fuentes. Indeed. Such correlations may be sociologically interesting. 2010). A human mother with a newborn and a four-year-old. 2000. and the mother came to need a lot more help than did her small-brained ancestors (Hrdy. the human life history evolved. with arranged marriages still common in many parts of the world. Thus. honour.
by the things our ancestors said and did. which makes it difﬁcult to model human evolution as simply biological processes. To the extent that anthropology is science. 2012). that humans are scientiﬁcally understandable independently of culture—either your own or that of your remote ancestors. ecological environmental contexts.154 J. yet nevertheless overrunning the planet. it is not a science like laboratory science. as we indeed have. weak and slow-moving. We thus work with two wellsupported conclusions about the human brain: (1) it is effectively a constant in understanding differences or similarities in the behavior of human groups. in as many ways. then. The reason human evolution cannot be studied from a strictly zoological perspective is that such an endeavour begins by denying the very facts of our existence that we are trying to explain—how we came to be the creatures that we are. with precedents in zoology (Pagel. unable to survive without the non-biological environment that our ancestors made. Marks We have. the determinism may be weaker. Over the course of the 20th century. animals who look at the things around them and ask what they can do with this stuff. To try and represent humans as non-cultural beings is a fool’s errand. This is itself simply an instance of a deeper and broader myth. in allowing its owners to adapt to as diverse a set of conditions. Modern studies of human evolution are engagements with the biocultural. Downloaded by [Jonathan Marks] at 04:29 27 June 2012 . To the extent that we can ﬁnd approximations of ourselves in other species. socially. and the Martians cannot help us out with it. and there are few. and in turn construct our present environment technologically. or that our subjects are automatons. yet driving them and all the other apes to extinction. only a tiny sample of the myriad ways in which to be human. precedents in the history or diversity of life to guide us. anthropologists abandoned the search for the biological causes of culture as futile. and (2) it is not the sole producer of the human mind. economically and linguistically. and began to focus instead on how adaptable the human brain permits us to be. Conclusion: anthropological exceptionalism No other living species has evolved as we have. politically. We did it by evolving into biocultural animals. and we still have trouble grasping and communicating the alienness of other lifeways without the transformative experience of ethnographic ﬁeldwork. We are humans studying human ancestry and diversity. and the interpretative elements may be self-consciously more evident. which is also formed by social history and circumstance. and our evolution is consequently subject to rules that are not readily apparent in the evolution of other species (Sterelny. 2012). in the ethnographic record. that is. To begin the study of humans by imagining that you could free yourself or your object of study from culture. humans are shaped by their historical environment. but we no longer pretend that we are Martians. While other species live in material. the residuum of a pre-modern scientiﬁc approach to understanding the human condition. if any. genetically almost identical to chimpanzees. this is nevertheless what we evolved to be. would be as regressively anti-intellectual a proposition as any that comes from a modern creationist or climate change denier. for it is fundamentally experiential.
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