Planet Earth

The bush & the bramble of the human family

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanDec 30, 2011 4:41 PM

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I wonder if in future years we're going to look at "species debates" in the context of human evolution like we look at counting angels on the head of a pin. Over at BBC News Clive Finlayson has a rambling opinion piece up, Has 'one species' idea been put to bed? Finlayson, the author of The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived, doesn't seem to have a tightly focused point and the end of it all (I think warranted, considering how unsettled this area is). But he does conclude:

And a major conference is planned for September next year when experts from all over the world will meet in Gibraltar to revise our ideas about "the human niche". After decades of bad press we are finally getting round to humanizing the enigmatic Neanderthals.

In my post below I argue that it's most useful to reconceptualize "human" as an ecological niche, rather than a descent group. All the confusion as to whether Neandertals, or any other group of divergent hominins, were, or weren't, "humans like us," exists in the context of the idea that "humans like us" are a very specific and sui generisclade with special traits. I think "we" need to get a little off our high horse here. A few years ago Bruce Lahn got a lot of scorn for positing the idea that different modern human lineages might have been in the process of speciating, at least before the Columbian Exchange and Globalization. Whether the concept is correct or not, I suspect part of the issue is that speciation implies that some human lineages are de-humanized, because there can be only one human lineage. I think this is wrong. I obviously think there's been a lot of abuse of postmodernism, especially when it comes to natural science, this is an area where human concerns rather than objective reality have historically been drivers of many debates. We can see that clear from the present looking back to the past, but decades from now I suspect that we'll be subject to the same hindsight wisdom.

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