The bush & the bramble of the human family

By Razib Khan | December 30, 2011 11:41 am

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 generis clade 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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Human Evolution
MORE ABOUT: Human Evolution

Comments (6)

  1. Hi Razib, sorry to comment out of topic but I just watched in tv that a group of scientist created a new more lethal type of H5N1 Virus, witch can easily be transmitted within human populations. Are this bad news? Are they real? Are they exaggerated? I have trust in you and have you in big esteem, that’s why i ask you.

    Have a nice new year.

  2. i don’t know much about this sort of thing. i’m generally skeptical. though i guess scientists are getting better at this (i asked a friend in virology about this a few months ago)….

  3. Moynihan notoriously got into some trouble a few years ago suggesting that high rates of illegitimacy would in other contexts be suggestive of speciation.

    It’s a stretch, but it doesn’t seem to be completely crazy to think of the coexistence of low-fertility, hyper-monagamous uber-SWPL types and the super-ghettoized underclasses in today’s gentrifying cities as an incipient sympatric speciation event. Other than time and place, the respective cultures seem to lack any point of intersection.

  4. Bill

    Humans absolutely are in the process of speciation. Unfortunately we’re also highly mobile, numerous, and social so there’s no real isolated niches where speciation can occur. To whit Neanderthal and Denisonian dna are both found in various human populations though those “purebred” strains no longer exist.

  5. dave chamberlin

    Bruce Lahn fascinates me. What is he up to these days? I know he is in China, last I heard he had changed his area of study to one less controversial. But I suspect he is one of those rare quirky genius types that we will hear more from.

  6. I prefer for “person” to be the ecological niche and “human” to be the descent-based group.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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