Sunday, December 24, 2023

Critical Hominin Theory

[Note: Both reviewers recommended publication of the following essay for Paleoanthropology, but it has not yet been accepted. If you like it and want to cite it, go ahead and cite this page. I'll let you know if it ever gets officially published.]

Introduction: Physical anthropology as pseudo-taxonomy

At one time, the field of physical anthropology was occupied primarily with establishing the number and natures of the elementary natural units of the human species. Radical biologists, like Ernst Haeckel (1868) , W. C. Osman Hill (1940) and Reginald R. Ruggles Gates (1944) even held the different varieties of living peoples to be themselves species, rejecting the familiar interbreeding criterion. Nevertheless, once that question was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, in the early 1960s, (e.g., Barnicot 1963), the question still remained about how to understand the elementary units of the human species taxonomically below the species level. 

In Nature, Campbell (1962) formally identified H. sapiens sapiens, H. sapiens afer, H. sapiens asiaticus, H. sapiens americanus, H. sapiens australasicus, and H. sapiens neptunianus. Concurrently, based on serological genetic considerations, Boyd (1963) proposed thirteen human “races,” clustered into seven “groups” in Science.  Garn (1961) identified nine “geographical races” and 32 “local races”. Coon (1962) identified five subspecies of living Homo sapiens (ignoring the additional nonsense about their having evolved in parallel from five subspecies of Homo erectus, and its possible bearing on school integration), namely: Caucasoids, Mongoloids, Negroids, Capoids, and Australoids.

In the intervening decades, we stopped thinking about and teaching about human variation that way in physical anthropology.  We have learned to talk about human variation without formal biological taxonomy. The actual empirical biological structure of our species is regarded as constituting a widespread network of more or less interrelated, ecologically adapted and functional entities” (Weiner 1957: 80), or in contemporary language, a “structured metapopulation” that defies taxonomic precision.  The groups that compose our species are created for particular purposes, and while they may correlate with some biological patterns, they do not represent natural divisions, but political identities. Classifying our species as Linnaeus did turned out to be a square peg – round hole problem (Livingstone 1962). Race can thus be modeled on the classic anthropological example of African witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard 1937; Fields and Fields 2012), which structures people’s lives in spite of not having any material, naturalistic existence.

Indeed, partly as a result of the historical baggage associated with treating the human species in such a pseudo-taxonomic fashion, we terminated physical anthropology altogether and rebranded ourselves formally as biological anthropology. Yet even as biological anthropology, we retain the urge to try and make sense of the ostensible lineages in our ancestry taxonomically (e.g., Wood and Boyle, 2016; Reed et al., 2023), a daunting task that even Linnaeus himself never faced back in the 18th century.

A popular science bestseller, Harari’s (2014) Sapiens, told readers on its back cover that “[o]ne hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited Earth”. That, of course, might indeed be true. What are the six species he identified 100,000 years ago? One, Homo sapiens, modern people. Fair enough, if a bit on the robust side. Two, Homo neanderthalensis. Indeed, according to the best genetic data thirty years ago (Krings et al. 1997); but now the geneticists say I may have 2% Neanderthal DNA, which presumably changes the status of Neanderthals, or the status of species, or both (Harvati and Ackermann 2022; Weasel 2022). Three, Homo denisova. Yet even the geneticists, who are the only people to whom it is visible, say this is a genomic subgroup of Neanderthals (Meyer et al., 2012) – who, as just noted, may not even be their own species in the first place. Four, Homo erectus. That is largely uncontroversial as a taxon; but not at 100,000 years ago, unless perhaps we regard species #6 as H. erectus. Five, Homo floresiensis. Clearly, the mysterious and isolated H. floresiensis was something (Madison 2023). And six, Homo soloensis, named for a different set of Indonesian fossils than H. floresiensis, which are generally regarded as archaic H. sapiens (Swisher et al., 1996) on account of their anatomical continuity with both H. erectus and H. sapiens.

All of a sudden, we are down from “at least six different species” to humans, the hobbit, and possibly Neanderthals. This is not to single out Harari for criticism, but rather to note that biological anthropologists know that all of these species are vexatious at best (e.g., Athreya and Hopkins 2021; Bae et al., 2023), while outside of biological anthropology, the nuanced winks that generally accompany these taxa tend to get lost.

The problem is not a new one. Reviewing mammalian systematics in 1945, G. G. Simpson was frustrated by the difference he encountered between paleontological and paleoanthropological taxonomy. Since human are mammals, it stands to reason that an expert on mammalian species should be able to make sense of extinct hominin[1] species. Like any other biological taxonomic enterprise, there is a proper taxonomic scheme, reflecting a proper understanding of the fossil species in that particular evolutionary lineage. It’s simply a matter of finding it. Some people see too few species (lumpers), and some people see too many species (splitters), while a competent paleontologist should produce results that are as Goldilocks found the baby bear’s porridge: just right.

The problem, however, is not simply that everybody fancies themselves to be the baby bear; but rather, lies more fundamentally in the assumption that the elementary units in paleoanthropology and the elementary units of paleontology are equivalent. I think it is time to call that assumption into question. The units of paleontology, and of biology more generally, are different from the units of paleoanthropology, in that the latter are units in a story of our ancestors, and the ancestors are invariably sacred.

What are primate species?

A species, like a culture or a gene, is infamously difficult to define precisely and satisfactorily. Species appear to be units of nature of some sort, but different kinds of units than species among plants or bacteria (Godfrey and Marks 1991; Barraclough 2019). Nevertheless, for multicellular animals at least, it appears to be an elemental unit of ecology, as a cell is an elemental unit of physiology, a genotype is an elemental unit of a population genetics, and an organism is an elemental unit of society. If we restrict ourselves just to the more familiar mammalian and primate species, we can ideally identify several properties possessed by a species: (1) it is composed of organisms related to one another as either potential mates or competitors for mates, thus bounded by the limits of a gene pool; (2) it constructs and is adapted to a niche, filling a role in a dynamic ecosystem; (3) it has a locus in space and a duration in time as an evolutionary lineage; and (4) it can replicate, making more species, each slightly different from itself. Different definitions of species, from Buffon (1753; Farber 1973) through Mayr (1942) and beyond, highlight one or another of these features.[2]

A more recently-appreciated feature of species is that they are also units of conservation legislation, and thus partly cultural as well. That is why the number of extant primate species has risen so dramatically in recent decades, from about 170 in the mid-1980s (Richard 1985) to over 500 today (Strier 2022). It is not simply that the number of species is being taxonomically inflated, and is thus less accurate than it used to be (Rosenberger 2012); or that new species are finally being recognized, and their number is thus more accurate than it used to be (Groves 2014). In a sense, comparing the number of living primate species 35 years ago and today is simply unfair, because they are actually tabulating different things than they used to.

 However entropic the universe of extant primate species seems to have become, it is disconnected from extinct primate species, which are of course unaffected by conservation legislation. They nevertheless have their own issues, and their status is constantly being negotiated by the community of primate paleontologists. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the closer we get to ourselves, the more complex things seem to become (Kimbel and Martin, 1993).

Hominin species seem just as vexed today as they did to Simpson back in 1945. His explanation was that the people doing the paleoanthropology were generally coming from medical anatomy, and simply didn’t understand taxonomy well enough: “much of the work on primates has been done by students who had no experience in taxonomy and who were completely incompetent to enter this field, however competent they may have been in other respects” (Simpson 1945:181). In particular, he noted, “Dart's placing of Australopithecus in a family ‘Homo-simiadae’ (1925) only served to exemplify the total ignorance of zoology so common among the special students of these higher primates (although, of course, Dart's work is excellent in his own field)” (Simpson 1945:188).

The ontology of hominin species

The underlying presupposition is that hominin biological history is composed of zoological units that are equivalent to species, however species may be defined biologically. Thus, Homo naledi, Homo longi, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo luzonensis, etc., either are or are not distinct phylogenetic lineages, and only a proper taxonomy will resolve and describe it.
Suppose, however, that there are no recoverable biological species in the history of our lineage, perhaps because much of that history is occupied biologically by a structured meta-population rather than by distinct species (Pääbo 2015; Scerri et al. 2019). Perhaps because there is more at stake in identifying our ancestors than there is in identifying the ancestors of other species. Perhaps because the names themselves represent not so much biological ancestors, as anthropological ancestors.
What do I mean by an anthropological ancestor? I mean the subject of a sacred narrative about our past, a story intended to explain who we are and how we came to be here. The diverse manners by which peoples construct relations of (horizontal) kinship and (vertical) ancestry was among the earliest discoveries of anthropology (Morgan 1871; Franklin & McKinnon 2001). And while we have talked for decades about looking at science as a culture (Snow 1959), we are only recently actually getting around to doing it (Franklin 1995). I want to suggest that the reason that hominin taxonomy is, and has always been, so vexed, is because its elements are not biological species. The species that compose our own lineage are mythic ancestors, which are intended to resemble biological species. But they are actually elements in a story, the bricolage (Lévi-Strauss 1962) out of which scientific narratives of our origins (Landau 1985) are constructed.
In one story, the actor in a creation story might be Mother Corn Spirit. In another, it might be Homo luzonensis. In still another, it might be Homo soloensis. And they might have precisely the same ontological status: as nonexistent naturalistic entities in human ancestry. As some other kind of entities, namely as characters in an origin narrative, they may have a very different kind of existence.
The persistent confusion over hominin taxonomy is a result of misunderstanding the nature and existence of hominin species. It is not that there is a correct taxonomic interpretation of the fossils, which will reveal itself under the proper analytic technique. It’s that (1) this taxonomic practice is different from other ostensibly zoological taxonomic practices, by virtue of being reflexive; (2) the origin of this difference lies in the fact that it is naming and describing our own ancestors, and (3) ancestors are invariably sacred (in the broad anthropological sense of “special”, rather than in the narrower sense of “holy,” although the ancestors may of course sometimes be that too; Zerubavel 2012).
Figure 1: A notoriously sacred ancestor,
Eoanthropus dawsoni, or Piltdown Man.
Anthropologically speaking, hominin species are sacred ancestors. In some cases, this is more obvious than others. The role of Eoanthropus dawsoni as a sacred British ancestor (Figure 1), which effectively precluded its exposure as a hoax for decades, is well-known (Weiner 1955). Another notable example is Sinanthropus pekinensis. We often retell the story of the loss of the Peking Man fossils on Pearl Harbor Day. They were being transported for safe keeping to the naval base in Hawaii to protect them from the Japanese, who were very interested in taking control of the fossils (Roberts et al. 2021). We never tell a parallel story in Europe: After all, there were hominin fossils scattered around Europe in 1941, but they didn’t require special protection from the Germans. Why did Peking Man require protection from the Japanese? Presumably, because the fossils were regarded as ancestors of the Chinese (Sautman 2001; Schmalzer 2008), and thus possessed symbolic power and value to East Asians, which was quite different from the cultural meanings of European fossils.
And it wasn’t even Homo erectus at the time, but Sinanthropus pekinensis. That is what all of these names represent: not elements of biological history, but elements of stories about biological history. They are attempts to create formal biological characters and distinctive elements in order to convey a story of human origins, where there are, in fact, no such formal biological distinctions in nature.  This situation is familiar from the neontological end of physical anthropology, in the form of two centuries of misguided racial classification. I am suggesting that the problem with paleoanthropological taxonomy today is the same problem with racial taxonomy decades ago: namely, a fundamental confusion of categories, mistaking units of symbolic culture for units of biological nature.
Figure 2: An ancestor (STS-5 or Mrs. Ples)
on a postage stamp 
Some famous fossil ancestors have appeared on national postage stamps (Figure 2), an unusual location for scientific data. My point is that studying and narrating one’s own ancestry is a culturally powerful activity. The elements of a scientific story of our ancestors are species, and those species are not like other species, by virtue of being our ancestors (Walker et al., 2021). We are humans studying human ancestors; the reflexivity is built into the system. In order to break out of the loop (Huxley 1863:69), we can pretend to be space aliens (“scientific Saturnians, if you will”), but that is hardly a scientific solution to any problem.
We no longer teach the pattern of extant human variation as being taxonomically structured, because we have come to realize that the taxonomies of race did not in fact represent what they purported to: the existence of a fairly small number of fairly discrete and fairly natural clusters of people. By shifting the ontological status of race from the biological to the cultural (obviously, sometimes correlated with a bit of biology), race has become no longer a subject of formal biological taxonomy. Consequently, whether the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature recognizes Homo sapiens afer as a valid subspecies is irrelevant, for it isn’t actually a biological thing. It is simply one of the many cultural ways that humans form politically salient groups, and consequently one of the identities that are available for people to adopt in a particular time and place. 
Similar reasoning can be applied to human ancestry. We may begin to regard Homo heidelbergensis, for example, as ontologically equivalent to Homo sapiens asiaticus. That is to say, as an attempt to apply scientific taxonomic rigor where it is inapplicable, by naming something and thus willing it into existence. This is the fallacy of reification, or misplaced concreteness. There is no Homo sapiens asiaticus, although we can certainly discuss the peoples of East Asia, their gene pools, and their adaptations. We do not recognize Linnaean subspecies taxa as describing our species at present. Are the Linnaean species taxa that ostensibly describe our ancestry any realer? Or are they primarily serving to conceal the actual structure of human prehistoric biology? It is, after all, at least conceivable that the human lineage was more like a structured metapopulation than like a clade, all the way down. If that were true, then gene flow would presumably be occurring, which becomes a mechanism for the horizontal transmission of derived characters. If derived characters are transmitted horizontally by gene flow, rather than vertically by common ancestry, that would render any ostensible phylogenetic analyses untenable; in which case the goal of establishing a proper taxonomy and phylogeny for recent hominin fossils (e.g., Bae et al., 2023) would be impossible.


Figure 3: Five official kinds of living people, from 1911 

            We talk today about a species Homo sapiens, and even about a subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens, without further formal taxonomic structure, although with real and studiable patterns of biological diversity below that level. But instead of characterizing Homo sapiens europaeus as if it were a naturalistic taxon, today we ask instead why scientists thought it existed as such for two or three centuries when it actually doesn’t (Figure 3). Instead of asking how many and what the human races are, we ask how and why they get made, and what work they do. We may look similarly at the question in paleoanthropology of how hominin species get made and manipulated – without necessarily assuming that hominin species are biological things, because that is what we think our prehistory is supposed be composed of. It may be that the quest for a proper and correct taxonomy of hominin species is itself a vain one.

The 18th century Linnaean tree of classification does not map perfectly on to the 19th century Darwinian tree of phylogeny. Why not? Because adaptive Darwinian divergence creates paraphyletic Linnaean categories – such as invertebrates (minus vertebrates), fish (minus tetrapods), reptiles (minus birds), monkeys (minus hominoids), and apes (minus humans). Consequently, 21st century cladistic classifications often have weird components, as they attempt to make all recognized taxa monophyletic (Withgott, 2000). Nevertheless, even Linnaeus was not faced with trying to incorporate extinct taxa into his work; he didn’t even believe in extinction. Moreover, Linnaeus did not know about macro-and micro-evolution when he formulated his system, and the distinction has vexed systematists ever since, since speciation is a process and not an event, and thus reproductive isolation (if that is your criterion of species) is often incomplete (Dobzhansky, 1937).
The recent paper by Meneganzin and Bernardi (2023) about Neanderthal specieshood underscores the problem. With imprecise definitions of what “human,” “Neanderthal,” and “species” mean, the Linnaean system simply breaks down here. They may well be right: Neanderthals may indeed be a “good” species, assuming that species actually mean something real and biological in this context. But I would suggest that Neanderthals are neither a “good” species nor a “bad” species; the imposition of biological species labels where the species are at best biologically ambiguous is the problem. That would be a problem anywhere on the “tree” of life; but Neanderthals have the added burden of sitting on the boundary between the human and the nonhuman, which is about as singularly symbolically charged as any place you can imagine. 
Perhaps hominin species do more harm than good at present, when it comes to understanding the bio-historical processes and patterns that got us here. Perhaps hominin species are examples of scientific pareidolia: projecting patterns like faces onto objects like clouds and tortillas. If you really want them to be there, you can always find them. The problem lies in convincing everyone else that they are there.


Athreya, S., & Hopkins, A. 2021. Conceptual issues in hominin taxonomy: Homo heidelbergensis and an ethnobiological reframing of species. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 175(Suppl. 72), 4–26.

Bae, C.J., Aiello, L.C., Hawks, J., et al. 2023. Moving away from “the Muddle in the Middle” toward solving the Chibanian puzzle. Evolutionary Anthropology (in press). doi:10.1002/evan.22011

Barraclough, T. G. 2019. The Evolutionary Biology of Species. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boyd, W. C. 1963. Genetics and the human race. Science, 140:1057-1065.

Buffon, Count de. 1753. l'Asne. In: Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particuliére, Vol. IV. Paris: Imprimerie Royale, pp. 337-436.

Campbell, B. 1962. The systematics of man. Nature, 194:225-232.

Coon, C. S. 1962. The Origin of Races. New York: Knopf.

Dobzhansky, T. 1937. Genetics and the Origin of Species. New York: Columbia University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farber, P. L. 1972. Buffon and the concept of species. Journal of the History of Biology, 5: 259-284.

Fields, B., and Fields, K. 2012. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. New York: Verso.

Franklin, S. 1995. Science as culture, cultures of science. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24: 163-184.

Franklin, S., & McKinnon, S., eds. 2001. Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Garn, S. 1962. Races. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Godfrey, L., & Marks, J. 1991. The nature and origins of primate species. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 34: 39-68.

Groves, C. P. 2014. Primate taxonomy: Inflation or real? Annual Review of Anthropology, 43: 27-36.

Harari, Y. N. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Random House.

Harvati, K., & Ackermann, R. R. 2022. Merging morphological and genetic evidence to assess hybridization in Western Eurasian late Pleistocene hominins. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 6: 1573–1585.

Huxley, T. 1863. Man's Place in Nature. London: Williams and Norgate.

Kimbel, W. H., & Martin, L. B., eds. 1993. Species, Species Concepts and Primate Evolution. New York: Plenum.

Krings, M., Stone, A., Schmitz, R. W., Krainitzki, H., Stoneking, M., & Pääbo, S. 1997. Neandertal DNA sequences and the origin of modern humans. Cell, 90:19-30.

Landau, M. 1991. Narratives of Human Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. 1962. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Livingstone, F. B. 1962. On the non-existence of human races. Current Anthropology, 3, 279-281.

Madison, P. 2023. Tug-of-War: Bones and stones as scientific objects in postcolonial Indonesia. Isis, 114:77-98.

Mayr, E. 1942. Systematics and the Origin of Species. New York: Columbia University Press.

Meneganzin, A., and Bernardi, M. 2023. "Were Neanderthals and Homo sapiens ‘good species’?" Quaternary Science Reviews 303: 107975.

Meyer, M., Kircher, M., Gansauge, M.-T., Li, H., Racimo, F., Mallick, S., . . . Pääbo, S. 2012. A high-coverage genome sequence from an archaic Denisovan individual. Science, 338: 22-226.

Morgan, L. H. 1871. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Volume 17.

Osman Hill, W. C. 1940. Classification of Hominidae. Nature, 146: 402-403.

Pääbo, S. 2015. The diverse origins of the human gene pool. Nature Reviews Genetics, 16(6), 313-314.

Reed, D. N., Raney, E., Johnson, J., Jackson, H., Virabalin, N., & Mbonu, N. 2023. Hominin nomenclature and the importance of information systems for managing complexity in paleoanthropology. Journal of Human Evolution, 175, 103308.

Richard, A. F. 1985. Primates in Nature. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Roberts, M. F., DeVisser, E. M., & Marrant, J. P. 2021. Treacherous evidence: Archival documents and the search for Peking Man. PaleoAnthropology, 1:98−119.

Rosenberger, A. L. 2012. New World Monkey nightmares: Science, art, use, and abuse (?) in platyrrhine taxonomic nomenclature. American Journal of Primatology, 74(8), 692-695.

Scerri, E. M. L., Chikhi, L., & Thomas, M. G. 2019. Beyond multiregional and simple out-of-Africa models of human evolution. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3:1370-1372.

Schmalzer, S. 2008. The People's Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simpson, G. G. 1945. The principles of classification and a classification of mammals.  Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 85: 1-349.

Snow, C. P. 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. London: Cambridge University Press.

Strier, K. B. 2021. Primate Behavioral Ecology, 6th ed. New York: Routledge.

Swisher, C. C., Rink, W. J., Antón, S. C., Schwarcz, H. P., Curtis, G. H., & Suprijo, A. (1996). Latest Homo erectus of Java: Potential Contemporaneity with Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia. Science, 274: 1870-1874.

Walker, J., Clinnick, D., and White, M. 2021. "We are not alone: William King and the naming of the Neanderthals." American Anthropologist 123 (4): 805-818.

Weasel, L. 2022. "How Neanderthals became white: The introgression of race into contemporary human evolutionary genetics." The American Naturalist 200 (1): 129-139.

Weiner, J. S. 1955. The Piltdown Forgery. London: Oxford University Press.

Weiner, J. S. 1957. Physical anthropology: An appraisal. American Scientist, 45: 79-87.

Withgott, J. 2000. "Is it “So Long, Linnaeus”?" BioScience 50: 646-651.

Wood, B., &. Boyle, E. 2016. Hominin taxic diversity: Fact or fantasy? American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 159(S61): 37-78.

Zerubavel, E. 2012. Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] Although I reject the two premises that led to the adoption of “hominin” (only naming clades, and privileging our genetic intimacy with the apes over our ecological difference from them), I use the term for its hipness.

[2] I regard a species to be a group of organisms composed of potential mates and competitors for mates, and representing a temporarily stable state in a biopolitical field of evolution, ecological relations, capitalism, conservation science, and governmental action.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Fire, Corn, and Creationism

At the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, the Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry sermonized on the power of love and fire. On the latter subject, he invoked the writings of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

[According to Teilhard] the discovery or invention or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time. Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. Fire made it possible, there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no industrial revolution without fire.

Fire was indeed a great biocultural development in human evolution, for the apes have neither sufficient brains nor sufficient thumbs to create and control it. The direct ancestors of humans were doing it hundreds of thousands of years ago; we know this because they left us the remains of their hearths.

The Greeks, who knew nothing of prehistoric archaeology, at least knew where fire came from. It was given to people  by Prometheus, against the wishes of Zeus, who punished him for the deed in a classically Zeusian way: by chaining him to a rock and having an eagle peck out his liver on a daily basis.

Ha! Those silly Greeks! But did you ever wonder what the Bible says about where fire came from?

The answer is easy. Nothing. Fire was such an obvious part of being human that the Bible doesn’t even have an origin myth about it.  It was just always there with people. They didn’t have to discover it, or learn to control it. The Book of Jubilees, which expands on Genesis and figures prominently among the Dead Sea Scrolls, has a detail that Genesis doesn’t. After getting expelled from Eden, Adam and Eve make “an offering of frankincense, galbanum, and myrrh, and spices,” which implies the control of fire, since God generally doesn’t take raw offerings, only roasted offerings. If we go just with canonical books of the Bible, the first offerings are those of Cain and Abel.

            The problem is that there is no learning curve. Neither Adam and Eve, nor their children, apparently have to experiment with fire, or are even given fire. One day they are just using it. Perhaps they simply cadged it from the cherubim brandishing the flaming sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden; or perhaps they just ate from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of How to Make Fire – but if so, the Bible doesn’t say.

The anti-intellectualism of the biblical literalist has tended to be focused on biological narratives, specifically denying that our species is descended from ape ancestors over last few million years. But the battleground of archaeology is even more problematic for a 21st century believer in the inerrancy of the Bible, but one rarely confronts it because of the blinding light of Darwin and biology.

 Consider the economic prehistory of the human species. The early 1860s saw the publication of two important English works on the subject: Charles Lyell’s The Antiquity of Man (1863) and John Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times (1865). Between them, they cemented a significantly non-biblical story about human ancestry: namely, that the earliest state of humanity was a long time of living off the land, without agriculture, as contemporary hunter-gatherers (whom they regarded as “savages”) did.

Now, of course, the discovery and spread of food production is one of the most fundamental issues in archaeology. Humans began to transform animals and plants from wild to domesticated forms, by controlling their breeding, starting around 12,000 or so years ago, thus ensuring a stable supply of food. The problem faced by scholars in the mid-19th century is this:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

According to the Bible, there was never any hunting and gathering. People were farming from day one; or rather, from Day 6. And the disparity between archaeology and the biblical text created a problem for anyone wanting to understand contemporary foragers in places like Australia and South Africa and America in the 19th century. If farming was invented and learned, then contemporary foragers were just people who hadn’t learned it.  If, on the other hand, farming was there from the beginning, then they were degenerates who had abandoned that God-given knowledge. So which was it – were living foragers primordial or devolved? Lyell and Lubbock settled the matter: Hunting-and-gathering was how our ancestors long ago made a living off the land, and only subsequently was agriculture eventually developed. The alternative idea is not only anti-empirical, but also a bit racist.

                Moreover, agriculture arose in different parts of the world, using different available wild resources: In one place wheat; in another, rice.  And that leads to an important and incontrovertible conclusion from modern archaeology: God did not make corn.

                People made corn. In particular, people of Mesoamerica made corn over the course of a few thousand years, from a grass called teosinte, which is still capable of hybridizing with corn. We have their learning curve, in the form of dated ancient cobs. The learning curve for food production is critical, since the Bible directly implies that there shouldn’t be one. Moreover, all the evidence for early corn is in Mesoamerica; there was no corn in the Garden of Eden. (And of course, wherever the King James Version says “corn,” you should read “grain” – because what the Bible says and what the Bible means are often not the same. And while you’re at it, where you encounter the word “unicorns” in the King James, you might want to read “wild oxen”.)

                 With both the creationists and evolutionists transfixed on Darwin, perhaps the scholarly community might take a step back from apes and DNA, and try attacking biblical literalism/inerrancy on a different battlefield. Make the creationist explain fire and corn. Any explanation will necessarily be unbiblical, at the very least, in addition to being inaccurate.

Then you can share a bowl of popcorn with your new friend.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

You tell me that it's evolution, well, you know...

It has been a frustrating several decades for science since John Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961, the book that laid the groundwork for modern biblical literalist creationism. Those authors just flatly denied what science had appreciated since the early 1800s: that the earth is very old, and has been populated at different times by diverse creatures that were quite different from living ones, although frequently resembling them. While there has always been religiously-based resistance to Darwinism, it was a rare anti-intellectual who dared venture into “young-earth creationism”. Even William Jennings Bryan, Clarence Darrow’s antagonist in the famous Scopes trial, volunteered the fact that he was an “old-earth” creationist, to the surprise of both sides in the courtroom. 

DARROW:  Would you say the earth was only 4,000 years old?
BRYAN:  Oh no, I think it is much older than that.
DARROW:  How much?
BRYAN:  I couldn't say.
DARROW:  Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that?
BRYAN:  I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not.
DARROW:  Do you think the earth was made in six days?
BRYAN:  Not six days of twenty-four hours.
DARROW:  Doesn't it say so?
BRYAN:  No, sir.

In other words, “young-earth creationism” was too stupid even for William Jennings Bryan in 1925.

The Genesis Flood, on the other hand, began in 1961 with the premise that the Bible relates literal history; the Bible says that the Earth is merely thousands of years old; therefore it must be; and therefore all species lived at the same time, not so long ago. Almost as an afterthought, evolution must be false as a simple consequence of this biblical revisionism. This begged the question of how animals actually came to be fossilized, short of having been magically petrified by the visage of the gorgon Medusa; or how particular fossils came to be very consistently deposited in similar formations of rock layers, in spite of all that sloshing of the flood waters. It left you to wonder how the modern lemurs made it to Madagascar, and nowhere else; or how the koalas made it from Mount Ararat in the Near East all the way to Australia, without eucalyptus forests in between.

Most importantly, though, The Genesis Flood enjoined the reader to simply reject lots and lots of real and scholarly geology in favor of some dopey alt-geology. Where might such a bizarre suggestion come from? Saying that science has gotten something wrong is not in itself threatening. After all, when we teach that science is self-correcting, that is quite specifically what we mean: Science has gotten something wrong and we are correcting it.

The context of modern biblical literalist creationism bears some examination. Today it is fashionable to regard creationists along with anti-vaccinators, anthropogenic climate-change deniers, and flat-earthers, as part of a vast conspiracy of stupid. But there are two problems with this view. First, science is, and has sometimes famously been, wrong. When American geneticists of the 1920s said that we needed to sterilize the poor and restrict immigrants on account of their “bad germ-plasm,” it was the anti-science mobilization of the civil libertarians, social scientists, political conservatives, and religious Catholics that we can admire in retrospect for standing up to the geneticists. And second, we don’t know the degree of overlap among the anti-vaccinators, anthropogenic climate-change deniers, flat-earthers, and creationists.  Although some of them rationalize their beliefs with Bible verses, only the creationists are actually religiously motivated. In fact, even the creationists think the flat-earthers are nuts. 

St. Augustine, a Hippo
In other words, creationism represents a special kind of anti-science, rooted in a particular hermeneutic treatment of the Bible: selective biblical literalism. It’s selective because, as even St. Augustine of Hippo  recognized, when you read that Adam and Eve’s “eyes were opened” after eating the fruit in the Garden of Eden, you simply can’t imagine that they had been walking around the Garden with their eyes closed, bumping into things. It has got to be a figure of speech, not to be taken literally.

There is a different context for looking at creationism, however. Scarcely a decade before The Genesis Flood, the scientific world was scandalized by a Bible-based book of a different sort. It was called Worlds in Collision, written by psychoanalyst named Immanuel Velikovsky.

Velikovsky was not a literalist, nor was he concerned with the book of Genesis. His interest lay in Exodus, but his biblical focus was rooted in an equally ridiculous premise: Since all myths and legends are ultimately based upon real events (rather than just being stories, like Cosette and the Thenardiers, or Oliver Twist and Fagin, or Luke Skywalker and the Death Star) then what actual circumstances might have been the inspiration for the miracle-infused biblical Exodus from Egypt? In particular, what might have started things off by turning the Nile to blood, Plague Number One of Ten – or at least to something that Bronze Age yokels might have mistaken for blood? The subsequent plagues of Egypt would also receive naturalistic explanations too – frogs making their own amphibious exodus from the now-toxic river, then hosting insect vermin as disease made its way up the food chain, eventually culminating in mass deaths – hazily misremembered and misrecorded as merely the Egyptian first-born.

But what started it off, turning the Nile river to blood?

Velikovsky had an answer, and peppered his biblical exegesis as well with tendentious renderings of ethnographic and archaeological texts. What had turned the Nile red and undrinkable was red matter that had fallen into the Nile from the surface of the planet Venus. How did it get there? The planet Venus had just come into existence, having been expelled as a comet from the Great Red Spot of Jupiter; and was shooting through the solar system, eventually banging into Mars before both planets settled into their separate orbits just a few thousand years ago. It was an ingenious theory, with only one obstacle in its way: astronomy.  So Velikovsky invented his own alt-astronomy and settled into the #1 slot of the New York Times best-seller list in the Spring of 1950.

Needless to say, astronomers did not take this at all well. Sadly, though, they did a spectacularly poor job of engaging with Velikovsky’s work, beginning with threatening its publisher. Their fulminations were properly dismissive, necessarily technical, sometimes ad hominem, and occasionally incoherent. Eventually, though, Worlds in Collision faded from view, and today you can generally only find Velikovsky’s ideas by searching for them on the internet. Nevertheless, both Worlds in Collision and The Genesis Flood prominently cast themselves against science, and in favor of their particular interpretations of the Bible. One bluntly opposed astronomy, the other opposed geology. Yet the biblical text figures prominently in both, as misunderstood “history” in the colliding planets narrative, and as properly-understood “history” in creationist narratives.

We (in the human evolution community) have engaged most commonly with biblical literalist creationism as a false theory of biology, or as an archaic remnant of older modes of thought; but it is reactionary, not primitive, and treating it as a false story simply replicates the astronomers’ frustrating engagement with Worlds in Collision. It will always prove unsuccessful to engage with creationism as “our story is true and yours is false” – since at very least, many aspects of any story of human evolution are debatable or downright inaccurate. Indeed, both evolutionist and creationist narratives of human origins have at times freely incorporated racist elements.

But Velikovsky had fashioned a mold: a Bible-validating narrative, and the replacement of real science with his own. And he largely succeeded in focusing the resulting debate on the nature of the story he had to tell – science had theirs, and Velikovsky had his.

That was 1950. The Genesis Flood was 1961. And a decade after that, Erich von Däniken published his best-seller, called Chariots of the Gods?  Once again, the Bible figured prominently, but this time with God’s presence as mis-remembered and mis-reported visitations by ancient astronauts. And the only thing standing in its way was archaeology.

Yet while the colliding worlds astronomy scenario has all but vanished, young-earth creationism and the ancient astronauts are very much still with us. Creationism’s biology scenario is touted in evangelical churches across America, and the ancient astronauts archaeology scenario is touted on The History Channel. Approximately as any people believe it as believe creationism, and we have no idea how much those 40% or so of Americans overlap with one another. 

It’s not simply the rejection of science, but the arrogant construction of a different science, based in some measure on an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. That is what connects the colliding worlds, young-earth creationists, and ancient aliens.  And one thing seems clear: arguing over whose story is right is not a successful strategy. “You” may believe that the planets have been more-or-less as they presently are for billions of years, but “we” believe that Venus is only 3500 years old. And why are you trying to disabuse us of that? Don’t we have a right to believe it? Come to think of it, aren’t you just being an intolerant archaic throwback to colonialist hegemonic practice?

The joint possession of secret knowledge is, after all, a pretty obvious form of social bond.  People who believe the Jets are going to the Super Bowl have something to agree on and to hope for together, regardless of any basis it might have in reality.

Would it give you pleasure to try and convince them otherwise? To me, that's a bit sadistic. I agree rather with H. L. Mencken, who said something like: Everyone is entitled to the belief that their spouse is attractive and their children are smart. 

Talking people out of their delusions can be fun, don't get me wrong. I just don't think it should be the goal of science education. It's one thing to teach what scientists believe, and quite another to insist that everyone believe as you do. 

Instead, we should be focusing on how scientific stories get made, and why their odd beliefs aren’t science. How do we explain appropriate scholarly practice to those who have never experienced it? That's the pedagogical challenge. But this is the complementary intellectual domain of the humanities:  turning the conversation away from the content of the science itself, and towards the nature of scientific epistemologies. That is to say, what makes something scientific knowledge as opposed to unscientific knowledge.

And sure, if you want to go for broke, why, in most contexts, scientific knowledge is more reliable than unscientific knowledge.

But this will necessarily be a humanistic conversation, and it may not be one that scientists are comfortable with, but it is probably a conversation that has a better chance of making a difference than just insisting that they’re wrong and you’re right.

Or, to put it in the non-scientific domain of morality: Don't be an asshole.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Guest post: Carleton Coon made me do it, by Barry Bogin


I loved Jonathan Marks’s Legacy Review of The Origin of Races (Marks, 2022). The review is good history with an important lesson that academics must take responsibility for their research in terms of the way we interpret our findings and the way that others use or misuse our work. Marks is spot-on when he says that Coon’s writings on ‘race’ were, “…quite simply evil…” and that, “Scientists are not trained to grapple with evil.” We need such training, as many evils such as racism, sexism, and ethnic cleansing are ever-present.

Marks's Legacy Review dredged-up memories of how I became an anthropologist and this is the theme of this letter. Perhaps my story will resonate with others. My start toward anthropology had little to do with combating evil, but did involve reading another book co-authored by Carleton Coon, Anthropology A to Z (Coon & Hunt, 1963). More about this book in a moment but first I want to state that like Marks, I was never taught The Origin of Races. I do not recall that Coon was even mentioned in any of my anthropology courses. I learned about ‘Races’ sometime after earning my Ph.D. in 1977 and purchased a used copy. The perverse nature of the book’s argument was, I thought, a fascinating footnote in the history of anthropology. When relevant, I explained to my students Coon’s proposals and classroom discussion often became animated with incredulity!  About 10 years ago, I gave away ‘Races’ and my few other books that tried to make ‘race’ a serious anthropological topic (e.g., Garn, SM 1960 Readings on Race; Mead M, Dobzhansky T, Tobach E, Light RE 1968 Science and the Concept of Race). The pseudo-scientific concept of ‘race’ had long since become an embarrassment to anthropology and, besides, I needed the shelf space for more useful books.    

I purchased a new, paperback edition of Anthropology A to Z in in 1969, near the end of my junior year of university in Philadelphia. At that time I was miserable. I was the third member of my immediate family to attend a university. Previously two aunts had completed courses in elementary education and physical therapy. My parents expected me to pursue a similarly applied vocation, especially medicine. Being mostly naïve, I thought that a major in biology was the only route to success in medicine. The biology of the late 1960s was strongly molecular and my instructors lectured toward genetics. I appreciated the marvels of the genome, but whole organisms held more interest. One lecturer was RL Miller, a developmental biologist who was the first to discover fertilization by sperm chemotaxis in an animal (Miller, 1966). Human sperm chemotaxis toward ova was shown 25 years later (Ralt et al., 1991). In my junior year (1969) I enrolled in Prof. Miller’s marine biology course, did well, and was able to secure a job in Miller’s lab. My work was to tie to glass slides male and female hydrozoans of the genus Campanularia, then feed and care for them until needed for further experiments. Later, I was trained analyze film images recorded by means of dark-field cinephotomicrography and trace the paths that spermatozoa from male animals followed toward the female gonangium (the reproductive members of the hydrozoan colony). Doing so allowed me to observe fertilization and the formation of new hydroids. This job stimulated my interest in growth and development.  

In other third year courses I was failing. At the end of the semester the university placed me on the ‘Dean’s List’, the one for students threatened with dismissal.  A few weeks into the second semester I had physical-emotional meltdown. I missed three weeks of classes, the lab work and two other jobs I had at that time, and all social life. A physician prescribed a barbiturate tablet, to which I developed a nasty allergic reaction, but it did help to regulate my emotions. When I returned to the university I went to the bookstore and discovered Anthropology A to Z. The text is mostly about ‘race’ and ‘constitution’ but there are sections on growth and development, paleoanthropology, primates, demography, and social anthropology. The material on fossil and non-human primates grabbed my attention. I bought the book ($2.95) and decided to change my major to anthropology. I took the three required introductory classes (Social, Biological, Archeology) in the summer term between my junior and senior years. My performance went from failing to As and Bs. I found my place and my profession.   

Anthropology A to Z was translated, with new material added, from the original German book Anthropologie. Das Fischer Lexikon (Heberer, Kurth, & Schwidetzky-Roesing, 1959). The German book was designed as single-volume encyclopedia (the meaning of the German word ‘lexicon’). There is an ‘A Z’ artistic design on the cover, but not used in the official title. The authors were Gerhard Heberer, Gottfried Kurth, and Ilse Schwidetzky-Roesing. Heberer was a zoologist and anthropologist who was a member of the Nazi Party SS and was a high ranking "racial researcher " for the SS ‘German Ancestral Heritage (Ahnenerbe) Research Association’. Heberer was interned after the war because of his SS membership, but was declared ‘reformed’[1] in 1947. From 1949 to 1970 he was director of an "anthropological research center" at the Georg-August University in Gottingen. Gottfried Kurth was an anthropologist who studied the ‘races’ of German villages and paleoanthropology. His publications contributed to Nazi ideology on ‘racial hygiene’ and education. Years later, Kurth edited a festschrift to the professional life of Heberer, which was given a mostly positive review by C. Loring Brace (Brace, 1963). Ilse Schwidetzky-Roesing was an anthropologist who in the 1930s was assistant to Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt, one of the leading ‘race theorists’ of the Third Reich. After the war she worked at Mainz University from 1946, eventually succeeding Eickstedt as Mainz Professor of Anthropology in 1961 until her retirement in 1975. I found no information that either Kurth or Schwidetzky-Roesing were interned or ‘reformed’. Instead, both seemed to have assumed traditional academic lives after the war and Schwidetzky-Roesing was even an honored member of several European academic societies and in 1974 the Vice President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

Both in its original German and in English translation, Anthropology A to Z is a neo-Nazi racist diatribe. In English it includes the racist ideology of Carleton Coon that is exemplified by Marks’ Legacy Review. On page 129, for example, Coon and Hunt write, “The hypothesis to be presented here was suggested by Franz Weidenreich in 1947, and has been much elaborated since by C. S. Coon in The Origin of Races (1962).”  A few sentences later, Coon and Hunt succinctly precis the hypothesis by writing that Coon’s elaborations boil down to, “…some racial differences seen today can be traced all the way back to Homo erectus.” Much of the text of Anthropology A to Z, both before and after page 129 is a summary of material first published in The Origin of Races (A to Z is 277 pages long). The work of Franz Boas, towards whom Coon was personally and professionally antithetical (Jackson, 2001), is mentioned one time in Anthropology A to Z, with a sentence on Boas’ studies of the offspring of immigrants. There is no citation of that work, but Coon and Hunt dismiss the importance of Boas’ research and explain it away by stating that the plasticity of phenotypes Boas reported was merely due to selective migration. It is an understatement to say that it is ironic that Coon and Hunt’s Anthropology A to Z helped me become an anthropologist who dedicated his professional work to Boasian-style research and ideology. In the latest edition of my book

Patterns of Human Growth (Bogin, 2021), I devote a paragraph to Coon’s hypothesis and show that his ‘evidence’ from anthropometric studies was incorrect. More importantly, I devote many pages to explaining and critiquing the on-going research by contemporary genetic determinists from biology, psychology, bioinformatics, medicine, and other fields who promote claims of biological, cognitive, and emotional differences between ‘races’, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes.  

There is one more anecdote to relate about how I came to read Anthropology A to Z. This story begins with Coon’s television career and ends with a possibly racist high school guidance counsellor. I grew-up in Philadelphia. About the time when I was 10 years old (1960ish), it was difficult for me to get out of bed on school days, but I was up and running by 6 AM on Saturday. I ate some breakfast in front of the TV and often watched a repeat showing of What In The World (WITW), which was a co-production of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia TV station WCAU. The Penn Museum website provides the basic history of WITW. Watch the video at that site, with its dry ice ‘smoke’, mysterious flute music excerpts from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and images of worlds in space, and you will understand the show’s impact on my 10-year-old mind! WITW won the Peabody Award for television in 1951, was shown by 89 affiliates of the CBS television network, and ran for 16 years (1950-1966). This is incredible for show that was based on a panel of academic ‘egg-heads’ trying to guess the identity of an archeological object held by the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The host of the show was Froelich Rainey, director of the Museum. One regular panelist was Carleton Coon, who was then Curator of Ethnology at the Museum. I marveled at the wisdom of Coon and the other tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking professors as they debated the symbolism, beauty, and use of the mysterious object. Today, I suspect that the objects were selected by Rainey and Coon and that Coon may have prepared some text for the other panelists to help make the show more entertaining.

The show must have made a lasting impression because when it came time for me to think of life after high school, I went to my guidance counsellor to ask about a career as an archeologist. I still recall that she looked at me with a condescending expression and said, “There is only one place you can study archeology – the University of Pennsylvania, and you cannot get in there.”  I guess that WITW made a lasting impression on her as well! As a 16-year-old I interpreted her words to mean that I was too stupid to successfully apply to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. I did attend Temple University, a public, state-supported university in Philadelphia. In the 1990s I had occasion to reminisce about my high school counselor’s words and realized that what she really meant was that Penn would likely reject me because of its desire to be international and cosmopolitan. Many elite universities had admission quotas for local residents, so that the student body would be geographically diverse. There were also quotas for ethnic and religious ‘diversity’ – meaning lack thereof in most cases – and my counselor may have thought that I was too Jewish for that quota. In fact, Penn never had a ‘Jewish quota’ and was the Ivy League school with the highest percentage of Jewish students. Was my guidance counselor an anti-Semite? Was she trying to promote her favorite students for admission to Penn?  I will never know. But the impact of WITW stayed with me and when I saw Anthropology A to Z in the Temple University bookstore the name Carleton Coon must have stirred something that lead to my life-long excitement for biological anthropology and all it has to offer.

Barry Bogin

Member, UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA), USA

Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology, Loughborough University

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA, Member Diversity Scholars Network


Bogin, B. (2021). Patterns of Human Growth (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brace, C. L. (1963). Review of Evolution und hominisation:Evolution and hominisation. Edited by Gottfried Kurth. 228 pp.; 43 figures; 3 tables. Published by Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany. D.M. 45,50. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 21(1), 87–91.

Coon, C. S., & Hunt, E. E. (1963). Anthropology A to Z. New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap.

Heberer, G., Kurth, G., & Schwidetzky-Roesing, I. (1959). Anthropologie. Das Fischer Lexikon. Frankfurt-Main: Fischer Bücherei, K.G.

Jackson, J. . (2001). "In Ways Unacademical”: The Reception of Carleton S. Coon’s The Origin of Races. Journal of the History of Biology, 34, 247–285.

Marks, J. (2022). Legacy review: Carleton S. Coon (1962) The origin of races . New York: Knopf. American Journal of Biological Anthropology, 178:193–195 (2022).

Miller, R. L. (1966). Chemotaxis during fertilization in the hydroid Campanularia. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 162(1), 23–44.

Ralt, D., Goldenberg, M., Fetterolf, P., Thompson, D., Dor, J., Mashiach, S., … Eisenbach, M. (1991). Sperm attraction to a follicular factor(s) correlates with human egg fertilizability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 88(7), 2840–2844.

[1] The term used in the 1940s was ‘denazified’. That word is used by Putin as part of Russian aggression against Ukrainian people and has taken on a new, evil meaning.