Anthropology / Hoarding Ancient Concepts


So much simpler


American Journal of Physical Anthropology

Supplement: Yearbook of Physical Anthropology

Volume 143, Issue Supplement 51, pages 94–121, 2010 Follow link to list of articles.


An excellent summation of:

How we got to where we are today.

History demonstrates the inexplicable inability of science to let go of conceptual anachronisms (especially those that originate in religion, or in hero worship) that act as a ball and chain on new discoveries and revolutionary technologies. The archaic foundation of ideas about (male) human “divinity” carries over into psychology, with devastating effects on living humans.

Hint: Turn over the “diagnosis” of  Homo sapiens to zoologists, who understand animals. 


Fossil evidence for the origin of Homo sapiens

Jeffrey H. Schwartz1,* and Ian Tattersall2

Copyright © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Our species Homo sapiens has never been subject to a formal morphological definition, of the sort that would help us in any practical way to recognize our conspecifics in the fossil record. To understand why, a bit of history is helpful. The earliest surviving comparisons between humans and animals using both differences and similarities are those of the Greek polymath Aristotle (see review in Schwartz, 1999). On the subject of human distinctiveness, Aristotle wrote:

“Now, man, instead of forelegs and forefeet, has, as we call them, arms and hands. For he alone of the animals stands upright, on account of his nature and ousia [= “substantial being” or “defining character”] being divine, and the function of that which is most divine is to think and reason; and this would not be easy if there were a great deal of the body at the top weighing it down, for weight hampers the motion of the intellect and the common sense” (Aristotle, 1945, xxx IV. 12 693a25–31).

Although Aristotle’s comparisons were limited to humans and other living animals, he nonetheless articulated three major features—bipedalism directly, and the freeing of the hands in locomotory behavior, and the reasoning power of the brain by implication—that would long stand as defining characteristics of our species H. sapiens, and would provide as well the morphological cornerstones of the eventual discipline of paleoanthropology. In Aristotle’s view, a Prime Mover pushed the psyche of each organism, on its rung of the Ladder of Life (Scala Naturae), to follow its destiny and to strive to achieve impossible perfection. Although perched on the uppermost rung of this ladder, humans, no less than any other organism, failed to achieve a perfect state.

During the Dark Ages that replaced the Greco-Roman tradition of individual thinking and exploration with spiritual inquiry and divine revelation, the Scala Naturae was more or less directly transformed into the Great Chain of Being, in which an ascendant ordering from the inorganic through the organic world reflected the creation story of Genesis (Lovejoy, 1942). The early systematists who labored to elucidate this chain achieved their goals through equally idiosyncratic classifications. One way to recognize the nearly divine status of humans was to exclude them altogether from the classification. This route was chosen in the 16th Century by Konrad Gesner (the inventor of the genus rank), and also in the 17th Century by Francis Willughby (see Schwartz, 1999), who nevertheless had clearly considered human characteristics in his comparisons, describing as “man-like” a number of features he thought aligned the broad categories of “baboon” and “monkey.” In 1632, Ioannes Jonstonus (Jonstonus, 1632) became one of the first taxonomists to discuss humans directly in comparison with other animals, but only more than a century later were humans classified not in their own higher category, but in the same group as other man-like mammals.

In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus struck what to a religiously minded “scientific” world was a deep blow to the sacrosanct, by placing the species to which he belonged within a taxonomic group that John Ray had actually named for other animals: the order Anthropomorpha (Linnaeus, 1735). Only later (Linnaeus, 1758) did Linnaeus change the ordinal name to Primates, meaning “chiefs of creation.” Although raising the ire of other taxonomists, Linnaeus was really just taking a logical step. But as outraged as his fellow taxonomists were, Linnaeus had rejected neither special creation, nor the belief that his own species, which he dubbed H. sapiens, had been created last among Primates and in the image of its God. Still, it was not just in grouping humans in the same taxon as other mammals that Linnaeus broke with broad tradition. More specifically, it was in his presentation of the genus and species H. sapiens that Linnaeus abandoned his usual practice of providing a diagnosis for each taxon. For, his only comment about his own species was: nosce te ipsum (know thyself).


I’ll be posting further on this painful story…



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