A Super Paper on Human Evolution (2)

Salinas17 at aol.com Salinas17 at aol.com
Wed Aug 10 01:44:22 UTC 2005

In a message dated 8/8/05 2:24:43 PM, tgivon at uoregon.edu writes:
<< According to that 'revolutionary' model (see summary in C. Li, 2002), all 
'modern human behavioral traits...'

Some of the main conclusions drawn [in the McBrearty] are: (1) the 
development of 'modern human traits' already occured in Africa, gradually, and is 
attested there as early as 300,000 BC. >>

TOM - I'd suggest to you that the conclusions with regard to language that 
you've found in the McBrearty paper may not be entirely justified.  I'll get to 
that in a different post.

But what I'd like to emphasize here is that the dating of the emergence of 
"modern" human behaviour in the late Pleistocene has always owed its main force 
to rather impressive European cave art.  

If you go to the Leakey Foundation web site and go to their timeline of 
discoveries page
you'll see that aside from tool assemblages and bones, the featured landmark 
discoveries in Paleoanthropology are cave art (e.g., Altamira, Lascaux).

The standard explanation, of course, was that this level of "symbolic art" 
would have been a great leap in differentiating human behaviour.  The idea would 
be that "thinking" symbolically was evidenced in the drawings in a way that 
was not present in earlier human remains.

There are those of us (including the late Stephen Jay Gould) who thought this 
was like saying that before Parisian fashion, nobody had an idea of how to 
dress right.  Some of the cave art is truly impressive, but the best of it sure 
seemed to express some kind of culmination of a long developing technique, 
rather than a sudden mutation that yielded either a Picasso gene or the emergence 
of modern humans.

It's fashionable nowadays to say that the use of tools can no longer be used 
to differentiate humans from other primates because it's been shown that other 
primates use tools.  But the fact is that no other primates MAKE tools like 
hominids did, make stone tools with flaking techniques that are handed down 
generation after generation, or -- most relevantly -- make tools knapped out of 
undefined stone that are plainly designed for a specific purpose.

When you look at the tools that were produced by, say homo erectus, you see 
axes, scrappers, knives, projectile points that do not show up in any "primate 
assemblage" -- if such a thing could be said to exist.  These tools in 
archaeology are diagnostically hominid -- not just primate.  And they are far older 
than "homo sapiens."

But do these tools qualify as symbolic thought or any such threshold marker 
of "modern human behaviour?"  The answer is I think in recreating the entire 
process it took to carefully remove flakes from a stone in a way for example 
that was not only angled symmetrically but also designed in that way to optimize 
flight and penetration.  If by chance anyone thinks it is brainlessly obvious, 
just try making one.  The making of these tools took anticipation, foresight, 
planning and a "mind model" of not just the tool but how it should be made to 
acheive those optimizations.  This is new stuff in the biological world.

Of course, these techniques do not involve using something like ochre to 
create some kind of "representation."  But perhaps these folks did not have the 
leisure time to engage in the art scene.  And perhaps the consistent 
reproduction of axes and points do reflect a recurring "representation" that was copied 
again and again in a very practical artistic tradition.

My bet is that as time goes on we are going to find that the "mental 
capabilities" of modern humans go back much further than hominid anatomical 
differences would admit.   Anatomical differences -- brain size, particularly -- are not 
going to be enough to explain the massive difference between the modern world 
humans have built and the world of, for example, erectus.

Sally McBrearty's and Kate Wong's papers are a good sign, because they help 
break down superficial comparisons to some degree.  But perhaps they don't go 
far enough.

You see my hypothesis is that the big difference between 4-200,000ybp (or 
even earlier) and today is not in the end going to be mainly in anatomy or genes. 
 The big difference is going to be in the development of human culture.

Tom, consider this quote from the McBrearty piece:
"Rather than applying arbitrary criteria for modernity, one could take the 
position that behavioral innovation drove the morphological changes that are 
observed in early modern human anatomy."

Think for a moment about what door this opens.

Does McBrearty really mean "behavioral innovation?"  Behaviour is a singular 
event, of little consequence unless it is repeated.  What McBrearty is 
actually saying is that recurring practices, over generations drove morphological 
changes.  And what those recurring practices over generations are IS HUMAN 

What McBrearty is actually saying is that human culture drove morphological 

And should we be surprised?  Human culture has taken charge of biological 
evolution in the past and promises to do so in the future.

How else did the wolf evolve into morphologies as diverse as the Chihuhua and 
the Great Dane -- and proliferate despite reduced survival advantage in the 
wild -- in little over 12,000 years?  And following this path with regard to 
human evolution, it was human      culture in the form of language that evolved 
a more facile human larynx and not the other way around.

We won't be able to track this development of course if we continue to jumble 
human biological evolution with the qualitatively different force of human 
culture.  There is undoubtably overlap -- but unless the two are distinguished, 
it will muddy the history of what really happened between then and now.

Steve Long

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