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
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
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.
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