Myth of Human Origin

Tim Ingold

The ascent of reason

People differ the world over, and the study of these differences has always been the special province of anthropology. But is difference superimposed upon a baseline of characteristics that all humans have in common? Is there such a thing as a universal human nature? You may think it obvious that human nature exists; I am going to suggest that it does not. This may seem an odd conclusion to reach; after all, we surely know another human being when we see one. People may differ a lot, but not so much that we nowadays have any problem in drawing the line between humans and non-humans. But less than three centuries ago, matters were much less certain. So let us start by going back to that time – a time when people in Europe were not yet aware of the full range of human variation.

It was the great Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus, who took the momentous step of placing human beings within the same overall scheme of classification, under the genus Homo, alongside all other members of the animal kingdom. Yet when it came to distinguishing between humans and apes, Linnaeus ran into some difficulty.

Remember that at the time he was writing, in the middle of the eighteenth century, information about apes consisted largely of travellers’ tales, not all of them entirely trustworthy. With the limited factual evidence available to him, Linnaeus could find no anatomical features that would reliably separate humans from apes. The distinction, he surmised was of a different order, to be grasped by introspection rather than observation. Do you ask how a human being differs from an ape? The answer, says Linnaeus, lies in the very fact that you ask the question. It is not one that apes ask of themselves. Apes and humans may look alike, but only humans are able to reflect upon the kind of beings they are. This, thought Linnaeus, is because they have been endowed, by their Creator, not only with a functioning body but also with the gift of intellect or reason, that is with a mind.

Like every other major European thinker of that period, Linnaeus firmly believed that every species had come into existence for all time through an act of divine creation. And he thought that for every species there was an essential form to which all individuals of the species conformed to greater or lesser degree. It is often to this kind of basic architecture that we refer when we speak of the ‘nature’ of a thing, or class of things. The notion of human nature has its roots in this ancient way of thinking. Philosophers call it ‘essentialism’: that is, the doctrine that for every class of things there exists a fixed, essential form or constitution.

Now modern biology has – at least in theory – rejected essentialism, along with the idea of the divine creation of species. In the history of science, the figure who is generally credited with having brought about this revolution in thinking was, of course, Charles Darwin. In his epoch-making work The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin had argued that every species is just a collection of individuals, each minutely different from every other. As the variations that underlie these differences are transmitted to offspring, those that are favourable to the reproduction of their carriers, under prevailing environmental conditions, accumulate along certain lines of descent, while those that are less favourable gradually disappear. This is what Darwin called natural selection. Through natural selection, species continually evolve.

Ever since Darwin, the basis for biological classification into species, genera and so on has been genealogical. That is to say, individuals are grouped into the same class on the grounds not of their formal approximation to a basic design, but of their descent from a common ancestor. It is characteristic of living things, as distinct – say – from inorganic crystals, that each one is unique, differing, albeit minutely, from each and every other along manifold axes of variation (Medawar 1957, Montalenti 1974). Grains of salt all have the same molecular composition, of sodium chloride, and in this respect comprise what is technically called a ‘natural kind’ – a class of objects united by the fact that they all have some essential attribute in common. But barring identical twins and natural or artificial clones, no living organism, in its genetic constitution, is quite the same as any other. Individuals of a species may share a family resemblance, but there is no single thing common to all of them. Were it not for this intrinsic variability, natural selection could not occur. There is no formal, species-specific ground-plan hovering in the background, immune to time and change.

Now if this is true of species in general, then it must be true of the human species in particular. Accordingly, what connects us as members of a single species (Homo sapiens) is not our possession of a common nature, but the fact of our descent from a single ancestral population. In The Origin of Species, however Darwin had virtually nothing to say about human evolution. Indeed, he had nothing really to say about evolution at all, for the word appears only once in the entire book – in the very last sentence! Instead, he spoke of ‘descent with modification’. Only subsequently, largely as a result of a colossal mistake perpetrated by the philosopher Herbert Spencer and compounded by generations of biologists ever since, was the concept of evolution substituted for that of descent with modification (Ingold 1998: 80-1). Throughout the Origin, Darwin pictures himself as a spectator, watching the panorama of nature unfold before his eyes. And it was in this original sense of unfolding that he bore witness to a process of evolution. ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’, Darwin wrote in the closing sentence of his book – in the realisation that ‘while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’ (Darwin 1872: 403).

But this is not a view of life available to non-human animals. They are condemned to live more or less within the world of nature, whereas Darwin could write as though he himself were above it, and could look at it in the manner of a spectacle. Yet Darwin was a human being. How was it, then, that human beings – or at least the more civilised among them – could reach such an exalted or transcendent position vis-à-vis the rest of nature? It was in a later book, The Descent of Man, published in 1871, that Darwin set out to answer this question. Where The Origin of Species was, as it were, a view from the summit, The Descent of Man was an account of the climb (Ingold 1986: 49). But it was a very different kind of book from The Origin. In an idiom shot through with the moral attitudes of his day, Darwin here attempted to establish a single scale, running all the way from the most primitive of animals to the most advanced of humans, along which could be charted the rise of reason or intellect, and its gradual triumph over the shackles of instinct.

Thus for Darwin and his many followers, the evolution of species in nature was also an evolution out of it, in so far as it progressively liberated the mind from the promptings of innate disposition. Ever since, Western science has cleaved strongly to the view that humans differ from other animals in degree rather than kind. Darwin, it is said, finally showed us that the idea of an absolute Rubicon separating the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom is a myth. He did not, however, dispense with the dichotomy between reason and nature, or between intelligence and instinct; rather his whole argument was couched in terms of it. Recall that for Linnaeus it was man’s possession of the faculty of reason that allowed him to rise above, and exercise dominion over, the world of nature. Darwin concurred: ‘Of the high importance of the intellectual faculties there can be no doubt, for man mainly owes to them his predominant position in the world’ (1874: 196). His point, however, was simply that the possession of reason – or the lack of it – is not an all or nothing affair distinguishing all humans from all non-humans. In evolutionary terms, Darwin thought, reason advanced by a gradual, if accelerating ascent, and not by a quantum leap. ‘We must admit’, he observed, ‘that there is a much wider interval in mental power between one of the lowest fishes … and one of the higher apes, than between an ape and a man; yet this interval is filled by numberless gradations’ (1874: 99).

The scientist and the savage

Now the idea that no radical break separates the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom is an ancient one, going back to the classical doctrine that all creatures can be placed on a single scale of nature, or what was called the ‘Great Chain of Being’, connecting the lowest to the highest forms of life in an unbroken sequence (Lovejoy 1936). Initially the idea was that each species was immutably fixed in place, from the moment of Creation, at a particular position on the chain, such that not a single position remained unfilled. It was the French naturalist and originator of the term ‘biology’, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, writing in the early decades of nineteenth century, who set the chain in motion. He thought of it as a kind of escalator, on which organisms are continually working their way up the scale of nature, while new ones arise at the bottom to make their way up in their turn. Darwin, in his theory of evolution by natural selection, replaced the image of the single chain with that of a branching tree, but the idea of gradual change remained (Ingold 1986: 5-9). According to the view of the evolution of our species that you will find in any modern textbook, our ancestors became human by degrees, over countless generations. An unbroken sequence of forms is supposed to link the apes of some five million years ago, from which both human beings and chimpanzees are descended, through the earliest hominid creatures of two million years ago, to people like you and me – certified humans of the species Homo sapiens.

As an account of human biological evolution that may be all very well, but what about human history? Theorists of the eighteenth century tended to think of human history as the story of man’s rise from primitive savagery to modern science and civilisation. These thinkers belonged to the movement in European thought known as the Enlightenment, and the idea that human reason would rise and eventually triumph over the brute forces of nature was the centrepiece of their philosophy. Yet they were also committed to the doctrine that all human beings, in all places and times, share a common set of basic intellectual capacities, and in that sense may be considered equal. This doctrine was known as that of the ‘psychic unity of mankind’. Differences in levels of civilisation were attributed to the unequal development of these common capacities. It was as though allegedly primitive peoples were at an earlier stage in the pursuit of a core curriculum common to humankind as a whole. In short, for these eighteenth century thinkers, human beings differed in degree from other creatures with regard to their anatomical form, but nevertheless were distinguished in kind from the rest of the animal kingdom insofar as they had been endowed with minds – that is with the capacities of reason, imagination and language – which could undergo their own historical development within the framework of a constant bodily form (Bock 1980: 169, Ingold 1986: 58).

The immediate impact of Darwin’s theory of human evolution, as set out in The Descent of Man, was to subvert this distinction. The scientist and the savage, Darwin insisted, are separated not by the differential development of intellectual capacities common to both, but by a difference of capacity comparable to that which separates the savage from the ape. ‘Differences of this kind between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages, are connected by the finest gradations’ (Darwin 1874: 99). And these differences were, in turn, a function of the gradual improvement of a bodily organ, the brain (ibid: 81-2). Throughout human history, the advance of civilisation was supposed to march hand-in-hand with the evolution of the brain, and with it of the intellectual and moral faculties, through a process of natural selection in which ‘tribes have supplanted other tribes’, the victorious groups always including the larger proportion of ‘well-endowed men’ (ibid: 197). In this process the hapless savage, cast in the role of the vanquished in the struggle for existence, was sooner or later destined for extinction.

Darwin’s commitment, in The Descent of Man, to an imperialist doctrine of progress according to which the morally and intellectually well-endowed are bound to supplant their inferiors, not only ran counter to the whole argument of The Origin of Species, but was also deeply racist. Whereas in the Origin Darwin had shown that the mechanism of natural selection always operates in such a way as to make species better adapted to their particular environmental conditions of life, in the Descent he argued that it would inevitably bring about absolute advance along a single, universal scale – from the lowest of animals to the highest of men (1874: 194) – regardless of environmental conditions, leading from instinct to intelligence, and reaching its ultimate conclusion in modern European civilisation. And in bringing the rise of science and civilisation within the compass of the same evolutionary process that had made humans out of apes, and apes out of creatures lower in the scale, Darwin was forced to attribute what he saw as the ascendancy of reason to hereditary endowment. For the theory to work, there had to be significant differences in such endowment between ‘tribes’ or ‘nations’ – or between what we might today call populations.

Conversely however, if there were no such differences then the theory could not work, as Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, found to his cost. Having the advantage of a much greater familiarity and sympathy with the ways of ‘primitive’ people than Darwin ever had, Wallace was most impressed by the wealth and diversity of their cultural achievements. These achievements, he felt sure, were the work of superior brains. But how could natural selection have produced brains apparently capable of so much more than was actually required under the simple conditions of primitive life? ‘Natural selection’, Wallace wrote, ‘could only have endowed savage man with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher’ (1870: 356). His notorious conclusion, to Darwin’s dismay, was that only a Creator would come to think of preparing the savage for civilisation in advance of his achieving it. For this apparent capitulation to creationism, subsequent generations of evolutionists would unfairly banish Wallace to the sidelines of the history of their science.

For in his estimation of the intellectual capacities of so-called ‘savages’, Wallace was right and Darwin was wrong. The term ‘savage’ was generally applied by nineteenth century anthropologists and their predecessors to people who lived by hunting and gathering. We now recognise that the brains of hunter-gatherers are just as good, and just as capable of handling complex and sophisticated ideas, as the brains of Western scientists and philosophers. Nevertheless racist notions about the innate mental superiority of White European colonisers over indigenous peoples were remarkably persistent in biological anthropology. We should not forget that the idea of eugenics – that is, of bringing about an overall improvement in human capacities through a deliberate policy of breeding – enjoyed a certain respectability in Western scientific circles right up until the time of the Second World War. It was the War, and above all the atrocities of the Holocaust, that finally laid that idea to rest. What was self-evident to Darwin and most of his contemporaries – namely that human populations differed in their innate intellectual capacities on a scale from the primitive to the civilised – is no longer acceptable today. Darwin’s view that the difference between the savage and the civilised man was one of brain-power has given way in mainstream science to a strong moral and ethical commitment to the idea that all humans – past, present and future – are equally endowed, at least so far as their moral and intellectual faculties are concerned. ‘All human beings’, as Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘are endowed with reason and conscience’.

Human nature and history

But this left the Darwinians with a problem on their hands. How was the doctrine of evolutionary continuity to be reconciled with the new-found commitment to universal human rights? If all humans are alike in their possession of reason and moral conscience – if, in other words, all humans are the kinds of beings who, according to Western juridical precepts, can exercise rights and responsibilities – then they must differ in kind from all other beings which cannot. And somewhere along the line, our ancestors must have made a breakthrough from one condition to the other, from nature to humanity.

Faced with this problem, there was only one way for modern science to go – that is, back to the eighteenth century. Indeed the majority of contemporary commentators on human evolution appear to be vigorously, if unwittingly, reproducing the eighteenth century paradigm in all its essentials. There is one process, of evolution, leading from our ape-like ancestors to human beings that are recognisably of the same kind as ourselves; another process, of culture or history, leading from humanity’s primitive past to modern science and civilisation. Taken together, these two axes of change – the one evolutionary, the other historical – establish by their intersection a unique point of origin, without precedent in the evolution of life, at which our ancestors are deemed to have crossed the threshold of true humanity and to have embarked on the course of history. And standing at the threshold, at the point of origin when history diverges from evolution, and culture from biology, is the figure of the primitive hunter-gatherer, today’s equivalent of the eighteenth century’s savage.

It is a remarkable fact that whenever scientists are concerned to stress the evolutionary continuity between apes and humans, the humans are almost always portrayed as ancient hunter-gatherers (or if contemporary hunter-gatherers are taken as examples, they are commonly regarded as cultural fossils, frozen in time at the starting point of history). According to a now widely accepted scenario, it was under conditions of life as hunter-gatherers, hundreds of thousands of years ago in the Pleistocene era, that the biological and psychological capacities evolved that are supposed to have made us human. Once established they have remained with us, as a legacy from our evolutionary past. Thus every one of us is said to carry, as a fundamental part of our biopsychological make-up, a set of capacities and dispositions that originally arose as adaptations to the requirements of hunting and gathering in Pleistocene environments. As the distinguished archaeologist J. Desmond Clark put it, in a lecture delivered in 1990, ‘the behavioural complexes of ancestral hunters lie deep within the psycho-social patterning of the nervous system of all humans and, when better understood, these can help to show how we came to be what we are today’ (Clark 1990: 13). The doctrine of psychic unity, it seems, was right after all, or as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides declare in their manifesto for the brave new science of evolutionary psychology, ‘the psychic unity of mankind is genuine and not just an ideological fiction’ (1992: 79). This unity, they believe, lies in the ‘evolved architecture of the human mind’, in other words in human nature.

Following this line of argument, so far as their evolved capacities are concerned there should be little or nothing to distinguish today’s scientists and engineers from the hunter-gatherers of 50,000 or even 100,000 years ago. What makes them different, apparently, is a separate process of history, or what many have taken to calling cultural (as opposed to biological) evolution. But the movement of culture is said to have left our basic biological constitution virtually unaffected, hardly changed from what it was in the Stone Age. ‘History’, state David and Ann James Premack, ‘is a sequence of changes through which a species passes while remaining biologically stable’ – and only humans have it (Premack and Premack 1994: 350-1). Yet this very distinction implies that at some point in the past, history must have ‘lifted off’ from a baseline of evolved human capabilities. Short of supposing some kind of unfathomable quantum leap or – with Wallace – invoking the miraculous intervention of a Creator, there seems to be no alternative but to imagine a historical trajectory that rises inexorably from a point of emergence, gathering pace as it does so, leaving the biological constitution of the organism, confined to the slow lane of evolutionary change, far behind.

Indeed this kind of picture, first elaborated by Alfred Kroeber in his paper of 1917 on The Superorganic (Kroeber 1952, see Figure 3), has been invoked on countless occasions ever since. But it raises a host of awkward questions. If human history has a point of origin, what could it mean to have been living close to that point, or even at the crucial moment of transition itself? Were such people semi-cultural, gearing up for history? How can one conceivably distinguish those actions and events that carried forward the movement of human history from those that set it in motion in the first place? Indeed it is hard not to see, in the image of our hunter-gatherer ancestors looking out upon the dawn of history, the reflection of a decidedly modern political rhetoric. And it has set prehistorians on a frantic and much publicised search for the time and place of emergence of what are euphemistically called ‘anatomically modern humans’ – that is, people who were biologically indistinguishable from ourselves even though culturally still at the starting block. Their appearance is said to mark nothing less than the ‘human revolution’ (Mellars and Stringer 1989).

So after all that, the paradox remains. Short of reverting to the racially stratified scenario of Darwin, with its populations of more or less well-endowed men, the only way in which humans can be made to appear different in degree, not kind, from their evolutionary antecedents is by attributing the movement of history to a process of culture that differs in kind, not degree, from the process of biological evolution! The division between nature and reason is still there, but is now shifted onto that between the exotic hunter-gatherer and the Western scientist, the former epitomising a view of humanity in the state of nature, the latter epitomising the triumph of human reason over nature. Even today, there are scholars – many of whom would call themselves scientists – who assert that through the study of hunter-gatherers, whether ancient or modern, we should gain a window on evolved human nature which is obscured, in the study of societies of other kinds, through the subsequent accretions of culture and history (Clark 1990).

Where, then, does this human nature lie? How come that these capacities with which we are all supposed to be innately endowed have been faithfully handed down, over tens of thousands of years, apparently immune to the vagaries of history? For most contemporary students of human evolution the answer is simple: because they are in the genes.

Genes and development

Now this response is palpable nonsense, and it is high time it was treated with the ridicule it deserves rather than paraded as one of the great scientific insights of the twentieth century. Genes consist of sections of an immensely long molecule called DNA, which is found in the nucleus of every cell in the body. Crucially, they regulate the manufacture of proteins, which are the principal materials from which organisms are made. What they do not do, however, is contain a programme or blueprint for building an organism of a certain kind. The notion of the genetic blueprint is fundamentally misleading, for the simple reason that organisms are not built like machines, on the basis of pre-existing design specifications. Rather they grow, a process technically known as ontogenetic development. This applies as well to human beings as to organisms of any other species. Thus you cannot simply point to the DNA in the cell nucleus and say: ‘There is a capacity for such-and-such’. It is make-believe to think that lengths of DNA can turn themselves into ‘innate capacities’, whether of body or mind, before this process has even got underway. Whatever capacities people might have, in the form of skills, motivations, dispositions and sensibilities, they are generated in the course of development. And at whatever stage in the life-cycle we may choose to identify a particular capacity – even at birth – a history of development already lies behind it (Dent 1990: 694).

More importantly, people do not live their lives in a vacuum but in a world where they are surrounded by other people, objects and places, together making up what is usually known as the environment. Growing up in an environment largely shaped through the activities of their predecessors, human beings play their part, through their intentional activities, in fashioning the conditions of development for their successors. This is what we call history. It is my contention that there is no human nature lurking inside us that has somehow escaped the current of history. Of course we all carry our complement of genes, but these do not set us up with a constitution all in place, ready to interact with the outside world. All sensible biologists have long recognised that the dichotomy between nature and nurture is obsolete. But it is not enough to say, instead, that we a products of nature and nurture, as though these were separate things – genes on the one hand, environment on the other – that then interact to form the organism. For genes do not interact with the environment (Keller 2001). As Daniel Lehrman pointed out many years ago, the interactions from which the development of an organism proceeds are not between genes and environment but between organism and environment, and the organism is not a constant but the continually changing embodiment of a whole history of previous interactions that have shaped its life course to that point (Lehrman 1953: 345). Nor is the environment a constant for it, too, exists only in relation to the organisms that inhabit it, and embodies a history of interactions with them. This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become – in which they grow up and live out their lives. As we all know, these are extremely variable. But what are the implications of this view for our understanding of culture and history?

From walking to cello-playing

To answer this question, perhaps it will help first to spell out what I take to be a rather orthodox view of the relation between human nature and culture. According to this view there are two kinds of inheritance in human populations, which run in parallel. One is said to be ‘biological’, the other ‘cultural’. Biological inheritance works through the transmission of genetic information encoded in the DNA; cultural inheritance is more or less independent of genetic transmission, and takes place through a process of learning. The first provides us with the essentials of human nature; the second adds on its superorganic complement. Let us consider a couple of apparently uncontroversial examples. I can walk and I can play the cello. Bipedal locomotion is generally regarded as a species attribute of Homo sapiens, an integral part of our evolved human nature. Cello playing, by contrast, is surely a cultural skill with a very specific background in the European musical tradition.

But human beings are not born walking, nor do they all walk in the same way. There is, as Marcel Mauss observed in his famous essay of 1938 on Techniques of the Body, no natural way of walking (Mauss 1979: 102). In Japan, at least traditionally, it was conventional to walk ‘from the knees’, in what looks to us like a rather shuffling gait, but one that actually makes very good sense when your footwear is sandals, and when you have to walk on very steep terrain, as is common in the Japanese countryside, especially when carrying heavy loads slung from either end of a long, supple pole balanced across one shoulder. To the European, however, this looks most ungainly. We are taught from an early age of the virtues of upright posture, and baby walkers are used to get your child standing up at as an early age as possible. We are taught to walk from the hips, and not from the knees, while keeping the legs as straight as possible. And our carrying devices, from rucksacks to suitcases, are designed with this posture in mind (Kawada n.d.).

Are these inflections of walking non-genetic or superorganic supplements added on to a universal capacity for bipedal locomotion that has already been imparted to the human body by the genes? Surely not. For walking is not a compound of pre-existing and add-on components, but a skill that is gradually acquired mainly but not exclusively in the first few years of life, and incorporated into the modus operandi of the human organism through practice and training within an environment that includes skilled caregivers, along with a variety of supporting objects and a certain terrain (Ingold 2000: 375). It is, in that respect, the outcome of a process of development. And because people encounter different developmental circumstances, they walk in different ways. As Esther Thelen and her colleagues have shown, in a series of studies of infant motor development, there is no ‘essence of walking that can be isolated from the real-time performance of the action itself’ (Thelen 1995: 83). But is it any different with my ability to play the cello? This, too, is a bodily skill, likewise established through practice. Of course I had a teacher, and we may say colloquially that my teacher passed on his skills to me. What he did not do, however, was transmit them to me, as advocates of the orthodox view would say, by non-genetic means. That is, he did not send me abstract, decontextualised messages, encoded in symbolic media, specifying rules of play which I had then to execute in my performance. Rather he would place my hands around the bow, and my fingers on the fingerboard, so that I could experience for myself the relation between the movement of my right arm and the vibrations of the strings, and between the muscular tensions in the left hand and the resulting intervals of pitch. My ability to play the cello was not transmitted to me any more than was my ability to walk. Rather, I grew into it.

Now if, as I have suggested, those specific ways of acting, perceiving and knowing that we have been accustomed to call cultural are enfolded, in the course of ontogenetic development, into the constitution of the human organism, then they are equally facts of biology. A skill like playing the cello, being a property of the organism established through practical experience in an environment, is every bit as ‘biological’ as is walking on two feet. Cultural differences, in short, are not added on to a substrate of biological universals; rather they are themselves biological. Not long ago, such a conclusion would have been inconceivable. In 1930, no less an authority than Franz Boas had declared that ‘any attempt to explain cultural form on a purely biological basis is doomed to failure’ (Boas 1940: 165). Thenceforth, the absolute independence of cultural variation from biological constraint became a fundamental tenet of disciplinary integrity, one of the few things on which virtually all social and cultural anthropologists were agreed. Indeed it has served us well in our efforts to resist some of the more extreme forms of determinism, for example in debates about the alleged hereditary basis of intelligence, or about the influence of sex on gender. But it is now high time to put this tenet in question. To return to the example of a culturally specific skill like playing the cello: as a property of the organism, the outcome of a process of development, is this not fully admissible as a biological characteristic? Despite Boas’s strictures, there is nothing wrong with accounting for this or any other aspect of cultural form on a ‘purely biological basis’, so long as the biology in question is of development, not genetics.

Evidently, the source of the problem is not the conflation of the cultural with the biological, but the reduction of the biological to the genetic. And this reduction, I contend, still lies largely unchallenged at the heart of modern evolutionary theory in its current, neo-Darwinian incarnation. Time and again we find the same logic: culture is opposed to biology, culture is non-genetic, ergo biology is genetic. But culture is not a thing that is added on to human organisms; it is a way of expressing the differences between them. The essentialisation of biology as a constant of human being, and of culture as its variable complement, is not just clumsily imprecise. It is the single major stumbling block that up to now has prevented us from moving towards an understanding of our human selves, and of our place in the living world, that does not endlessly recycle the polarities, paradoxes and prejudices of Western thought.

Darwin, as I have already pointed out, categorically rejected the idea that any species, least of all the human, could be characterised by some unchanging essence. But it is precisely the belief in such an essence – a belief that long antedates the rise of modern evolutionary theory – that continues to dominate our ideas of scientific progress. And the reason for its persistence is simple: it is deeply embedded within the institution of science itself.

Back to the future

I would like to conclude by returning to the theme of human nature. The search for absolute, defining attributes of common humanity does indeed seem a hopeless endeavour, since whatever attribute you choose, there will be bound to some creature born of man and woman in which it is lacking (Hull 1984: 35). Remember that for modern biology, reconstructed along Darwinian lines, the criterion for species membership is genealogical. Basically, this means that you are a human being if your parents are. If it is human nature to walk on two feet, what of the congenitally crippled? Is he not human? If it is human nature to communicate by means of language, what of the child who is deaf and dumb? Is she not human? If it is human nature to join in forms of social life based on a mutual awareness of self and other, what of those individuals who suffer from autism? Are they not human?

I have shown that the contemporary appeal to universal human nature, in the name of evolutionary biology, is a defensive reaction to the legacy of racist science left by Darwin’s account of the evolution of the moral and intellectual faculties in The Descent of Man. But it is an appeal fraught with contradictions. While insisting on the continuity of the evolutionary process, it also reinstates the twin distinctions between biology and culture, and between evolution and history, setting an upper limit to the world of nature that humans alone appear to have breached. More than that, it asserts that human nature is fixed and universal while attributing its evolution to a theory – of variation under natural selection – that only works because the individuals of a species are endlessly variable. That is why evolutionists find themselves in the curious position of having to admit that whereas in the non-human world, biology is the source of all variability and difference, in the human world it is what makes everyone the same!

Moreover, the racism that modern biology claims to have left behind is never far beneath the surface. The potentially explosive combination of genealogical categorisation and essentialist thinking is still there. Far from dispensing with the concept of race, science has settled on the idea that all extant humans comprise a single race or sub-species, Homo sapiens sapiens. According to the currently favoured out-of-Africa hypothesis this race, of so-called ‘modern humans’, dispersed from its African cradle and eventually colonised the world. It is striking how accurately this hypothesis mirrors the story of global colonial conquest by White Europeans so much favoured by Darwin and his contemporaries. The story may have been turned upside down, but the structure is the same: one dominant race, equipped with superior intelligence, supersedes the rest. And it is scarcely surprising that versions of Afrocentrism, for example, that seek to tell the same story but in a way that emphasises the differences between Africans and Whites, tend to assume an explicitly raciological form.

For it is indeed the case that while affirming human unity under the rubric of a single sub-species, we do so in terms that celebrate the historical triumph of Western civilisation. It is not hard to recognise, in the suite of capacities with which all humans are said to be innately endowed, the central values and aspirations of our own society, and of our own time. Thus we are inclined to project an idealised image of our present selves onto our prehistoric forbears, crediting them with the capacities to do everything we can do and have ever done in the past, such that the whole of history appears as a naturally preordained ascent towards the pinnacle of modernity. The bias is all too apparent in comparisons between ourselves and people of other cultures. Thus where we can do things that they cannot, this is typically attributed to the greater development, in ourselves, of universal human capacities. But where they can do things that we cannot, this is put down to the particularity of their cultural tradition. This kind or reasoning rests on just the kind of double standards that have long served to reinforce the modern West’s sense of its own superiority over ‘the rest’, and its sense of history as the progressive fulfilment of its own, markedly ethnocentric vision of human potentials.

I have argued that there is no standard or universal form of the human being, underlying the variations that are so apparent to all of us. In their dispositions and their capacities, and to some extent even in their morphology, the humans of today are different not only from one another, but also from their prehistoric predecessors. This is because these characteristics are not fixed genetically, but emerge within processes of development, and because the circumstances of development today, cumulatively shaped through previous human activity, are very different from those of the past. In this sense the story of human evolution is still going on, even in the course of our everyday lives. But it is not a story of upward movement, along a scale from lower to higher, nor is it one of breakthrough to a superior level of being, over and above the organic. We have not reached above our biology, and we never will. There never was any mighty moment in the past when the upper limits of nature were breached and our ancestors emerged onto the stage of culture, for the very idea of a division between nature and culture is, as I have shown, a Western conceit.

It is, in my view, a great mistake to populate the past with people like ourselves, equipped with all the underlying capacities or potentials to do everything we do today. Indeed the very notion of human origins – the idea that at some point in evolution these capacities became established, awaiting their historical fulfilment – is part of an elaborate ideological justification for the present order of things, and as such just one aspect of the intense presentism of modern thought. It is high time we recognised that our humanity, far from having been set for all time as an evolutionary legacy from our hunter-gatherer past, is something that we have continually to work at, and for which we alone must bear the responsibility.

Also, if it were true that different races of humans arose in different locations around the world, then how could we explain that populations in Africa contain more genetic variation than the rest of the world’s populations combined? These and other lines of evidence reject the idea that race is a biologically meaningful way to categorize humans. Once we acknowledge that biological race does not exist, we can begin the work of rewriting those policies still rooted in racist assumptions and eliminating those practices that rely on prejudice and myth.


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