Re: Adaptive Niche of Arc

J. Moore (
Mon, 19 Jun 95 13:11:00 -0500

Na> Uh, Jim? Sorry about the catastrophe I just posted. It involved repeated
Na> loss of contact with my access provider. I kept going off-line while
Na> typing the post and evidently bungled the operation of retrieving a
Na> saved file. Somehow a conglomerated hodge-podge got posted rather than
Na> what I had on this screen.

Actually, what I got up here was perfectly readable, just a bit of extra
quoted text. Since the biggest problem with posts is probably not
enough quoted text to provide context for the reply, that was fine.
Course, it can be overdone, but you usually see that in super-contentious
threads, like which computer is the best of all possible computers
(correct answer: none of the above).

Na> Yeah, well.. I'm a newbie on this internet
Na> thing and clearly as clueless as they come. I still hold to the idea
Na> that computers may just be a passing fad. But I gotta post again because
Na> my final remarks got sliced off. Serious apologies, but what the hell!
Na> Foul-ups can be amusing.

I've been fooling with this stuff for a while now and even use an
off-line reader to make my replies (hopefully) more intelligible, yet
the other day I sent off (to another newsgroup) not one but two empty
"replies". Can we have a chorus of "duh, eee!" ;-)

Na> I just wanted to respond to your "quibbles" about semantics and
Na> methodology. Well, you can see I somewhat lack method. My questions,
Na> assertions and speculations were not the product of any coherent
Na> research program (coherency is not one of my strong points). I haven't
Na> done any rigorous testing of hypotheses, and I wouldn't swear that I got
Na> all my facts right. Take 'em for what they're worth! :-)

Na> Your "quibble" about my use of the phrase "speciation event" was right
Na> on the money. The "event" must have been spread out over fifty or a
Na> hundred thousand years. The suite of adaptations enabling modern humans
Na> to create ways of life is too well developed to have sprung up
Na> overnight.

One of the fun things about talking about human evolution is thinking of
10,000 years as a hiccup, and a million as a long yawn. The span of
hominid evolution overall is in turn an eyeblink and a half for some
researchers who go in for things like early amphibians, I guess. ;-)

I'm sure my quibbles, both the minor and the serious, have some people
thinking I'm way too sensitive, but there are dangers in using jargon
that people often don't appreciate. Part of it is the time frames that
you get used to talking about, and the fact that for studies of early
hominids, well, not even the earliest, but say around 2 million years
ago (paleoanthropologists generally just use "mya" for "million years
ago") it is real difficult and generally impossible to be very accurate
on dates. So you see things in the literature like "1.8 mya, plus or
minus 200,000 years" and that can be a pretty accurate date. That's a
range of almost a half a million years! Most sites don't supply any means
of accurately tracking layers of sediment better than that, which means
that finding the bones of two individuals of the same species, for
instance, 50 feet apart (laterally) in "the same" sediment layer, doesn't
tell you whether they were contemporaries or whether one was a distant
ancestor of the other. This is so important that it should always be
kept in mind, but commonly used phrases such as "speciation event" tend
to obscure both the time involved and the inexactness of our dating

I have a whole bunch of quibbles like these, and I've been thinking of
writing them up and starting a thread on the terms we use and how, or
whether, we can make the terms we use more accurate. A related worry is
how we can lose nuance from a term when it's used in a new context, for
instance in the growing use of "culture" to describe non-human social
transmission of behavior, instead of other suggested and previously used
terms such as "social transmission of behavior", "pre-culture", and
"proto-culture". (The problem being, in short, that we see a difference
in what humans do as opposed to these other forms [which could be
debated whether it's a difference in degree only or a difference in
kind] and by using the term "culture" for these other forms, we lose the
ability to use that term to describe the difference we do see in

Na> As for your doubts about the phrase "adaptive abilities," I see your
Na> point. I didn't clearly enough distinguish between cultural and
Na> biological adaptation.

Note that even this gets into a danger area which traps a lotta game!
;-) (Gee, I complain about everything...)

It's common to separate cultural and biological, and then to argue about
"which did what?" or the ever-popular "what percentage was cultural, and
what percentage biological?", which you've probably seen used when
talking about inheritance of IQ. A different problem involving these
two categories is the notion (common in some sociobiology) that "genes
hold culture on a leash" or the "empty cup" idea (genes make a cup
which learning and such can fill), that set up the false dichotomy
of "nature vs. nuture".

Na> The semantic problem arises because humans interact with habitat
Na> in fundamentally different way than do all other creatures.

You could do a debate about the word "fundamentally", as to whether
there is a difference in *kind* rather than just a huge difference in
*degree*. (I hope you don't think I'm picking on you; I'm not trying
to, honestly.) Another way of helping one look at this is to keep in
mind the excellent phrase Robert Foley, an English anthropologist, used
as the title of a book: "Another Unique Primate". Simply put, he points
out that we've tended to argue about whether or not humans are "unique";
some saying we are and some that we're not. The simple fact is that we
*are*, but so are chimps, and gorillas, and lemurs, and indeed most any
species of organism you care to look at. His phrase is an attempt to
find a way out of an unproductive debate over a false dichotomy, a
trap we're apt to fall into due to our habitual use of dualism (one of
my pet bugaboos, dualism).

Na> I think an essential point here is that human beings have
Na> *biologically* adapted to culture as much as to any particular set of
Na> habitat conditions. Physically we are tropical animals but the Eskimos,
Na> through their cultural "adaptations" to habitat, were perfectly at home
Na> on the arctic ice-sheets.
Na> Norman sides (

We *were* tropical animals, but we did change physically. We, as a
species, are generalised enough that our intra-species physical
differences, some of which can be more or less helpful in different
ecosystems, are not so great a difference that they can't be fairly
easily overcome with somatic changes and learned modifications of
behavior, dress, and the like. That's more or less saying what you
did in the first sentence of your paragraph.

Jim Moore (

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