human origins

Wed, 9 Feb 1994 13:15:00 PST

French writes:

"I am curious about the origins of human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens (okay,
who isn't). ... his [Christy Turner] argument was that
modern human beings did not originate on the African continent, but somewhere
in Asia... So, where did modern humanity

I'll take this opportunity to sound off on a couple of pet peeves. But
first, as many know, the quesiton of the first appearance of modern homo
sapiens has and still is controversial, ranging from the out-of
-Africa-eve-replacement argument (supported by mitochondrial dna but
challenged on the basis of sloppy statistics) to the multi-location argument
(with different tempos in different areas)--but no conclusive argument. But
I want to comment on the framing of the question, not the substance.

"origins of human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humanity"--we have
here a pastiche of emic and etic, of imposed and "natural"
categorizations--in short, a mish mash. BIologically, there is reproduction
and through reproduction there may be mutation. One can talk about, for
example, the origin of an allele via a mutation (for example, as is done with
the RH system where the alleles referred to as the d allele are thought to be
due to a mutation in the not-so-distant past), but biologically the class,
Homo sapiens sapiens, does not originate as it is an etic category imposed on
a continuum. Biologically there are changes in allele frequencies, changes
in biologicl structures, etc., but these do not constitute origins. Ford's
argument from the 1950's (?) in archaeology where he argued that Spaulding's
idea of artifact types was invalid because, Ford as argued (though
incorrectly), types were ARBITRARY constructs whose justification only
represented sparse sampling of space and time, applies to the issue of
origins: was there a distinct biological entity that we call Homo erectus
that one day suddenly became another distinct biological entity that we call
Homo sapiens sapiens, or is the APPEARANCE of distinctiveness merely an
illusion of sparse data? The latter is likely and if so, then it is
meaningless to talk about the origin of a category as if it has biological
reality. So much for the etic/"natural" category confusion.

We also have an emic/etic confounding here as well: when did humanity
originate, as if this is isomorphic with, when did Homo sapiens sapiens
originate. In short, a typical native/"culture bearer"'s confounding of
one's emic category as if it has exogenous reality. Humanity originated (if
at all) as a cultural construct, and has served (in part) as a way to justify
suspension of morailty when it comes to those folks over there. They are not
human, so we are justified to doing whatever we want to them (consider the
Gulf War and how the cost of the war to civilians, which was known in advance
would occur, was justified). Homo sapiens sapiens is an etic category whose
members are certain biological entities; humanity is a whole different kettle
of fish.

D. Read