Thursday, August 20, 2009

Copernicus Redux

Copernicus, we remember, got in trouble for suggesting that Earth might not be the center of the Universe. We snicker now at such provincialisms. Yet at the same time we warn against anthropomorphism, the trait of looking at anything through human eyes. We are continually reminded that other animals don’t act like us, although most often the reminder comes without the qualification “other”; usually it’s just “animals don’t act like us,” as if we were somehow separate and distinct from the rest of the kingdom.

A defining difference between us and “the animals,” has traditionally been tool use. Only people use tools. That has been a given. Ergo, if one finds evidence of ancient tool use, one has found evidence of early humans. Look at the archaeology of Britain, for example. They’re forever talking about early people in Britain up to 500,000 years ago on the strength of finding stone tools. If A, then B. If all stone tools are made by people, then, if one finds stone tools, one has found evidence of people. Can’t be any other way.

Unless, of course, the premise is wrong; and the more we look around, the more it’s becoming evident that tool use is an upper-primate—call us apes if you will—characteristic, not simply a human one.

It’s also axiomatic that, if two tool-using primates are found to coexist, there’s no guarantee that one of them developed out of the other one; they could have, and probably did, come from a common ancestor further back. The Neanderthals were bad enough, but now we have the Flores Hobbits . The Australians are reporting that, not only was the Hobbit not a human, but that it predated (at least on Flores), the traditional pre-human primate that everyone likes to claim as an early human: homo ergaster (et al). He’s the same guy as Peking Man and the folks leaving those early tools in Britain, if I have it right, who both the Chinese and the English claim as early humans. The Neanderthals we could handle so long as H. ergaster was predecessor to them both; i.e. one tool using species giving rise to two branches: the Neanderthals and us.

But those pesky Hobbits throw a bone into the machinery. If they were not an evolution of h. ergaster, from whom did they evolve? And if they didn’t evolve from h. ergaster, who’s to say we did? Or the Neanderthals?

But isn’t it interesting that all three species, us, ergaster, and florensis, all managed to cross the forty or fifty miles of ocean necessary to reach Flores? Did two species arrive there by accident, with only us getting there on purpose because we knew how to navigate? Or did all three species have more in common than fire and tool use? What would it mean that at least three species of greater apes have learned how to sail? Or paddle?

Isn’t it a tad presumptuous to call all tool users “human”? And isn’t equally presumptuous to think that any characteristic we think of as human is our prerogative exclusively? I’m not saying that the human family isn’t big enough to hold some pretty weird characters, but I don’t necessarily think that any chip off the old stone is a person. Just because we now know chimps use tools, doesn’t make them any cuter to me. I’m still not ready to let them into the family. If they can figure out how to be butlers, fine, they can have a job; but don’t expect me to let them date my daughter.

Back to the drawing boards, folks. We’ve got some rethinking to do.

But chimps are not merely highly challenged people.

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