Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pop Quiz

What percentage of extinct species, any genus, have been discovered in fossilized form?

That is, of course, unknowable. So, make a guess. Two percent? Five? Ten? Twenty?

Twenty seems a bit high. Even 10% seems a bit high. Wanna go with 10 for sake of argument? How about giving you the benefit of the doubt and say 20.

Take that figure and move back a little. Move back 50,000 years. That sounds like a long time, but geologically it’s an eye-blink. Even “evolutionarily” it’s a small step. Fifty-thousand years simply don’t go very far. But from 50,000 years ago we have found fossil remains of three other tool-using, fire-managing, bipedal primates besides ourselves who were alive at the same time. Including us, that makes four. Assuming we’ve found only 20% of such critters from that time, that means there were probably another 16 or so species of tool-using primates out there fifty millennia ago.

Which also might mean that there would 16 other tool-users out there foraging around right now, if it weren’t for us. But it also brings up the question of how long did the 16 species survive? What happened to them? Why should an advanced primate go extinct? And do we remember them?

Think, for a minute, about the reports swirling around the Floresian Hobbits. It’s reported that islanders from Flores retain stories in their culture of when the “little people” lived in the forest. Those stories are being held up by some as proof of how recently H. floresiensis survived.

Oh? My culture has similar stories of little guys living in the woods. We would leave food out for them, and it would be gone in the morning. We called them “nisser” (pl.). But we went further; we also had stories of giants, who we called “trolls.” They’d live under the bridge and swipe your goats. Brave men had to go out and slay those monsters.

Are we drawing any conclusions, yet?

Let’s think once more about those Hobbits, the ones from Flores, not Tolkein. Let’s assume for a minute that the scientists are right; that this is not a dwarfed version of either us or erectus; that this is an independent species that arrived there independently. Now, surely they didn’t leave Africa and travel all the way to Flores without leaving anyone behind. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that, if they were on Flores, they were everywhere, or at the least widespread. Like the Neanderthal or erectus were widespread. Not to mention the other, as yet undiscovered “hominins” or “-inids” or whatever you’d like to call them. You can be sure they will be discovered. Not all of them, but more than we have now. The stock of upright tool-users has yet to be exhausted. (And talk to me once again about leprechauns.)


Holy writ has always had it that humans are unique in the animal kingdom. In fact, in Judeo-Christian religions—the only ones I’m very familiar with—humans are no longer quite animals, but something above and beyond animal kind. We, instead, are the likeness of God on earth. We were given dominion over everything else.

Which, truth to tell, is hard to argue with. Dominion we have. We now have dominion and no leprechauns. It was a trade off.

(Was that yeti ‘nother leprechaun?)

The idea that we are unique is not only holy writ, it has been accepted academic dogma. It’s been argued that the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is small because the odds of it happening once, even here, are so small that it, conceivably, could be a rare phenomenon in a universe that otherwise might be teeming with life. It has been thought that the forces that tipped us into consciousness are so rare that it is unlikely to happen often again, if at all.

This, it turns out, is homo-centric thinking akin to thinking the earth is the center of the universe. It turns out that, instead of being unique, we are, or were, but one of a flock of tool-using bipeds. We may have been either the most intelligent or the most ruthless of the bipeds, but for whatever reason, we were the only one to survive. But for awhile we were commonplace. Yet academia has still been reluctant to understand the implications of our loss of uniqueness. So long as we are a unique species, the only one of its kind, the only one to walk upright, use tools, talk, have social rites, cook food, play the piano, etc., any other extinct creature that exhibited similar traits must be in our bloodline. This has been dogma to the extend that all tool-using bipeds are referred to as “humans” and are called our “ancestors.” Even though we know that, when modern humans first appeared on the stage, there were many groups of bipeds from which we could have evolved. We know we didn’t evolve from the Neanderthals. We know we didn’t evolve from the Hobbits. We tend to think we evolved from erectus, mainly because they were common; but just because they were common doesn’t mean they were ancestral to us; we may have shared a common ancestor. What they definitely were is predecessors to us. Science would be safer to use the term “predecessor” versus “ancestor” but that would weaken our claim to uniqueness.

The question is, can you call all bipeds “human,” even if they aren’t directly in our line? And how far back can you call direct members of our line “human”? We go all the way back to a one-celled amoeba, remember; we can’t call everything in that line “human.” The current assumption seems to be that all bipedal apes are/were descendants from one species of bipedal ape, although I don’t know that there’s anything in the fossil record that says bipedalism only occurred once among the apes. Again, I think it’s our desire for uniqueness that makes us interpret the data in favor of that argument to the very point of using language to tie all the species together. If we call all bipeds “human,” then they’re all our relatives; they’re all our ancestors. Even though they aren’t.

Which makes me feel it would clarify science a lot if it would restrict the use of the term “human” to mean modern humans only, making humans a species unto themselves. It answers the question, “If the Neanderthals were a species, what species are we?” to which the current answer is “modern humans.” They get an identity, we get a blah.

If you can’t make babies with them—and there’s no evidence we could make babies with Neanderthals or Hobbits, much less erectus—they should have, I argue, a different name. I don’t care if that hairy little, barrel chested critter over there buries his dead and makes costume jewelry, he’s not going out with my daughter.

It might then stop us from the compulsion to call Ardi and Lucy and all the other fossils who came before us our “ancestors”; because, when they call them our “ancestors,” it’s hard not to think of them in our direct line, because that’s what the language implies. Unfortunately for science, that case has yet to be made. There’s no reason at all to think that either Ardi or Lucy are ancestral to us; the most we know is that they preceded us. (Shared morphology is not enough; we shared immense morphology with the Neanderthals, yet they were not ancestral to us.)


The lesson, I hope is humility. The earth is not the center of the universe. If we were made in the image of God, what about those other guys? Prototypes? Near-misses? Seconds?

To be human is, indeed, unique. Just as being a lion is unique. But as a lion is not unusual, it is a cat, people aren’t unusual, either; they’re simply part of a larger group of clever bipeds, which for want of any other term we call by their genus name “Homo”; creating the linguistic situation where all people are homos, but not all homos are people (a squares and rectangles kind of thing). Now, while this uncomfortable linguistic truth may cause certain difficulties in the larger world, it is, nonetheless, I believe, correct.

And in its way it’s comforting to know that we are not unusual. Unique maybe, but if it wasn’t going to be us, it was going to be someone else. It was destiny, not accident. Clever bipeds were once all the rage. Too bad we’re the only one left.

Still and all, it doesn’t hurt to leave a little milk out at night.