Homo Sapiens – How primitive is primitive?

If the current estimates of hominid evolution are correct, the variety classified as modern Man has a surprisingly short geological history, the upper estimates being a paltry 200,000 years. Nor is that history a simple progression. The remains of the older examples of modern Man normally have more ancient features than the younger examples, but occasionally younger remains displaying ancient features are found. This is a more significant fact than it might seem because fossils of Man are very rare and hence it is telling that even a few should show ancient features at the “wrong date” for it suggests that the more archaic forms of Man might not only have lasted a long time but in substantial numbers. 

How little is still known about human evolution is illustrated by the recent discovery of remains by the Koobi Fora Research Project  in the Ileret region, east of Lake Turkana. in Northern Kenya which appeared in Nature magazine. (nature.com/nature/journal/v448/n7154/abs/nature05986.html) These suggest that Homo habilis and Homo erectus co-existed for half a million years. The significance of this is that it makes the generally accepted descent of Man from Homo habilis to Homo erectus to Homo sapiens improbable, vis:

‘”Their co-existence makes it unlikely that Homo erectus evolved from Homo habilis”, explained Meave Leakey….”

The fact that they stayed separate as individual species for a long time suggests that they had their own ecological niche, thus avoiding direct competition,” she added. ’Fossils put new branch on human family tree Daily Telegraph 09/08/2007.

There is truly no point in the past at which it can be said here is the origin of modern Man. Darwin put the case nicely before there was any significant hominid fossil record: “Whether primeval man, when he possessed but few arts, and those of the rudest kind, and when his power of language was extremely imperfect, would have deserved to be called man, must depend on the definition we employ. In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point when the term ‘man’ ought to be used. But this is a matter of very little importance. So again, it is almost a matter of indifference whether the so-called races of man are thus designated, or are ranked as species or sub species; but the latter term appears the more appropriate.” (Descent of Man – chapter The Races of Man).

At what point can Man be said to be acting in a qualitatively different way from other animals? Here is Darwin once more: “I have seen, as I dare say have others, that when a small object is thrown beyond the reach of one of the elephants in the Zoological Gardens, he blows through his trunk on the ground beyond the object so that the current reflected on all sides may drive the object within his reach. Again a well known ethnologist, Mr Estoppels, informs me that he observed a bear in Vienna making with his paw a current in some water as to draw a piece of floating bread within reach. These actions of the elephant and bear can hardly be attributed to instinct or inherited habit, as they would be of little use to an animal of nature. Now, what is the difference between such actions when performed by an uncultivated man, and by one of the higher animals?” (Darwin: The Descent of Man – chapter Mental Powers.)

Darwin concluded that there was little difference in the general approach of the higher animal and man in his primitive state, although he allowed that “There would no doubt be this difference between him [the savage] and one of the higher animals, that he would take more notice of much slighter circumstances and conditions, and would observe any connections between them after much less experience, and this would be of paramount importance. I kept a daily record of the actions of one of my infants, and when he was about eleven months old, and before he could speak a single word, I was continually struck with the greater quickness, with which all sorts of objects and sounds were associated together in his mind, compared with the most intelligent dogs I knew. But the higher animals differ in exactly the same way in this power of association from those low in the scale, such as the pike, as well as drawing inferences and of observation.” (ibid)

If Darwin is right – and there is as so often with him, plausibility in his reasoning – it might seem reasonable to classify human beings by behaviour, they only being accepted as full members of homo sapiens when they have reached the point where their behaviour is clearly qualitatively different from that of animals. Obviously such a judgement would be extraordinarily contentious because of its social and  political ramifications, but stripped of that difficulty could criteria be formulated which would be definitive? It would not be simple. For example, a reasonable criterion might seem to be to pose the question does this or that population of Homo Sapiens  go beyond the fundamental behavioural imperatives of other animals which are to obtain food, breed and raise young? The difficulty with that approach is that it is possible to explain all human behaviour in such terms, that is, all human behaviour ultimately serves such ends: a man does something which displays exceptional ability: he is enhancing his biological fitness by advertising his desirability as a mate: a woman shows an abnormal facility for handling children: she demonstrates her desirability as a mate and so on.

The old favourite for defining humanity, tool use, will not get us far. Animals use tools. It is not even possible at the most primitive observed human level to point to a large library of tools or artefacts let alone tools and artefacts of any great sophistication – the Tasmanians (indubitably part of the modern model of humanity at the physical level) at the time they encountered Europeans were reckoned to have a minute number of tools, viz: “So far as we can ascertain, their entire tool-kit at the end of their history consisted of a mere eighteen items – digging sticks, some very basic stone implements, spears, grass rope, baskets, hides (from which to ambush prey) and traps (for birds). In short, a list that is not so different in size or content from the accredited list of tools for modern chimpanzees. If we make allowances for qualitative differences in the toolkits  of chimpanzees and those produced by modern humans, there are really only two things in the Tasmanians’ toolkit that the chimpanzees do not have  – containers for carrying things (such as baskets and gourds) and structures (things like hides and traps).” Robin Dunbar The Human Story p150.

It might seem obvious that all tools and artefacts are the consequence  of human imagination, yet how far  they  are independently imagined and how far the simple consequence of the observation of accidental behaviour and its translation into something more permanent and sophisticated is a moot point, not merely in the world of the hunter-gatherer but in pre-industrial societies generally. Some troops of chimpanzees will use sticks to get termites out of a termite hill. This behaviour presumably originated because an animal in the band was poking a termite hill with a stick – a perfectly natural activity for chimps which are very curious animals – and noticed that termites ran up the stick and the animal continued to use the trick which in turn was copied by other members of the band. (That this behaviour is not innate is shown by the fact that different chimpanzee populations  vary in their behaviour in this and other instances of tool using or exceptional behaviour, that is, some do it, some do not and different chimp populations  will use variants of the same tactic). It is not unreasonable to suppose that most early human advances were made in much this way, the observation of the accidental consequences of behaviour followed by their imitation. Is the creation of tools and artefacts in such a manner really imaginative or is it simply a function of memory. The organism does something and remembers the consequences of doing it and associates cause and effect.

If not tools what about the production of artefacts (defining artefact as a physical object deliberately produced by an organism by radically altering its components’ natural state)? Failed again I’m afraid – think birds’ nests and otters’ dams.

What about behaviour which seems to go beyond mere immediate utility?, For example, do not all modern humans perform rituals to appease or conjure gods or spirits or at least engage in behaviour we define as magic to alter the world? Probably, although the sophistication of such ideas vary greatly from society to society. But where is the dividing line between behaviour which is repeated and self-conscious ritual? After all many animals display behaviour which might well be described as rituals if they were seen in Man. Nor is such behaviour limited to the obvious realm of courtship, for example, chimpanzees ‘perform “rain dances” to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning during tropical storms, and one of their most outlandish performances is the “carnival,”  when as many as thirty individuals come together for a period of fantastic noisemaking which may last several hours.’ (The emergence of Man John E Pfeiffer p 276).

It might seem that the system of complicated signalling we call language is qualitatively different from anything an animal does, but even here the distinction is not absolute because animals use sound to communicate specific messages, for example, threat calls, warning calls, courting calls. Human language obviously goes far beyond that in terms of its scope, but is there a qualitative difference in the basic function performed by the use of animal vocalisation? It is difficult to see human language as fundamentally different in terms of basic function, although the range of information transmitted is massively greater and more varied.

Nor is all human language equal in its functionality. Consider the case of the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe with several hundred members. They have been in contact with Brazilian culture for two centuries or more, yet they display some very odd traits one of which is to have no sense of number? An American linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett has studied them from 27 years. Apart from their innumeracy, Everett reports that “the Piraha is the only people known to have no distinct words for colours. They have no written language, and no collective memory going back more than two generations. They don’t sleep for more than two hours at a time during the night or day. Even when food is available, they frequently starve themselves and their children… They communicate almost as much by singing, whistling and humming as by normal speech. They frequently change their names, because they believe spirits regularly take them over and intrinsically change who they are. They do not believe that outsiders understand their language even after they have just carried on conversations with them. They have no creation myths tell no fictional stories and have no art. All of their pronouns appear to be borrowed from a neighbouring language.” (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LA C/200408 20 NUMBERS20/TPScience/ – Friday, August 20, 2004)

The Piraha’s innumeracy is particularly interesting. ‘Their lack of numbering terms and skills is highlighted in a report by Columbia University cognitive psychologist Peter Gordon that appears today in Science. Intrigued by anecdotal reports that Prof. Everett and his wife Karen had presented about the matchlessness of Piraha life, Prof. Gordon conducted a number of experiments over a three-year period. He found that a group of male tribe members — women and children were not involved because of certain cultural taboos — could not perform the most elementary mathematical operations. When faced with a line of batteries and asked to duplicate the number they saw, the men could not get beyond two or three before starting to make mistakes. They had difficulty drawing straight lines to copy a number of lines they were presented with. They couldn’t remember which of two boxes had more or less fish symbols on it, even when they were about to be rewarded for their knowledge. A significant part of the difficulty related to their number-impoverished vocabulary. Although they would say one word to  indicate a single thing and another for two things, those words didn’t necessarily mean one or two in any usual sense. “It is more like ones and twos,” ‘ according to Gordon.

‘Prof. Gordon said the findings are perhaps the strongest evidence for a once largely discredited linguistic theory. More than 60 years ago, amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that learning a specific language determined the nature and content of how you think. That theory fell into intellectual disrepute after linguist Noam Chomsky’s notions of a universal human grammar and Harvard University professor Steven Pincer’s idea of a universal language instinct became widely accepted. “The question is, is there any case where not having words for something doesn’t allow you to think about it?” Prof. Gordon asked about the Piraha and the Whorfian thesis. “I think this is a case for just that.” Prof. Everett argues that what the Piraha casedemonstrates is a fundamental cultural principle working itself out in language and behaviour.’ (Ibid)

If the Whorfian theory is correct, or at least describes a quality which profoundly affects the way the world is perceived, other behavioural divisions between the various populations of Man must exist. (The ideas of a universal grammar and a universal language instinct are not necessarily incompatible with the idea that a particular language determines thought, for there could be a basic language template that is then altered by experience. Moreover, it is conceivable that natural selection creates subtle brain differences between populations to accommodate differences in language). To any Whorfian differences in populations may be added the vast differences in cultural expression, some of which could be laid at the door of linguistic determinism of thought.

That leaves us with culture. Here Man does indeed seem to stand alone. He undoubtedly creates culture in a way that no other organism does, both in terms of the depth and the variety of the cultures created. A case can be made for some animals, for example, chimpanzees, having a capacity for culture, but at best their cultural activities such as termite fishing are very rudimentary and few in number. Most importantly, Man uses culture to distinguish between different populations of humans, even if the populations are biologically similar.

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  • By Sao Paulo Informer on December 6, 2010 at 5:27 am

    It’s a long way back by bus in Brazil from the mythic land of the capivara…

    We found your article interesting and added a Trackback to it on the Sao Paulo Informer :)…

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