Biological Definition of "Mankind"

(Jay Johnson) #21

I actually did run across one theorist on language evolution who proposed something along those lines as the first attempts at speech. I don’t think his idea caught on, so I guess most other linguists agreed with you on that score. Since primate vocalizations are almost entirely inborn and their gestures mostly learned, the majority of folks propose that gestures were the first building blocks.

Effective communication has a great deal to do with success in the hunt. Animals that hunt in packs communicate with one another using non-verbal signals. Did you mean something else?

(Christy Hemphill) #22

Primates that hunt in packs are not imitating bird calls to communicate with each other. Larry was talking about imitating the calls of prey in order to be a more effective hunter, and suggesting that language developed from that. That was what I was disagreeing with.


Okay, not quite “biological,” but humans are the only biological creatures on earth able to think creatively about the future and create new ones (futures, that is…)…,

I kind of got this idea from Jordan Peterson and I think it is tied closely to Genesis 1…




I think this is yet another example of human bias. We want these clear and precise categories, but not everything has clear and precise boundaries. Sometimes its a spectrum. Humankind may be a spectrum. We can certainly see stark differences when we look points on the spectrum that are well separated, but that doesn’t change the fact that there may be a fine gradation between other points.

Are we saying that there was a generation with no language, no burial rights, no sapience, and no sentience, and that the very next generation there was a population of humans who had all of those things in abundance? I highly doubt it. If we look at our closest primate cousins can we say that they don’t have any language or any inkling of sentience or sapience? There’s lots of evidence that even chimps may have rudimentary language. Are they human?

I don’t think we should look at arbitrary boundaries and a lack of a consensus as a failing of science or those trying to define those categories. Instead, we should realize that we are trying to force nature into ill fitting boxes simply because of human preferences.

So how do you view the contrast between the genomes of H. neanderthalensis and ancient H. sapiens? From what I have read (which may be outdated), H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis were separate species with only limited interbreeding, and it is backed by the differences in their genomes. This would at least be a genetic definition for H. sapiens, but it may not address the larger questions of whether earlier species were human in the philosophical sense.

(Peaceful Science) #26

It is, but you misunderstood me.

I’m not saying that we go from 0% criteria to 100% criteria in a single generation…

Rather, I am saying at some point we transition from 99% of the criteria to 100% of the criteria because we know that at each of the spectrum are categorized differently by everyone. What exactly that criteria is under dispute, but that does not mean that at some point by a plausible criteria that it does not have a transition to 100%. I’m saying that transition to 100% might be a single couple.

This is not a genetic definition of Homo sapiens. There is no way to look at an archaic genome and determine whether or not it meets the taxonomic classification of Homo sapiens. We can, however look at bones that fit this taxonomical definition, and see what the distribution of that DNA is. Going back in time, by DNA, at what point (defined by DNA) does this transition out of Homo sapien to something pre-Homo sapien? No one knows.


Put 100 historians into a room and ask them to put a date on the Fall of Rome and you will get a wide range of answers and a rather boisterous debate. I think this discussion kind of falls into the same category. What criteria do we use? How subjective are the criteria? How do we determine when those criteria are met? For example, you had “complex sentence structure” as a criteria, but what qualifies as complex? What counts as jewelry or a burial rite?

Wouldn’t the distribution of DNA relate directly to gene flow between populations, and hence to the classic definition of species?

I do find it interesting that we do have ancient DNA from archaic anatomically modern humans and their DNA matches modern human DNA while still being distinct from H. neanderthalensis who would have been contemporaries of those archaic modern humans. How does this fit in with what you are talking about?

(Peaceful Science) #28

Of course. That is exactly my point.

I’m just saying that there is not consensus on the criteria, and there exists criteria within the range of current expert opinion that would show a transition from 99% to 100% if we had perfect knowledge.

Given all this ambiguity, no one should be making strong scientific claims on such an imprecise and fuzzy definition as “Mankind” and “human”. “Ancestors,” however, is black and white easy to understand. We can talk about the population of our ancestors as a whole at different points of time, but once we get past about 40 kya, we cannot talk with precision about “humans” population sizes at different points in time.

(Jay Johnson) #29

No, they communicate, but they don’t have language. Other than that, I think you’re pretty much spot-on, especially in recognizing it as a continuum. Our problem is simply wanting to draw a sharp line where a fuzzy boundary exists. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean the task is impossible. Just difficult.

There’s a lot more to it than “complex sentence structure,” but language certainly had to evolve from simple beginnings to modern language, and there is quite a growing literature about how that might have taken place. What counts as jewelry? Here is an example of the material culture at Blombos cave, S. Africa, ca. 72-78,000 years ago. Notice the geometric pattern. That is an example of “symbolic behavior” – definitely a human trait.


And yet, Rome fell…