23 April 2014


Henry Gee. The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Popular media usually portray evolution, particularly human evolution as a sort of ladder of continuous sequence, starting with amoeba and ending with someone like Carl Sagan. Human being want to believe that they are the chosen species, the aim of evolution and that everything and everyone else are just steps on the way or rungs on the ladder. Gee calls this world view “human exceptionalism”
This is not, as Nature editor Henry Gee argues, the case; the tree of life is a vastly complicated bush, no one branch of which is any more important overall than the others. Much of evolution is contingent, including the evolution of human beings. Human evolution is also a bush rather than a ladder leading to us. There is no royal road to greater and greater intelligence, whatever that might actually mean. For much of human history there were several different human groups on earth (whether you should call them species, sub-species or just deep ethnicities is a moot point), and Gee suspects some other hominins (or otherly humans if you prefer) might still have been around even into historical times.

If that is the case, I would suspect they would have to be quite distant relatives, for the genetic evidence of significant interbreeding between our majority ancestors (homo sapiens sapiens, or as they may have been known to other humans “the baby faces”) and groups like the Neanderthals or the mysterious Denisovans, suggests that these were sufficiently like us for there to be little chance for them not to have become largely assimilated into the general population, though there may be isolated groups with much higher than average Neanderthal or other ancestry. If such otherly human groups exist, Gee suspects they will come as a complete surprise and not be anything on cryptozoologists’ wish lists.

Human exceptionalism makes both underestimate and humanise other creatures, and to make it difficult to work out what constitutes intelligence. We might be overrating complex brains, and he suggests that the creatures most mentally similar to us on earth are not chimpanzees but crows! He also argues that our tests of self-awareness, such as the ability to recognise oneself in a mirror show how we privilege human senses such as sight over, say, smell or feel. Similar privileging affects how we envision language, maybe dogs exchange gossip through smell, and how would we know otherwise.

He suggests that if we ever met real aliens they would not be vast cool intelligences, but rather similar to ourselves and crows “liars, cheats, hoodlums and swindlers … also friendly, sociable, sympathetic and above all talkative ...” – Peter Rogerson.


Ross said...

So he suggests that aliens would be similar to ourselves? Isn't he "humanising" aliens and, therefore, falling into the very trap of "human exceptionalism" which he faults? Caw, caw, caw.

Ross said...

By the way, it seems to me that "pelicanists" are forever criticizing contactees for claiming that aliens are much like humans. Sounds like Henry Gee thinks like a contactee.

Anonymous said...

All Gee is saying is that the any entities capable of building things like radio telescopes would be social entities, and in that sense alone would resemble chimpanzees, elephants, merkats, crows, parrots, dolphins, octopose etc. He is saying absolutely nothing about their physical appearance. Personally I suspect that there are few, if any, xenoids out there that would similar enough to us to build spaceships and radio telescopes or engage in any kind technological activity that we could remotely understand. PR

Ross said...

In my comments, I wasn't referring to their physical appearance, but their mentalities, including compassionate concern for the well-being of humans. Compassion is a function of social intelligence. Hasn't the "pelicanist" critique of reported human-like aliens extended to their psychology as well as their appearance?

We don't have enough information to say how rare or common (or even existent) human-like aliens might be in the universe.

Anonymous said...

Gee's book "Misunderstandings of human evolution" shows indeed some essential misunderstandings of human evolution.
The traditional idea that human ancestors in Africa went from the forests to the plains (e.g. the "savanna hypothesis") rests on a logical error (post hoc, ergo propter hoc) which confuses "because" and "since": since non-human primates in the trees are quadrupedal, and humans on the ground are bipedal, we became bipedal when we left the forest, it is thought. Some paleo-anthropologists rightly realize that this cannot be the whole truth (e.g. savanna monkeys are less bipedal than forest monkeys: the so-called “baboon paradox”) and believe that our ancestors already "stood up" in the branches, possibly not unlike gibbons, who walk bipedally over branches and hang vertically from branches.
But traditional paleo-anthropologists including Gee consider only the possibilities of living in the branches and/or on the ground, neglecting the possibility that hominoids could have spent part of their time in forest swamps, rivers or coastal waters (e.g. the so-called "aquatic ape hypothesis", which is a misleading term to Gee apparently: it is not about apes or australopiths, but about waterside Pleistocene Homo).
The different elements of human locomotion did not evolve at once, but arose mosaic-like: early hominoids such as Morotopithecus ~20 Ma were already "vertical" (orthograde); gibbons and humans still have vertical spines most of the time; and most Mio-Pliocene hominoids were generally "upright", not necessarily for walking or running on terra firma, but rather for climbing vertically in the branches above the forest swamps (where most Mio-Pliocene hominoid fossils lay) and/or for wading on two legs like lowland gorillas still do in the forest bais (where they collect floating and waterside vegetation).
The evolution of human locomotion – wading and/or walking on two legs ("bipedality"), an upright posture with vertical lumbar spine (“orthogrady”), an "aligned" build with head-spine-legs in one line, and very long and straight legs (which are four different things) – is more Darwinian than Gee thinks. Fossil, paleo-environmental, archeological, isotopic, and comparative data independently converge to show that Pleistocene human ancestors did not run over the open plains as many traditional anthropologists claim (e.g. the "endurance running" fantasy: a just-so, cherry-picking "explanation" fitting in savanna preassumptions). The malacological data (on molluscs) show that virtually all archaic Homo fossils and tools were associated with shallow water habitats and edible shellfish (Munro 2010 "Molluscs as ecological indicators in palaeoanthropological contexts" PhD thesis Canberra), and sites as far apart as England (e.g. Happisburgh, Boxgrove), Indonesia (e.g. Mojokerto, Flores) and southern Africa (e.g. Dungo V, the Cape) lay in coastal and estuarian sediments. Pleistocene Homo populations during the Ice Ages, instead of running over dry open plains, apparently followed the coasts and rivers (sometimes even in savannas :-D) when they dispersed to different continents, collecting waterside and shallow water foods.
In a comparable way, Gee misunderstands the evolution of human speech: I guess he forgot to read our papers (e.g. in Hum.Evol., Nature, New Scientist, Nutr.Health, HOMO, TREE), some of which can be found at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marc_Verhaegen
--marc verhaegen

Terry the Censor said...

Let's not get too cranky, Dr. Verhaegan.


Anonymous said...

Dear Terry the Censor, please inform properly before saying something on a subject. The website you mention is irrelevant, full of lies & outdated. A shame. The author didn't even realise that when I said "I believe everything until it's proven wrong" this was about his savanna nonsense. The poor man has no answer whatsoever to what I wrote above: the coastal dispersal of Pleistocene Homo populations.
Instead of relying to unscientific & irrelevant blabla, please try at least to spell my name correctly...