WHO ARE WE?

09.12.15 4:13 AM ET

The Ugly Nationalist Politics of Human Origins

The world was abuzz this week over a new human ancestor species found in South Africa. It is just the latest in a race by countries to claim the “first” example of our ancestors.

On Thursday morning The New York Times ran a high profile story about the discovery of a new human ancestor species—Homo naledi—in the Rising Star cave in South Africa. The discovery, announced by professor Lee Berger, was monumental because the evidence for Homo naledi were discovered in a burial chamber. Concern for burial is usually seen as distinctive characteristic of humankind, so the possibility that this new non-human hominid species was ”deliberately disposing of its dead” was especially exciting.

To anthropologists the article was not only newsworthy it was also humorous, for the Times illustrated the piece with a photograph of Australopithecus africanus, a species already well-known. This howler of a mistake (at least to self-identified science nerds)  was also somewhat understandable because the differences between the two skulls are sufficiently subtle that a lay viewer can indeed easily mistake them for one another.  In fact, some have pointed to that similarity and wondered (while acknowledging the importance of the discovery) if it is indeed a “new species.”And that gets to the deeper issue: What and who were our ancestors?

It might seem as if the answer to this question is simply a question of biology, but in his new book Tales of the Ex-Apes: How we think about human Evolution anthropologist Jonathan Marks argues that the story we tell about our origins, the study of our evolutionary tree, has cultural roots. Evolution isn’t just a question of biology, he argues, it’s also a question of mythology. Our scientific facts, he says, are the product of bioculture and biopolitics.

Fossils of a newly discovered ancient species, named "Homo naledi", are pictured during their unveiling outside Johannesburg September 10, 2015. Humanity's claim to uniqueness just suffered another setback: scientists reported on Thursday that the newly discovered ancient species related to humans also appeared to bury its dead. Fossils of the creature were unearthed in a deep cave near the famed sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, treasure troves 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg that have yielded pieces of the puzzle of human evolution for decades. The new species has been named 'Homo naledi', in honour of the "Rising Star" cave where it was found. Naledi means "star" in South Africa's Sesotho language.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The study of who we are and where we came from is inherently political, even as science. Understanding what he means by this is best explained by way of example. Take, say, race. In the U.S. the 19th-century “American school” of physical anthropologists used racial features to hypothesize that there were separate origins for the races. As late as 1962, the evolutionary “fact” that the black race was 200,000 years less evolved than the white race was used to argue in favor of segregation.

A similar thing happened during the Franco-Prussian War: The French anthropologist Armand de Quatrefages used cranial examination to claim that the Prussians weren’t real Europeans at all. Instead they were foreigners who were related to the Finns. Both de Quatrefages and the American school were using science to describe the social difference that surrounded them.

Cultural influence on science extends even to the reaches of outer space. When NASA sent the Pioneer plaque out to greet the aliens in 1972 they included a picture of a man and a woman standing alongside one another, naked. The people are naked because NASA wanted to depict humanity in its “natural” state. Clothing would suggest a particular nationality, culture, and social status. It was a sweet thought but there’s no “natural state” for the human body. The woman is posed looking demurely downwards while the man courageously waves hello (or, as Marks humorously observes, signals “halt”) and makes eye contact with the viewer. (If the alien viewer happens to respond to eye contact the way baboons do, it could well spell trouble for our planet.) But so much for mere biology, the Pioneer plaque parades our own gender norms across the universe.

It may not come as a newsflash to anyone that 19th and 20th century scientists can be racist and sexist, respectively. But Marks’s point isn’t that scientists are jerks but rather, that our biological and zoological knowledge is shaped by history and culture.

Fossils of a newly discovered ancient species, named "Homo naledi", are pictured during their unveiling outside Johannesburg September 10, 2015. Humanity's claim to uniqueness just suffered another setback: scientists reported on Thursday that the newly discovered ancient species related to humans also appeared to bury its dead. Fossils of the creature were unearthed in a deep cave near the famed sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans, treasure troves 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Johannesburg that have yielded pieces of the puzzle of human evolution for decades. The new species has been named 'Homo naledi', in honour of the "Rising Star" cave where it was found. Naledi means "star" in South Africa's Sesotho language.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The same phenomenon emerges in scientific efforts to explain the origin of morality. Evolutionary biologists often explain the emergence of morality in terms of Darwinian imperatives about survival and breeding. The taboo against incest, for example, is often explained as just a natural imperative to prevent inbreeding. Marks reviews anthropology and primatology to show how the rules forbidding incest emerged. Because human offspring (unlike that of other primates) remain in a the same social group throughout puberty, the sexual conduct of opposite-sex siblings had to be managed. Such management constitutes the invention of rules, and making, following, and breaking those rules is in large measure what makes us human. 

As Marks told me, “the study of who we are and where we came from is not like the study of what salamanders are and where they came from; the facts of our identity and ancestry are biopolitical facts, not zoological facts. Our ancestry is invested with meaning… and consequently, if you limit yourself to zoological knowledge, you cannot fully understand human diversity or origins.”

These biocultural issues are at play in this week’s discovery of Homo naledi. Many observers are asking is this a “real” species, but perhaps we should also ask “what’s at stake in identifying a new species?” What reporting on this new discovery didn’t mention is how evolutionary theories about the geographical origins of the human race are connected, for example, to nationalism. Lee Berger is already a hero in South Africa for discovering pre-human species. His latest discovery of a potential burial site has some claiming that they had religious beliefs, which is a weighty claim indeed.

There’s a lot more at stake in identifying the earliest “first” example of our ancestors, than in identifying the second or third. The identification of a new species gives the geographical location of that species a privileged position when it comes to telling the story of evolution. As Marks puts it, “South Africa has their species; Spain has their species, Indonesia has their species… This is about who gets to partake in, and to tell, the authoritative scientific story of our origins. It’s a lot more than biology.” Marks’s book is a wise and witty analysis of how science and culture are inextricably intertwined as we compose and narrate the science of who we are and where we came from, and it permits us to make just a bit more sense of the science.

So is Homo naledi a “real” species? If you are thinking about a species as a zoological entity, you’ll simply bang your head against the wall trying to decide. But our ancestors, says Marks, are not accessible to science as zoological entities; they are more complex biocultural entities. They aren’t like salamander species, because you can’t have the same relationship to your immediate ancestors that you have to amphibians. It’s just part of being human.