August 28, 2013

"Modern human behavior" is out, generic human potential is in

There is a hypothetical model in Prehistory on something vague and ethereal which has been called "Modern human behavior" (MHB). It's not about nuclear weapons, Internet addiction nor commuting to work; it's not either about the printing machine, the Industrial Revolution and the ideals of Human Rights; it's not even about farming, living in cities and through sailing the seas... it's about something extremely vague and ill-defined but which, by definition would set apart "modern humans" (H. sapiens) from "archaic humans" (other Homo species, particularly Neanderthals).

While it is almost intangible and every day more dubious, a large number of prehistorians, some as notorious as Mellars, Stringer or Bar-Yosef, strikingly influenced by religious ideas setting an arbitrarily absolutist line between "humans" (i.e. Homo sapiens) and the rest (including other humans), have insisted for decades on the validity of such notion. Now three researchers challenge the model radically:

Christopher J. H. James, Julien Riel-Salvatore & Benjamin R. Collins, Why We Need an Alternative Approach to the Study of Modern Human Behaviour. Canadian Journal of Archaeology Volume 37, Issue 1 (2013). Pay per viewLINK

They essentially argue that: that the model (of which there are several, often contradictory variants) is extremely useless and confusing, that there are "archaic humans" with many or even all traits of MHB and there are "modern humans" without many or even most of them.

They tentatively argue for a throughout revision of the model but then they seem to lean rather for the whole abandonment of the idea suggesting instead a mosaic and punctuated evolution pattern that is socio-cultural rather than merely genetic or essentialist:

(...) the rapidly accumulating evidence for a mosaic pattern of behavioural change (...) and the evidence of behavioural advances appearing and rapidly disappearing in the MSA, make the harsh dichotomy model untenable. What it does suggest is a punctuated or saltation model that led to widespread adoption of more complex behavioural patterns once the demographic circumstances were appropriate (...).

Somehow this made me recall one of my all-time favorite bands: Suicidal Tendencies and their 1990 hit "Disco's out, murder's in" (surely not apt for pop, techno and folk music lovers):


  1. I'm not a scientist, just a lurker/gawker. I'm wondering if all these studies about the brain's plasticity of cognition (like the one about poverty lowering your IQ,) if all these studies need to pollinate how fossil record and DNA/gene data are synthesized. Could llifestyle, diet, culture & good luck turn Homo Erectus into Archaic Homo Sapiens within a generation? Could there be such variability in a single Hominid species? :)

    1. No. Speciation is made by genetics and hardcore genetics seems quite impervious to environmental factors (other than radioactivity or maybe viral transmission, not yet sufficiently clarified but minor in any case). Homo sapiens did not coalesce in any single generation: while the process is not well understood, I presume that lucky founder effects, drift, along some ill-understood natural selection, caused the coalescence of our species, as well as of others.

      Still we know that the early H. sapiens (Omo 1) lived side by side with their closest "archaic" relatives (H. rhodesiensis, Omo 2). How exactly one species was "distilled" from the other, that we do not understand yet.


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