Tag Archives: anthroplogy

Human biogeography 2. Human diversity

John Edward Terrell


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 15-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 5-Feb-2015.


Abstract – Human biogeography is not a thriving scientific enterprise. Why? In part because our species is remarkably talented at niche construction and highly inventive at adapting our socially learned ways of making a living and staying alive to meet the challenges and opportunities around us wherever we find ourselves on the planet. Nonetheless there is political as well as scientific need in the 21st century for an inclusive biogeographical perspective on human diversity recognizing that we are a globally distributed species whose diversity is framed by isolation-by-distance constrained by our social, economic, and political networks, and whose impact on the environment and our own sustainability is substantial and critically in need of informed restructuring.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series at SCIENCE DIALOGUES.


GENETIC EVIDENCE BOTH MOLECULAR AND METRIC now supports instead two robust observations about the biogeography of our species. First, our global physical diversity is structured not by geographic isolation, but instead by isolation-by-distance constrained by social, economic, and political networks (e.g., Lao et al. 2008; see also below) and the specifics of local geography. Said less awkwardly, people as a rule are similar to those nearby and differ from those living farther away. Second, we are proficient at crossing the lines we draw between ourselves and others. Social, cultural, economic, and political barriers are only as real as we want to make them, and social realities are in constant flux and renegotiation (Bashkow 2004).

To infer, as Nicholas Wade and others have done, that we have normally lived in isolated tribal groups until quite recently—say, before globalization—resurrects what the anthropologist Alexander Lesser once dubbed the myth of the primitive isolate—the belief that there were savage tribes before and after 1492 that were circumscribed, timeless societies having few and mostly hostile dealings with one another (Lesser 1961; Lewis 2008; Vincent 2009).

Ethnic stereotypes

Fredrik Barth has remarked that practically all social science reasoning rests on the notion that there are discrete groups of people on earth that can be variously labeled as populations, ethnic groups, societies, cultures, or races (Barth 1969). This way of charting our diversity—commonly called typological or categorical thinking—takes it as self-evident that things naturally come in different kinds, or types, that may legitimately be labeled as such. From this perspective, the words we use to describe things are like empty containers into which we can put things once we have grasped the essential meaning of these verbal containers.

Bild aus Seite 541 in “Die Gartenlaube.” Image from page 541 of journal Die Gartenlaube, 1887. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Die_Gartenlaube_(1887)_b_541_2.jpg

From this perspective, it would seem self-evident that different kinds of people live in different parts of the world. After all, who could possibly mistake an African for an Asian or someone of Irish descent? Nor is this just a Euro-American way of parsing real or assumed geographic variation within our species. The anthropologist James Watson reported half a century ago, for example, that people he knew well in the Eastern Highlands of New Guinea had no difficulty pointing out to him how they saw themselves as different from other people in neighboring places despite the fact that these many small communities were intermittently marked by relocations, realignments, and the patriation of immigrants who had been expelled by hostile neighbors from their own lands—so much so, Watson related, that “to the literal-minded genealogist, the long-term kinship and continuity of each such group seem confused, even compromised” (Watson 1990: 17). Yet despite the demographic instability of these communities, he found that people there were generally quite confident they could draw lines between themselves and others for “no matter how permeable their boundaries or how checkered the history of their membership, they will consider themselves and will be thought to be distinct ethnic units” (Watson 1990: 18).

Group selectionism

The belief that people come in recognizable different types, kinds, or races is often paired with the notion that we are inherently selfish, intolerant, and aggressive—in a word, that we are all bullies at birth needing years of nurturance to become kind and socially adept humans. In this vein, the biogeographer Edward O. Wilson has written that when asked if humans are innately aggressive, he replies: “This is a favorite question of college seminars and cocktail party conversations,” he writes, “and one that raises emotion in political ideologues of all stripes. The answer to it is yes.” (Wilson 1978: 99).

The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition under attack from an African natives. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Emin_Pasha_Relief_Expedition_under_attack_Wellcome_L0034831.jpg

Recently Wilson underscored one of the major assertions behind this way of thinking about ourselves: that competition among groups rather than cooperation has been a powerful driving force behind the evolution of our species and our behavior as individuals. As Wilson has recently phrased the thought: “Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. . . . Each tribe knew with justification that if it was not armed and ready, its very existence was imperiled” (Wilson 2012: 62).

This is not the place to argue against such understandings of what it means to be human (Terrell 2014). Briefly put, as Robert Sussman has written: “To say that humans have a propensity for violence says nothing. We also have a propensity for nonviolence. In fact, the norm, or statistically more common behavior, within human groups is cooperation and among human groups is peace. Violence, both within and among societies, is statistically abnormal” (Sussman in: Fuentes et al. 2010).

Acknowledgments

I thank Eric Clark, Mark Golitko, John Hart, and Kevin Kelly for comments on the working draft.

References      § = suggested further reading

Banks, W. E. (2013). Review of Harcourt, Human biogeography. Quarterly Review of Biology 88, 39–40.

Barth, F. (1969). Introduction. In Barth, F. (ed.) Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference, pp 9–38. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Bashkow, I. (2004). A neo-Boasian conception of cultural boundaries. American Anthropologist 106, 443–458.

Caspari, R. (2003). From types to populations: A century of race, physical anthropology, and the American Anthropological Association. American Anthropologist 105, 65–76.

Castree, N. (2009). Charles Darwin and the geographers. Environment and Planning A 41, 2293–2298. §

Cox, C. B. and Moore, P. D. (2010). Biogeography: An ecological and evolutionary approach. 8th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Elhaik, E., Tatarinova, T., Chebotarev, D. et al. (2014). Geographic population structure analysis of worldwide human populations infers their biogeographical origins. Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4513.

Fuentes, A., Marks, J., Ingold, T. et al. (2010). On nature and the human. American Anthropologist 112, 512–521.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78, 1360–1380. §

Harcourt, A. H. (2012). Human biogeography. Berkeley: University of California Press. §

Hart, J. P. (2012). Why we are what and where we are. Science 338, 330.

Hellenthal, G., Busby, G. B. J., Band, G. et al. (2014). A genetic atlas of human admixture history. Science 343, 747–751.

Kelly, K. M.  (2002). Population. In Hart, J. P. & Terrell, J. E. (eds.) Darwin and archaeology: A handbook of key concepts, pp 243–256. Westport, Ct: Bergin & Garvey. §

Kivelä, M., Arnaud-Haond, S. and Saramäki, J. (2015).  EDENetworks: A user-friendly software to build and analyse networks in biogeography, ecology and population genetics. Molecular Ecology Resources 15, 117–122.

Koelsch, W. A. (2004). Franz Boas, geographer, and the problem of disciplinary identity. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 40, 1–22.

Kolata, G. B. (1974). Human biogeography: Similarities between man and beast. Science 185, 134–135.

Laland, K. N. and O’Brien, M. J. (2011). Cultural niche construction: An introduction. Biological Theory 6, 191–202.

Lao, O., Lu, T. T., Nothnagel, M. et al. (2008). Correlation between genetic and geographic structure in Europe. Current Biology 18, 1241–1248.

Lesser, A. (1961). Social fields and the evolution of society. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17, 40-48. §

Lewis, H. S. (2008). Franz Boas: Boon or bane? Reviews in Anthropology 37, 169–200.

Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N. and Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Radil, S. M., Flint, C. and Tita, G. E. (2010). Spatializing social networks: Using social network analysis to investigate geographies of gang rivalry, territoriality, and violence in Los Angeles. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100, 307–326. §

Simon, H. A. (1973). The organization of complex systems. In Pattee, H. H. (ed.) Hierarchy theory: The challenge of complex systems, pp 1–27. New York: George Braziller.

Stocking, G. W., Jr (1987). Victorian anthropology. New York: Free Press.

Terrell, J. E. (1977a). Biology, biogeography and man. World Archaeology 8, 237–248.

Terrell, J. E. (1977b). Geographic systems and human diversity in the North Solomons. World Archaeology 9, 62–81.

Terrell, J. E. (1977c). Human biogeography in the Solomon Islands. Fieldiana: Anthropology 68, 1–47.

Terrell J. E. (2006). Human biogeography: Evidence of our place in nature. Journal of Biogeography 33, 2088–2098. §

Terrell, J. E. (2010a). Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 5, 3–32.

Terrell, J. E. (2010b). Social network analysis of the genetic structure of Pacific Islanders. Annals of Human Genetics 74, 211–232. §

Terrell, J. E. (2014). A talent for friendship: Rediscovery of a remarkable trait. Oxford: Oxford University Press. §

Verdon, M. (2006). The world upside down: Boas, history, evolutionism, and science. History and Anthropology 17, 171–187.

Verdon, M. (2007). Franz Boas: Cultural history for the present, or obsolete natural history? Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13, 433–451.

Vincent, J. (2009). Ahead of his time? Production and reception in the work of Alexander Lesser. American Ethnologist 15, 743–751.

Wade, N. (2014). A troublesome inheritance: Genes, race and human history. New York: Penguin Press.

Watson, J. B. (1990). Other people do other things: Lamarckian identities in Kainantu subdistrict, Papua New Guinea. In Linnekin, J. & Poyer, L. (eds.) Cultural identity and ethnicity in the Pacific, pp 17–41. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1978). On human nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (2012). The social conquest of the earth. New York: Liveright (a division of W. W. Norton).

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Human biogeography 1. Historical rivals

John Edward Terrell


Please note: this commentary, recovered on 15-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 28-Jan-2015.


Abstract – Human biogeography is not a thriving scientific enterprise. Why? In part because our species is remarkably talented at niche construction and highly inventive at adapting our socially learned ways of making a living and staying alive to meet the challenges and opportunities around us wherever we find ourselves on the planet. Nonetheless there is political as well as scientific need in the 21st century for an inclusive biogeographical perspective on human diversity recognizing that we are a globally distributed species whose diversity is framed by isolation-by-distance constrained by our social, economic, and political networks, and whose impact on the environment and our own sustainability is substantial and critically in need of informed restructuring.

This is part 1 or a 3 part series at SCIENCE DIALOGUES


THERE OUGHT TO BE A NICHE in the economy of evolutionary biology for a research specialization called human biogeography, but use any search engine you favor and these two words as your key terms. You will find that while human geography has existed long enough to give rise to many sub-specializations (Castree 2009), human biogeography does not exist as a thriving scholarly enterprise, has given rise to no subfields, and is rarely noted as a possible contender for competitive research funding. Why? There are several reasons for this apparent truancy in the academic arena as well as an important lesson to be drawn for evolutionary biology.

Historical rivals

While the roots of modern species biogeography date back into the 18th century and before (Cox and Moore 2010), it has been conventional in Euro-American circles to treat human beings as apart from and even above the natural world (e.g., accounts of Creation in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament). Perhaps for this reason, diverse research specializations such as ethnology, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, geography, physical anthropology, and the like took hold in the 19th century and early lay claim to much, if not all, of that century’s growing information about our own species diversity in its several dimensions—biological, cultural, social, ecological, economic, and linguistic (Stocking 1987). It seems possible—although perhaps difficult to prove—that seeing global human biodiversity as comparable in interesting ways to the diversity, relative abundance, and spatiotemporal distributions of other life forms has generally not been deemed appropriate or worthy. Alternatively, it might be argued that human biogeography was being practiced at least in the 19th century, but under the labeling physical geography, anthropogeography, or Erdkunde (Koelsch 2004). Whatever the explanation, other sciences have largely preempted the stage when the biogeography of human diversity is given serious attention.

Nature and nurture

Human biogeography has not been successful at establishing itself in the academic arena and marketplace in part also because it became increasingly apparent during the 19th century that our species is remarkably talented—to use today’s terminology—at environmental niche construction (Odling-Smee et al. 2003) as well as strikingly inventive at adapting our socially learned (i.e., “cultural”) ways of making a living and staying alive to meet the challenges as well as the prospective opportunities around us wherever we have found ourselves on the planet (Laland and O’Brien 2011). Hence centering research exclusively on the biological, epidemiological, and ecological side of being human might be asking us to overlook many and possibly most of the probable reasons accounting for our presence and impacts on local and regional environments as well as the global biosphere.

Folk human biogeography

Despite the growing sophistication during the 19th century of scientific ways of studying and interpreting human diversity in its many dimensions, older commonsensical ways of understanding our global variation as a species continued to hold sway in the public arena (Lewis 2008). Many of these old ideas survived the 20th century (Caspari 2003) and remain popular today. Two notions, in particular, are often voiced although there is by now more than sufficient evidence to the contrary. The first is the belief that we are an inherently tribal species. The second is the conviction that we are by nature untrustworthy, self-centered, and prone to violence.

The anthropologist Gustaf Retzius at work between circa 1870 and 1890. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antropologen_Gustaf_Retzius_i_f%C3%A4rd_med_att_m%C3%A4ta_h%C3%A4rjedalssamen_Fjellstedts_huvud_-_Nordiska_Museet_-_NMA.0052720.jpg PD-1923

For example, Nicholas Wade recently insisted that after we began leaving Africa around 50,000 years ago and started colonizing the rest of the world, we subsequently evolved in isolation on each of the earth’s major continents into biologically distinct races, which both popular wisdom and Wade say are three or so in number (Africans, Asians, and Caucasians) because “human evolution has been recent, copious and regional” and these dispersing human pioneers broke up into small tribal groups as they spread out across the globe. “The mixing of genes between these little populations was probably very limited. Even if geography had not been a formidable barrier, the hunter-gatherer groups were territorial and mostly hostile to strangers” (Wade 2014: 78).

Such interpretations may be appealing in their simplicity, but they are more in keeping with folk wisdom than with available research findings.

Acknowledgments

I thank Eric Clark, Mark Golitko, John Hart, and Kevin Kelly for comments on the working draft.

References      § = suggested further reading

Banks, W. E. (2013). Review of Harcourt, Human biogeography. Quarterly Review of Biology 88, 39–40.

Barth, F. (1969). Introduction. In Barth, F. (ed.) Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture difference, pp 9–38. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Bashkow, I. (2004). A neo-Boasian conception of cultural boundaries. American Anthropologist 106, 443–458.

Caspari, R. (2003). From types to populations: A century of race, physical anthropology, and the American Anthropological Association. American Anthropologist 105, 65–76.

Castree, N. (2009). Charles Darwin and the geographers. Environment and Planning A 41, 2293–2298. §

Cox, C. B. and Moore, P. D. (2010). Biogeography: An ecological and evolutionary approach. 8th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Elhaik, E., Tatarinova, T., Chebotarev, D. et al. (2014). Geographic population structure analysis of worldwide human populations infers their biogeographical origins. Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4513.

Fuentes, A., Marks, J., Ingold, T. et al. (2010). On nature and the human. American Anthropologist 112, 512–521.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78, 1360–1380. §

Harcourt, A. H. (2012). Human biogeography. Berkeley: University of California Press. §

Hart, J. P. (2012). Why we are what and where we are. Science 338, 330.

Hellenthal, G., Busby, G. B. J., Band, G. et al. (2014). A genetic atlas of human admixture history. Science 343, 747–751.

Kelly, K. M.  (2002). Population. In Hart, J. P. & Terrell, J. E. (eds.) Darwin and archaeology: A handbook of key concepts, pp 243–256. Westport, Ct: Bergin & Garvey. §

Kivelä, M., Arnaud-Haond, S. and Saramäki, J. (2015).  EDENetworks: A user-friendly software to build and analyse networks in biogeography, ecology and population genetics. Molecular Ecology Resources 15, 117–122.

Koelsch, W. A. (2004). Franz Boas, geographer, and the problem of disciplinary identity. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 40, 1–22.

Kolata, G. B. (1974). Human biogeography: Similarities between man and beast. Science 185, 134–135.

Laland, K. N. and O’Brien, M. J. (2011). Cultural niche construction: An introduction. Biological Theory 6, 191–202.

Lao, O., Lu, T. T., Nothnagel, M. et al. (2008). Correlation between genetic and geographic structure in Europe. Current Biology 18, 1241–1248.

Lesser, A. (1961). Social fields and the evolution of society. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 17, 40-48. §

Lewis, H. S. (2008). Franz Boas: Boon or bane? Reviews in Anthropology 37, 169–200.

Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N. and Feldman, M. W. (2003). Niche construction. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Radil, S. M., Flint, C. and Tita, G. E. (2010). Spatializing social networks: Using social network analysis to investigate geographies of gang rivalry, territoriality, and violence in Los Angeles. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100, 307–326. §

Simon, H. A. (1973). The organization of complex systems. In Pattee, H. H. (ed.) Hierarchy theory: The challenge of complex systems, pp 1–27. New York: George Braziller.

Stocking, G. W., Jr (1987). Victorian anthropology. New York: Free Press.

Terrell, J. E. (1977a). Biology, biogeography and man. World Archaeology 8, 237–248.

Terrell, J. E. (1977b). Geographic systems and human diversity in the North Solomons. World Archaeology 9, 62–81.

Terrell, J. E. (1977c). Human biogeography in the Solomon Islands. Fieldiana: Anthropology 68, 1–47.

Terrell J. E. (2006). Human biogeography: Evidence of our place in nature. Journal of Biogeography 33, 2088–2098. §

Terrell, J. E. (2010a). Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 5, 3–32.

Terrell, J. E. (2010b). Social network analysis of the genetic structure of Pacific Islanders. Annals of Human Genetics 74, 211–232. §

Terrell, J. E. (2014). A talent for friendship: Rediscovery of a remarkable trait. Oxford: Oxford University Press. §

Verdon, M. (2006). The world upside down: Boas, history, evolutionism, and science. History and Anthropology 17, 171–187.

Verdon, M. (2007). Franz Boas: Cultural history for the present, or obsolete natural history? Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 13, 433–451.

Vincent, J. (2009). Ahead of his time? Production and reception in the work of Alexander Lesser. American Ethnologist 15, 743–751.

Wade, N. (2014). A troublesome inheritance: Genes, race and human history. New York: Penguin Press.

Watson, J. B. (1990). Other people do other things: Lamarckian identities in Kainantu subdistrict, Papua New Guinea. In Linnekin, J. & Poyer, L. (eds.) Cultural identity and ethnicity in the Pacific, pp 17–41. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1978). On human nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (2012). The social conquest of the earth. New York: Liveright (a division of W. W. Norton).

© 2015 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.