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: 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.


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

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© 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.