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:

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:

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).


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

References      § = suggested further reading

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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.

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