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Studying Human Origins. Disciplinary History and Epistemology, Edited By Raymond Corbey and Wil Roebroeks
Amsterdam University Press. 2001. 174 pages. ISBN 90 5356 464. (£30.35 / €42.50)

This book brings together a number of papers initially given at a 1998 University of Leiden round table. Among the contributors are practitioners, historians of science, and philosophers, the former including archaeologists directly involved in empirical human origins research as well as some primarily concerned with the history and epistemology of the field.

In the introduction the volume editors highlight the two, sometimes conflicting, approaches represented: disciplinary history as ‘history’ (putting views and practitioners in the context of their time with the purpose of studying the past for its own sake) and disciplinary history as ‘science’ (how what we know today developed out of past research, how past views conditioned or continue to condition present ones, and how awareness of the intellectual history of controversies and interpretations can contribute to advance knowledge in the present). In the epilogue, science historian Bert Theunissen suggests that the latter is not really history and falls under the category of ‘scientific review’. To illustrate the point, he provides the interesting example of the contrasting ways in which John De Vos and he worked at about the same time on the same subject, Dubois’s Java research. Whereas Theunissen produced a biography of Dubois as a man of his time, De Vos used historiographic techniques to extract information from Dubois’s archive about the validity of his paleontological collections for present stratigraphic research.

The other science historian in the volume, Peter Bowler, tackles a different issue. He considered whether similarities in structure between accounts of human evolution provided by present science and those given in folk tales, or Greco-Roman mythological and literary sources, are indeed evidence for continuity in thinking (as argued by Misha Landau and Wiktor Stoczkowski, the latter also a contributor to the book). Following Stephen J. Gould’s concept of the ‘eternal metaphors’, he suggests that, such similarities are often dictated by the logical structure of the problem, which implies that only a restricted number of ‘families of solutions’ are possible and, hence, that researchers come back to once-rejected types of answers independently of any knowledge of previous debates and with no continuity in intellectual tradition being involved. A case in point is the see-sawing of paleoanthropologists between continuous and discontinuous models of modern human origins and the place of Neanderthals in the human family tree.

In an essay comparing Lubbock’s nineteenth-century and McGrew’s twentieth-century searches for analogues (primitives and primates, respectively) to help in our understanding of the human evolutionary process, David van Reybrouck points out that the two approaches need not be antagonistic and provides a good example that historical analysis (placing theories in space-time context) and anthropological analysis (placing theories in structural context) can indeed be fruitfully reconciled. The underlying theme of those two authors is the frontier between the human and the animal condition, and understanding this common structure is part of the process of understanding how the discipline dealt with the issue since the recognition that humans were of great antiquity and their emergence part of the evolutionary process.

Two other contributions, by Tim Murray and Matt Cartmill, the former discussing how nineteenth-century scholars tried to reconcile the fact of the Palaeolithic with a body of social theory where it did not fit, and the second discussing how changes in biological classification thinking influenced the ebb and flow between lumping and splitting approaches to hominid taxonomy, also end up revolving around the issue of the animal/human frontier. Although concentrating more specifically on modern human origins issues, this is also the theme of Richard Delisle’s paper; like Cartmill, he points out the moral issues involved in classification, namely, whether laboratory animals should be considered hominids or, conversely, whether use of hominids as experimental tools should be accepted.

Wiktor Stoczkowski’s paper makes the case for his ‘utilitarian’ approach to disciplinary history as a means towards awareness of the extent to which we often let ourselves be bound by inherited intellectual frameworks and, hence, as a means to expand our capacity for innovative interpretation. Robin Dennel’s review of the earlier twentieth-century controversies on Asian and African centres of origin for humans (recently taken up in a paper for a wider audience written with Wil Roebroeks (2003)) makes a similar case for disciplinary history as a tool against complacency, in this particular case he argues against the validity of the concept of centre of origin and, specifically, against thinking about human origins in terms of conventional continental boundaries (Africa vs. Asia) instead of ecological ones - where vast expanses of Asia become included in a supra-continental ‘Savannahstan’ and, biogeographically, may have been part of the story as much as the Rift Valley. In a similar vein, the chapter authored by the volume editors highlights the double standards used in the framework of the modern human origins debate to exclude Neanderthals from ‘behavioural modernity’, and the role played in the process by the reification of periodisation categories, such as Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. As they point out, the putative non-modernity of Neanderthals, promoted by a majority of Anglo-Saxon scholars, is framed in exactly the same logical structure that nineteenth-century French positivists used to deny Cro-Magnon artists fully human cognitive status.

The two remaining chapters deal with epistemological issues; one is by an archaeologist, Geoff Clark, the other by a philosopher, Herman de Regt. The former is a rather pessimistic view of the discipline as a battlefield between mutually incomprehensible, strictly paradigm-bounded, ‘almost impervious to data’ research protocols preventing the reaching of any consensus. The philosopher’s is an optimistic, constructive empiricist critique of that view. As the author points out (and, I would add, as origins researchers know all too well), ‘acquiring more data is the only way to resolve human origins controversies to the extent that they can ever be resolved’, simply because the extent to which evidence and theory can be reconciled via post-hoc accommodative arguments is not unlimited.

The above is a schematic rendering of essays which are much richer. I found this book very stimulating reading and highly recommend it to any one interested in human origins research.

João Zilhão
University of Bristol

Dennell, R. and Roebroeks, W., 2005. An Asian perspective on early human dispersal from Africa, Nature 438, 1099-1104

Review Submitted: January 2006

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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