10. Conclusion

It is suggested here that a hierarchical approach to modern human behaviour is a powerful tool in the growing challenge to biological essentialism in human cognitive and behavioural evolution. It allows us to explain the fitful, apparently reversible and non-species-specific development of modern behaviour in a way that biological essentialism cannot, and enables an understanding of it not as an essential condition, but as a property of life lived in particular conjunctions of temporalities. Of course, there is no intention here to deny the reality of human evolution from non-human ancestors. Go back far enough in human phylogeny and one will certainly encounter an ancestral creature whose cognitive hardware simply did not permit modern behaviour, no matter what the scalar structure of its practices. Indeed, the general trend within the biological-essentialist school towards identifying enhancements in lower-order cognitive capacities such as executive functions (Coolidge and Wynn 2001; 2005; 2007), theory of mind and perspective taking (Henshilwood and Dubreuil 2011) or associative learning (Hodgson 2012) as critical in that they underpin the dynamics of social interaction and cultural transmission, might very well prove successful in capturing the character of that cognitive hardware. But it now seems clear that one will have to go very much further back in human ancestry than the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, and very possibly further back than the early African MSA, to find an ancestor lacking it. The case for assigning Neanderthals and other 'archaic' hominin species of the last 300,000 years to a state of innate cognitive otherness distinct from that of modern 'people like us' no longer seems sustainable.


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