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3. The Crisis in Biological Essentialism

The biological-essentialist programme in modern human origins studies is being increasingly called into question. The archaeological instances of innovation and symbolism in the African MSA and the Eurasian Middle Palaeolithic simply do not support the biological-essentialist axiom that modern Homo sapiens minds direct modern behaviour, whereas non-sapiens non-modern minds are incapable of doing so. The suggestion that modern behaviour accumulated slowly following the African evolutionary origin of the modern mind, only constituting a 'modern' behavioural repertoire by 50 kya (McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Coolidge and Wynn 2001; 2005) muddies the waters yet further; it allows the possibility that hominins with modern minds did not display modern behaviour, but fails to explain why that behaviour should not be included in the range of modern human cultural diversity.

The trait list is also problematic. First it is proposed (not demonstrated) that only modern minds like ours are capable of the stipulated list of behaviours; then, palaeolithic hominins are admitted to modernity if, and only if, their archaeology furnishes evidence for those stipulated behaviours. The application of the trait list serves only to reinforce the original proposition through circular reasoning. It should also be noted that, from a theoretical and critical perspective, it is difficult not to see the narrative of our own global expansion as innately more intelligent people, equipped with more effective and adaptable ways of life and with artistic sensibilities, and all at the expense of indigenous primitives with inferior minds and technologies, as an unfortunate echo of 19th-century imperialist evolutionism.

The picture that emerges from the archaeological evidence is that 'modernity' is not an indivisible, essential property but is instead contingent on variables other than the presence or absence of an innately modern cognitive machinery. The evidence for sporadic, localised and short-lived outbreaks of innovative and symbolic 'modern' behaviours and practices that became incorporated into and fixed in behavioural repertoires only many millennia later, and the tendency for these behaviours and practices to fall out of behavioural repertoires even in later periods when the cognitive modernity of the Homo sapiens populations involved is not open to doubt, is very difficult or impossible to explain in terms of the biological-essentialist paradigm. In fact it is not the origins of innovativeness and symbolism that require explanation, but the strong, though not absolute, tendency for innovative practices, including symbolic practices, to become more persistent and cumulative in the course of the Upper Pleistocene (Hopkinson 2011).


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