November 2006

Barbara J. King


Homo Sapiens for the Holidays

Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell’s new book, Is There Really A Human Race?, contains 327 words. Minimalist book-reading is attractive in this season, when college anthropology teachers across the land join together to make a rueful noise: back when the semester began in the heat of August, many of us succumbed to a feverish enthusiasm for assigning lots and lots of student writing. December’s cold reality means we’re grading essays almost continuously, while multi-tasking at research and university-governance commitments (not to mention eggnog parties). 

But for biological anthropologists, this time in the teaching year offers another significance, and it’s linked to Curtis and Cornell’s book in a way that I want to address. By now in introductory bioanthro classes, students know the basics of evolution and natural selection; monkey and ape behavior; and how our hominid ancestors lived as pieced together through everything from ancient australopithecine bones to breaking-news Neandertal genomics. It’s time, in other words, for Homo sapiens, or as we in the paleobiz say, AMH’s -- anatomically modern humans. Us, our species: when and how did we evolve? And how best can anthropologists study human variation in the present day? Are there meaningful biological differences across the so-called races?  

On this last question, the near-consensus in anthropology is clear: We are all Africans. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and migrated from our original home into other lands. And it’s not just that our common ancestor with the apes, and our earliest bipedal human ancestors, were African, with our lineage becoming symbolic and smart only later in Asia or Europe. No, the earliest stone-tool technology was born in Africa too, and early examples of symbolic ritual, personal decoration, and jewelry are found there. For years I wished to deliver this anthropological telegram to Strom Thurmond and watch him sputter, but alas, I missed my moment.

At 200,000 years old, Homo sapiens is far too recently evolved a species to have developed any deep-rooted biological differences across populations. In other words, although the word “race” carries significance in the realm of sociology, it has none in human biology. Compare humans in Nairobi to those Stockholm: you’ll notice differences, of course, but they will be either culturally significant or biologically trivial. No supposedly “racial” traits cluster together in a meaningful way. It often wows students to learn that the biological variation within the Nairobi or Stockholm populations is greater than that between the two. Add all this to an appreciation of the sorry uses to which the race concept has been put historically, and it’s enough to quell the ancient human tendency to pigeonhole. Racial categorization just doesn’t work with our species. (See for the American Anthropological Association’s statement on race.) 

I was so caught up in thinking and teaching this material that I engaged in some pigeonholing myself when I first spied Curtis and Cornell’s book. Gazing at the title, why not, I thought, assess how this successful pair (only one of whom starred in the very movie that kicked off a whole creepy-turned-gory cinema genre) dealt with the issue of human race for the picture-book set.

Finally I noticed that the title is not about THE human race, but A human race: an athletic contest. Alas! But let's see where we can go with this.

Illustrated beautifully in the book is the frenzied pace of modern life, at first with an unbroken line of adults and children of all colors and costumes rushing madly through a Central-Park-like setting, as the little-kid narrator wonders about the human race: “Is it going on now all over the place? When did it start? Who said, ‘Ready, Set, Go’?” As this theme builds, it examines an extreme sort of competitiveness: “Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead? If the race is unfair, will I succeed? Do some of us win? Do some of us lose? Is winning or losing something I choose? Why am I racing? What am I winning? Does all of my running keep the world spinning?”

That last query I’d like to copy out in bright crayon letters and pin onto the coats of some of my weary colleagues, who work till they drop, but still can’t stop. (Sorry, this rhyming thing is addictive.) Sometimes I want to say: Anthropology matters, but so too matters an entire day off now and again: Take it and, I promise, the world will still spin. (Me, I refuse to multi-task all the time, even for eggnog.) 

In fact, who is to say the book wouldn’t help adults as much or more than do stress-relievers like massage spas, oxygen bars, and Xanax dispensers? Its message has merit: “And why do I do it, this zillion-yard dash? If we don’t help each other, we’re all going to …CRASH… Shouldn’t it be looking back at the end that you judge your own race by the help that you lend?”

How far from bioanthro the book has taken us. Except… not so much. Here’s its conclusion: “And make friends and love well, bring art to this place. And make the world better for the whole human race.”

That final word should probably be “species” rather than “race.” But if there’s a race of us, it’s a single race, and so I can live with Curtis and Cornell’s semantics here.

Of serious complaints, I have one. Children of all ancestries will find themselves represented in the book, and that’s a good thing. But on the double-page spread that says: “If the race is a relay, is Dad on my team? And his dad and HIS dad? You know what I mean” we see a line of small (juvenile) and large (figures) stretching left to right in a timeline meant to be chronological. Each juvenile-adult pair earlier in human history hands off an item, symbolizing the baton of evolutionary change I suppose, to the next pair in the sequence. On the far left, the shaggy-hair cave-dweller types pass a bone to classical toga’ed Greeks (big leap that, but never mind) who pass a laurel leaf to Indians who pass an ear of maize on to Pilgrims… And so on. The final pair includes an adult jogger who passes along a sadly nondescript baton (I expected to find something like a Computer Age laptop or iPOD but this is a mere boring stick) to a peculiarly dressed, carrot-haired kid pulling an accordion in a red wagon.

Maybe it’s too much to voice unease with the weirdness here. After all, this is not a book about science. Yet parents should take a second look: The carrot-haired kid is fairly androgynous-looking, but to my eye all the other figures on these two pages are male, and I suspect this child is as well. The text refers to Dads, so it’s not unexpected to see a line of them, but all little boys too? The result is a linear “progressive chronology” left to right of males, and only males, evolving. Here I had to stem a tide of bad old images of male-dominated models of human prehistory, and worse ones of stereotyped Indians -- and of course, worst of all, of the Indians' supposedly fixed position in an evolutionary chain between ancient Greeks and historic Pilgrims.

In their book, Curtis and Cornell capture the pulse beat of a right idea: we are all one; our actions should reflect that unity and equality. Yet an anthropological refresher on why it’s a cool idea to avoid any hint of linear cultural progression or undue reliance on stereotyped categories might not hurt, and is suggested with good will toward all.  

Meanwhile, happy December holidays to all Homo sapiens out there, and of course to our  closest living relatives too (a special jingle-bells shoutout to the apes at the National Zoological Park in Washington).

In the New Year, I will discuss a book (adult-length, this time) about travels in Africa, our evolutionary homeland, a continent full of places vibrant, modern, and ever-changing.

-- Barbara J. King misses walking from the savannas of Kenya into the savannas of Tanzania, accompanied only by baboons.