Anthropology: The Pitter-Patter of Tiny Feet

Issue section: 
(290)

The discovery of a new hominid species is a major blow to those trying to reduce human beings to a set of genes. Some 'scientists' were reported to be looking for a gene for homelessness!

How can a species half our size, with a proportionately smaller brain have been a skilled tool-maker with apparently human, cultural behaviour?

One suggestion is that this species developed on the island of Flores as a result of its isolation from other parts of the hominid tree - Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal - becoming smaller as a result of local conditions. If this is true, the decline in brain size seems to have been very rapid, given the millions of years it took our ancestors to achieve large brains. Whether their stature shrank, or they came from a long line of small hominids, they still pose a question for anthropologists.

Humans distinguish themselves from animals when they begin to produce their means of subsistence. It might be argued that all species do that. But, as Karl Marx argued, human production is different, it exists where 'distribution steps between producers and their products, hence between production and consumption, to determine in accordance with social laws what the producer's share will be.'

In other words, it is the establishment of an economic system based on agreed rules for the distribution of what is produced. As a result we see ourselves in social and economic relationships with other people - we develop a social consciousness and with it language and culture that reflects those social relationships.

Did Homo Floresiensis retain a tradition of economic cooperation, tool-making and cultural interaction from a previous existence? Had they developed it without interaction with other hominid species, or were they (as may be argued with Neanderthal) on the verge of making such a breakthrough?

One thing is clear - the physiological basis of humanity may be a precondition for cultural humanity, but is neither sufficient in itself nor the only physiology which may facilitate human type social organisation and culture.

Being human is not essentially a physiological category. Being human is a social/economic/cultural existence with the resulting consciousness and language. We are made through history, genetics only provides the springboard.

Of course, for any other species to make that breakthrough will be infinitely more difficult now that we are here - if any survivors of Floresiensis still exist, I wish them luck.

This amazing discovery poses massive problems for the biological reductionists who hide from society in the genome, and for the Christian fundamentalists trying to force back the Darwinian revolution. We should welcome the new insights we might gain from this discovery in illuminating the complex diversity of our physical evolution and possibly into the development of humans as economic and cultural beings.