Monday, 4 November 2013

Homo faber toppled

It is a long-held and still-widespread belief that man (I know nothing of woman) is descended from the angels.  It was obvious to all thinking people and it was an article of faith that we all (or at least the particular tribe to which we personally belonged) were created in the image of god. When science began to get its act together in the 1700s, we started to look for, find, and name the key attributes of humanity that set us apart from animals.  Because it was clear to observant people and comparative anatomists since Cuvier that we were physically very similar to primates - much more so that to dogs (Canis familaris), geckos (Uroplatus fimbriatus), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), sea-urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) or fruit-flies (Drosophila melanogaster).  Desiring, or even needing, to distinguish ourselves we came up with such defining epithets as:
  • Homo ludens (playful) coined by Friedrich Schiller in 1795
  • Homo loquens (talker) coined by Johann von Herder in 1772
  • Homo faber (tool-maker) coined by Benjamin Franklin 1778
But, as with all things biological, it's not so black-and-white. Anyone who has seen kittens will recognise play-behaviour and anyone who has observed pretty much any adult mammals for more than a David Attenborough documentary will have seen them engaging in behaviour that makes ludicrous "ludens" as the exclusive property of adult humans .  While chimpanzees and gorillas lack the peculiarities of the larynx that make normal speech possible in humans, many humans have a similar lack and nobody considers drumming them out of the species. Washoe, Nim Chimpsky, Koko are all primates who have demonstrated some power of language, however we define  it.

Today is the anniversary of the acknowledgment by data and analysis that other animals used tools.  In 1957 Jane Goodall went out to Kenya to work as a secretary and be near to the Great Wild of her dreams.  She fell into a job, mentored by the great palaeontologist Louis Leakey, as an observer of primates and arrived very wet behind the ears at the Gombe Stream National Park in July 1960.  Contrary to current scientific practice (tsk!) she gave mnemonic names to the members of the chimpanzee troop about which she started to collect data.  We've already met Mike.  On 4th October 1960, she observed an adult male, David Greybeard, poking a twig into a termite mound and sucking off the insects as a tasty aperitif.  So man was no longer the only user of tools.  Later Goodall observed DG and others modifying twigs to improve their termite-fishing quality.  So we could (had to) ditch Homo faber as a scientific term although it is still a literary and philosophical trope.  As Louis Leakey put it "We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!" Numerous other examples of tool-making and tool-use have been collected since then, not least Mike cited above.

This is just great.  When we clear dogma and false dichotomies off the table and start to observe what is actually happening in the real world we can start doing some science!


  1. Great piece...but what? No swear words?

    1. "Well dash it all and botheration!" Happy Now?

    2. Doesn't quite match Boring as Heck from update on Hogging, Blogging!