Postgraduate Research Archaeology Symposium

Merlin Evans (2016)

Keywords: Human origins, animal studies, anthropocentrism, history of archaeology, archaeological theory


This talk will give a brief historical overview of sociobiological arguments and their critics, with particular emphasis on human origins.

The anthropocentric worldview that has been central to Western thought and politics since classical antiquity has relied on a reductive dichotomy between humanity and animality. Animals are driven by their impulses to violence and carnality, whereas rational humans can supress this bestial nature, thus making them moral agents and members of the socio-political community. Because humanity and animality are conceived as metaphysical essences, human nature can be depicted as a mix of humanity and animality; where the latter becomes dominant, the human is reduced to the status of animal.

This spectre of animality lies at the heart of theories that can be broadly described as sociobiological, which have been intimately connected with reactionary politics; even where all humans are animal, so are more animal than others. Opponents of these arguments have stressed the complete transcendence of humanity from animal nature, thus rendering evidence of animal behaviour and biology irrelevant to the study of humanity, a view which is just as beholden to anthropocentric ideology. Moving beyond this unproductive dialectic and creating theories which do justice to the facts and to the beings themselves requires that we reject these anthropocentric concepts of humanity and animality.