Biology, Evolution, History

This webpage considering the themes of Biology, Evolution, and History, is a transcript of a 2022 lecture on Tim Ingold’s “People like us” in The Perception of the Environment. The student comments below are based on a Cultural Ecology 2020 class in which we read that chapter together with Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Monsters, M23-70).

People Like Us: Biology & Humanity

Chapter 21 of Ingold is really an incredible chapter. . . It may be a culmination. Everything from here might be downhill. [Chapter] 22 is also super good, but it’s much more into the language and linguistic stuff. I think you’re correct, this is a culmination, because in some ways it’s drawing together all the biological anthropology and even a little bit of archaeology and art, and I think we could probably read this chapter a few times, I certainly have, we could go into each of the sub-points and see what’s happened with them and trace them out. Maybe someday we will. I want to begin with Cro-Magnon.

I think for a long time in my life I didn’t understand who these people were because I pronounce it like that. I just said in my American way “crow magnon,” but people who speak French, which is where these people were found, pronounce it in a much more beautiful way.

. . .

It sounds more sophisticated even if you don’t like it, it does sound better, it sounds more sophisticated because there they were making those cave paintings. There’s all kinds of them. The people who made these paintings were discovered in this area. We don’t really call them that anymore. They’re more likely to be called “early modern humans.” Sometimes people call them Anatomically Modern Humans although for the most part people believe that Anatomically Modern Humans would have originated in Africa and spread into Europe from there. Either way, these are basically the people who could do these paintings. What do they say about them? That they might be like an old style of animation? Maybe that’s like the wildest theory. From the torchlight it might look like they’re moving. That they were depicting movement. That’s cool. They do get excited about these . . . They’re pretty amazing. They often are used to start off your art class, your art history class, to start it off and to discover these paintings and the anatomical people of that era. A lot of paleoanthropologists and other people proclaim that these were “people like us.” Of course, the question is: if they’re so good at painting those things and doing animation by torchlight, why weren’t they riding bicycles? Why couldn’t they ride a bicycle? Of course Ingold says, “that’s a goofy question.” Then he goes on to explain, and sometimes I go through in more detail, the orthodox view of human evolution. Hopefully you get this from your Biological Anthropology class or your Intro to Anthropology class. Basically, the orthodox view is that . . . being able to walk, habitual bipedalism, is what separated the creatures that would eventually become more and more like humans [from] our most recent common ancestor, which then became also chimpanzees and bonobos. That bipedalism is what splits us off from the other apes. That it is a biological, anatomical, and evolutionary change, and that evolution keeps going. It keeps going, and we get people more and more like us, but being able to ride a bicycle is something that’s new in human history. We’ve only been doing that for a little bit of time, a tiny amount of time, and not everybody does it. You need certain historical and cultural conditions to ride a bicycle. We believe that bipedalism, walking, is a species trait. Art we also believe is a species trait. Language is a species trait.

But then the particular things that we do with that: bicycling would be one of them. Painting, sculpture, Spanish, English, those would be determined by our culture. . . . That’s the orthodox view, and of course Ingold is here to mess us up.

“I shall now go on to show why I think it is wrong” (374). Now before I get too far into this, Ingold is not saying that evolution is wrong–he’s not a creationist. He’s not saying there’s no such thing as genetics or that we can’t walk or cycle, but what he’s saying is that both walking and cycling are remarkably similar in the sense of being skilled activity. Walking, although we say that it is an anatomical, biological, evolutionary thing to do, is something that we learn how to do. We do not come out of the womb walking. There are some animals that come out locomoting from the moment of birth. Humans are not one of those. . . . If you did not have the assistance of caregivers, you wouldn’t be able to stay alive, but you also need the assistance of caregivers to learn walking. There are all sorts of devices that we use to help our little kids learn how to walk. We hold up their hands with our fingers. In Colombia where I did fieldwork, a person would take her shawl and wrap it around so the baby could push against that. And of course, walkers, and various technological devices that we have. It’s something that we actively encourage and teach our children to do. They don’t just do it from the beginning. Of course, once we’ve learned it, it leaves a biological imprint in our developing organism. Ingold says that if the conditions are right, if you have skilled caregivers in a particular environment, it is “bound to emerge” (375). It’s going to happen as long as you have all the equipment necessary and you’re not in some ways differently abled, it is going to emerge, given the right conditions. He also spent some time imagining some conditions in which it wouldn’t emerge, such as if we were in an environment of weightlessness, or if wheeled vehicles were all we used to get around. He says admittedly that’s a little bit out there, but you can imagine a situation in which people really don’t know how to walk. Is this what happened in Wall-E? They couldn’t walk?

It was really hard to walk. . . It is bound to emerge, but the conditions have to be correct and one can imagine conditions in which it might not emerge.

How about bicycling? Well obviously we also learn how to do that.

We usually learn it with people around us, perhaps from our peers. Most people learn how to cycle with an adult. Maybe some people learn on their own, I don’t know. I don’t want to pry too much about if or whether people learned how to cycle and how, but usually there’s somebody around. Ingold says that it’s like walking, you don’t usually forget it. In fact, we have a phrase, “it’s just like riding a bicycle.” You’d think that’s a little bit far-fetched, but I have to say in my own life that I’ve gone for years, like 20 years, without riding a bicycle. Then all of a sudden when I had to ride one again it was like, I mean sure it took a little bit, but it wasn’t like I had to relearn it. It was already there. The skill was there. You don’t actually forget it, you just get back on and start riding again. Again, obviously some people, even in the conditions where there are bicycles, even in the same family . . . some people didn’t learn how to ride a bicycle and some people did. But if you give people the correct conditions and all the circumstances are right, it’s basically bound to emerge. Basically, what Ingold says is, it is a difference of “extent rather than principle” (375).

“If walking is innate in the sense–and only in the sense–that _given certain conditions_ it is bound to emerge in the course of development, then the same applies to cycling. . . . Both walking and cycling are skills that emerge in the relational contexts of the child’s involvement in its surroundings, and are therefore properties of the developmental system constituted by these relations” (375). They are both skills.

They are skills, and they are things that in some ways change our developing anatomy. There’s an endnote on page 434 about the skeleton and the form of the skeleton. I sometimes make students squat down for a few minutes just to feel the squat, and for most of us we can’t do it. But if you’re raised in a squatting society, you have a different little notch in your knee and we could do a whole class squatting with no trouble at all.

“The bones of the skeleton can grow and take shape only within a body that is active in the world; hence one can define the ‘normal’ skeleton only in relation to ‘normal’ activities. Why should the notched kneecap that comes from prolonged squatting be regarded as abnormal when, for the great majority of the human population, this is the usual position of rest? It is only perceived by us as an abnormality since, having been brought up in a society in which it is usual to sit on chairs, we find having to squat for any length of time acutely stressful. There can, then, be no such thing as the standard form of the human skeleton” (434). What Ingold is saying is in most societies, at least up to maybe 30 years ago, the position of rest was squatting. You developed a notched kneecap, which made it possible and comfortable to squat. He says, “well, why should that be considered abnormal or different?” It’s only abnormal in relation to those of us who grew up with our legs hanging down from chairs. We don’t develop those kneecaps. You can’t really specify even the human skeleton apart from the activities it’s in.

. . . Ingold doesn’t bring up crawling or being able to crawl, but I’d like to think about it in terms of crawling. In part because when I started teaching this class my child was learning how to crawl. It was interesting to watch because we try to teach our children how to walk, but you can’t really teach them how to crawl. All you do is put the baby down on its tummy. It will learn how to crawl, you don’t have to do anything else, it will learn. I would crawl around, but the truth of the matter is adults crawl differently than babies. Adults, because we have more balance or because we’re just ganglier, we do what’s called “parallel crawling” where we move our right arm and our right leg together and our left arm our left leg together. The infant instead learns “cross crawling,” which gives it more balance, where its right arm and left leg and left arm and right leg move together. I couldn’t even teach the infant even if I wanted to, I’d be teaching it wrong. It wouldn’t listen to me, even if it could speak. They learn how to crawl and given the right conditions any baby is going to learn that. You just put them on their tummy and eventually they’re going to learn. It takes them a while. It isn’t even with adult guidance you just put them in this situation, which as Ingold is saying here that’s how we teach people things, by putting [them in situations], not necessarily by imparting linguistic instructions.

We obviously often try to show people things, but in this case, we’re basically just giving them a task, putting them on their tummy, and apparently the psychologists sometimes say that this is a good thing to do because it builds different kinds of muscles in the infant. It builds different neural pathways and it’s a good thing to do before they start to learn how to walk. But what I would say here is what’s also interesting is that this is something that will naturally emerge if you just leave any baby on its tummy, but in most human societies they haven’t wanted to leave babies on their tummies or on the ground, that would not be a good idea. Probably most human beings never learn how to crawl. We usually have the infants either swaddled or carried or in baskets. You don’t want them on the ground, that’s a really crazy place to put them. I was doing my fieldwork in Colombia, and they would not want an infant on the ground. They didn’t like people being on all fours, thought that made them look too animal-like. You want to be upright as soon as possible. What’s interesting is, on the one hand, this will naturally develop if given the right conditions, and it will develop without any verbal instruction or showing whatsoever. It does create anatomical and physical and neurological changes, but most human societies don’t do it. In fact, we are at the point where a lot of our own babies don’t learn how to crawl because we have them in car seats all the time and on their backs to sleep. We don’t give them enough tummy time. They never really learn how to crawl. Again, what’s interesting here is that even something like this, which might be considered something that is on a developmental cycle. . . . really in some ways it could not be considered a human universal.

A long time ago, back in 2012, one of the students secretly snapped a photo of me as I was demonstrating parallel crawl and cross crawl on this desk . . . That’s why I don’t do it anymore. Somebody might be recording, we’d have a video, it would be terrible.

In this chapter, Ingold says that this is in some way analogous to another debate, which is about speech and the universality of language-as-speech versus the technical what is said to be writing, which is specific to culture and history. I think that he’s going to be talking about that a lot more in the next chapter. So, this is just a little bit of a preview. The one part on page 378 where he talks about the chimpanzee in the environment of humans, he’s talking about these debates when we taught bonobos and chimpanzees and gorillas, some of them we’ve taught sign language and even to use keyboards and stuff like that. The question has been: “does that mean that they have a capacity for language?” What Ingold is saying here is: “the chimpanzee-in-an-environment-of-other-chimpanzees is not at all the same kind of animal as the chimpanzee-in-an-environment-of-humans” (378). Again, what he’s trying to say here is you can’t specify the species characteristics or the capacity outside of the conditions under which it was raised. There’s no capacity . . . that you can specify outside of the environment and say, “aha, there you have it for all members of that species. He goes on to say it’s the same with walking. There’s not something that can be called an essence of walking, which all people must do, which leads up to his argument against one of the most famous quotes of all time in anthropology, from Clifford Geertz.

We’ve seen a little bit of Clifford Geertz back in the culture chapter. We saw Geertz back in the chapter on the spiderwebs too, and the web of culture. Geertz gives us a lot of nice quotes. I call this the “footprints” quote of anthropology. The reason I do that is when I was raised in a church community in which there was always a chance that you could testify during the church service. It wasn’t predefined, you could always raise your hand during the testimony period. It’s like in class, if I say you can interrupt me at any time, it’s like that. Not at any time, you have time for testimonies. In this church, people were generally brought in as adults who had already sinned a lot and then been saved. It wasn’t something that people usually grew up in. It was much more a thing for people who had already been in a different place, but for me I was raised in this church. Then these adults would come in and they’d get saved. Then, like a month later, they’d raise their hands during the testimony part, and they’d say, “I’ve just read the most beautiful poem in the world, and I want to share it with you.” I’d start to groan and hold my head in my hands because it was always the footprints poem . . . At the end of his life, or maybe he’s dead, he goes to look back . . . and notices that there are two sets of footprints all the way through, but then at the worst times of life there’s only one set of footprints. “Why, Jesus, why is there only one set of footprints at the worst part of my life, you’re supposed to be by me the whole time?” The Lord says, “my child that was when I carried you.” Anyway, the reason I call this the footprints poem, the “footprints of anthropology,” is because it’s this wonderful thing by Geertz in which he says that we “begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life.” The idea here is that we as human beings are all one species, “we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one” (in Ingold, 379).

We could have lived all these different lives, maybe if we had been born somewhere else, we could have lived these other lives. This is seen as, in my view, saying “okay we have all these biological capacities, but they get translated through a specific culture.” So, for Ingold to argue against this, oh my goodness. The reason Ingold is arguing against this is, he’s saying that the differences in culture become part of our biology. You can’t separate the cultural from the biological.

. . . “My point, _contra_ Geertz [against Geertz], is that human beings are not naturally pre-equipped for any kind of life; rather, such equipment as they have comes into existence as they live their lives, through a process of development” (379). In some ways, he’s perhaps being even more radical than Geertz: That we’re not pre-equipped for any kind of life and our equipment comes through this process of development. So, when he’s saying that culture is biological, what he’s really _absolutely not trying to say_ is that it becomes part of some genetic blueprint or our biological endowment.

I wanted to go through that a little bit more than I usually do, in part because of the current political situation in which some people are trying to limit the rights that women have over their own bodies in the name of the idea that somehow conception is the same as life. A lot of this is done on so-called religious grounds. I believe that the church I previously described growing up in has probably been a big part of that movement.

The idea that genes carry life, that at the point of conception, the fusion of egg and sperm, suddenly you have a blueprint for an organism. I think that plays directly into the hands of the people who want to limit reproductive justice. Now the biologists might say, “well we never intended it that way.” But the way that they got all excited about the DNA leads to similar kinds of ideas or can play into them. I want to bring out this is on pages 380-381, where Ingold is talking about the work of a really interesting historian of modern biology, Lily Kay. Kay’s work shows that you had this DNA that came out and they had their letters and stuff, and the problem was what do you do with those letters? How is it that the DNA specifies the organism? What Ingold says here, again drawing on Lily Kay’s work, is that the biologists are drawing upon information theory, the theory of information. But the theory of information “took up the notion of information in a specialised sense which had little to do with how the term was generally understood–namely to refer to the semantic content of messages passing between senders and recipients. Information for these theorists had no semantic value whatever; it did not _mean_ anything. In their terms, a random string of letters could have the same informational content as a Shakespeare sonnet (Kay 1998: 507)” (in Ingold, 380).

What they were trying to say: they were talking about information in the sense that any random string of letters had the same informational value as a Shakespeare sonnet. It was different than the way we understand it, as conveying a message. Then, as Ingold says: “This point, however, was entirely lost on the molecular biologists who, having realised that the DNA molecule could be regarded as a form of digital information in the technical, information-theoretic sense, immediately jumped to the conclusion that it therefore qualified as a _code_ with a specific semantic content. The point was not lost on the information theorists themselves, however, who repeatedly warned against the conflation of the technical sense of information with its generic counterpart, and looked on in dismay as the scriptural metaphors of message, language, text and so forth became entrenched in a biology that had become seemingly intoxicated with the idea of DNA as a ‘book of life’” (380-381).

Intoxicated Biology

So, those intoxicated biologists were very excited about the idea that the DNA was going to somehow give us a complete specification, or a pattern, or a message, whereas the information theorist says, “no, that’s not the way you should be looking at it.” I looked up Lily Kay. Sad, she passed away very young, at 53 years old. She was originally from Poland, a child of people in a concentration camp. So, sad that she didn’t get to do more writing and research on these things, but really interesting. Her book is: _Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code_ The book is in fact criticizing this idea that the genetic code is like a book, or like a scripture, or like a blueprint.

In saying that DNA is not what the biologists think it is, Ingold goes through his classifications of what he believes and does not believe. In the sense of, “I do not deny that there are genes.” That genes are important regulators. He also says that he does not deny that genomic change can be evolutionarily important, but what he does deny is that these function, as we’ve seen in previous chapters, as a complete blueprint, a design. . . .

There’s a really good summary: “I do not deny the existence of the genome or its importance as a regulator of developmental processes. Nor do I deny that changes can and do occur in the composition of the genome, as a result of the mutation, recombination and differential replication of its constituent segments across generations. I _do_ deny, however, that the genome contains a specification of the essential form of the organism, or of its capacities for action, and therefore that a record of genetic change is in any sense tantamount to an account of its evolution. Much genetic change occurs without any corollary on the level of form or behaviour; conversely, significant morphological or behavioural transformation may occur without any corresponding changes in the genome” (385).

What’s interesting is that since this was written [in 2000] there have been a lot of advances in how we understand genetics. At least by my reading, a lot of people now know there’s been a ton of genetic change in the human species. In many ways what we think of as the “early modern humans” were genetically closer to Neandertals than they are to contemporary humans. Again, a lot of genetic changes occurred, which don’t necessarily have corollaries in the physiological stuff. On the other hand, in biology there’s been a lot more emphasis, or some people have brought us the idea of niche construction, which talks about the changes in the environment that all organisms participate in. So, organisms can contribute to the evolutionary field. I think that Ingold in some ways here was ahead of his time, or was drawing on things in biology that have now gotten more play.

Note: see this 2022 lecture on Niche Construction or check the YouTube video:

But the idea that evolution is the evolution of an entire system, all together, is perhaps still pretty radical in biology, and perhaps even in anthropology.

So, one of the questions then is: how do we explain why organisms are stable over time? What is it if we don’t have the genes? If genes are not the blueprint, what is the source of stability?

. . .

The DNA doesn’t do anything by itself. If we just throw out some DNA, it’s not going to start building an organism. It must be in an egg, which is in a maternal environment, which is in a world.

“How are we to explain the stability of form across generations? The answer lies in the observation that the life of any organism is inaugurated with far more than its complement of DNA. For one thing, as Lewontin points out, the DNA is contained within an egg which, even before fertilisation, is equipped through its own development with the essential prerequisites for launching future growth” (383).

In terms of this current debate, it’s not really a debate about when life begins. I think the good biologists, and the biology that I was taught, is like “well life is continuously going on.” So, those eggs are ready to go, and they have a schedule for growth even before fertilization, they have DNA and most of them are going to go through menstruation. Just like all those sperm, they’re ready to go and it’s very wasteful to sperm. To take this a step further, most of the time, most fertilized eggs are, even in humans, are not going to make it. I mean we’ve only recently been understanding this, because we only realize things like miscarriages if they occur after a certain point in development, where you understand it as a miscarriage. A lot of the fertilized eggs leave without ever doing anything else. There’s not actually one point at which we can say, “aha, there it is.” As we’ve seen in previous chapters, life is continuously going on. It is only interrupted or punctuated by these various events.

The stability part is that you have the gene, the DNA, and it’s replicating within an egg in an environment, and if you change any part of that environment, you’re going to change the developmental process. If you think back to the salamanders, if you change any part of that developing organism it can create a whole very different weird-looking creature. . . . If we change the environment, we then also change the conditions for successor generations as well. All these things contribute to our development and our stability of form over time. If we think back to those bicycles, or as Ingold takes us back to cycling, like language or crawling or all these things–the way we teach is what is called “guided reinvention” (Lock in Ingold, 387).

In this case, talking about language, how we “provide contextually specific interpretations” (387) that lead the infant to the discovery of how words can be used to convey meaning. If you’ve ever seen a parent help a babbling toddler into understanding what’s going on, it’s this process of back and forth. Eventually the kid figures out what is working.

I’ve probably already told you about my own learning how to ride a bike. I was just basically put at the top of a hill and pushed down. I did eventually embody those skills, and they didn’t go away. My own children, I think I found from YouTube a better idea, of taking the pedals off. They could learn how to balance first. Not so many bruises. But again: “What each generation contributes to the next, then, are not rules and schemata for the production of appropriate behavior, but rather the specific conditions of development under which successors, growing up in a social world, acquire their own embodied skills and dispositions” (387).

The implications of this are radical. What Ingold is saying is that we really can’t sustain the customary distinction between evolution and history. What we call “evolution” is just history going on in the larger biological world, and what we call “history” is just evolution going on in the human world. “I have argued that the distinction between evolution and history, as set out in the orthodox view, cannot be sustained. Regarded as a process whereby people, in their activities, shape the contexts of development for their successors, history reappears as the continuation, by another name, of a process of evolution that is going on throughout the organic world” (390).

Evolution always entails the wider environment. That’s part of the evolutionary process. We aren’t the same organisms, as we modify that wider environment, whether we call it history or whether you call it evolution, it’s the same process. Ingold quotes here one of the most famous lines from Karl Marx (I think I might have given it to you back in cultural anthropology): “In the _Eighteenth Brumaire_ Marx wrote that ‘men [we say people now, but back then he said men] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past'” (in Ingold, 390). This was Marx bumming out, since his revolution hadn’t really worked out the way he wanted, he’s trying to figure out why. Marx came up with this line, which is that “yes, people are controlling their own history, but they don’t have a blank slate to work with; they work with the conditions that are given to us from the past and transmitted from there. Ingold then uses this to say: “In just the same way do organisms in general make their own evolution” (390). Creatures are the producers as well as the products of this evolution.

Now one of the big things about the orthodox view, and one of the reasons anthropologists like the Geertz quote, is because we tried to oppose it to the very awful racist views that emerged, taking up Darwin’s material and trying to put it together with some pre-existing racist ideas. The idea is that we’re all the same species, but just culturally different.

What Ingold says here, at the end of the chapter, is that “these variations of developmental circumstance, not of genetic inheritance, make us organisms of different kinds” (391). Again, he’s saying that the way we develop, we all become different people biologically and culturally all at the same time. “There is, in truth, no species-specific, essential form of humanity,
no way of saying what an ‘anatomically modern human’ _is_ apart from the manifold ways in which humans actually _become_” (391). You can’t have a specification for the species outside of the actual becoming of it.

Of course, this raises a question. I’ve always written a question mark in my own copy of this book. “Thus my conclusion, that the differences we call cultural are indeed biological, carries no racist connotations whatever” (391). This is a bold assertion. I feel like people could turn this into something racist if they wanted to, and probably in the United States will figure out a way. I was trying to figure out, I think Ingold is correct that his statement, his conclusion doesn’t carry any racist connotations, but we just need to be careful that we know what he’s saying. That we don’t end up with the same problem.

I was thinking about the lasso users and the iPhone users, and I think what Ingold is saying is that the child who grows up using mostly lassos, in a lasso-using environment, and the child who grows up using mostly iPhones, in an iPhone-using environment, and let’s assume that these are not the same children, that they live in very different places, that they are going to be culturally different, but also biologically different and neurologically different. Now when we say that, that’s not to say one of these are inferior or superior. If you took the iPhone-using-child and put them in the lasso-using environment, they would be in serious trouble and probably vice versa as well. We should also specify that these things are always changing. That people are always interconnected to each other, but I think it probably is useful to think about the fact that we can’t specify a human being as a species, outside of the particular ways in which we become human. Let’s just say that the orthodox view in anthropology–that we all are one biological species, but we all have different cultures–hasn’t exactly eliminated racism and its consequences in the world. So, maybe maybe maybe this will work better.

This webpage considering the themes of Biology, Evolution, and History, is a transcript of a 2022 lecture on Tim Ingold’s “People like us” in The Perception of the Environment. The student comments below are based on a Cultural Ecology 2020 class in which we read that chapter together with Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Monsters, M23-70).