Primate researcher extraordinaire, Frans de Waal, pens an excellent commentary in the New York Times on the recent discovery of Homo Naledi. His thesis that the distinction between human and nonhuman is not clear cut is something I wholeheartedly subscribe to. No matter what we look at, the difference between humans and other species is almost always quantitative and not qualitative.
Here are some excerpts and I recommend you read the whole thing:
The fabulous find, named Homo naledi,has rightly been celebrated for both the number of fossils and their completeness. It has australopithecine-like hips and an ape-size brain, yet its feet and teeth are typical of the genus Homo.
The mixed features of these prehistoric remains upset the received human origin story, according to which bipedalism ushered in technology, dietary change and high intelligence. Part of the new species’ physique lags behind this scenario, while another part is ahead. It is aptly called a mosaic species.
We like the new better than the old, though, and treat every fossil as if it must fit somewhere on a timeline leading to the crown of creation. Chris Stringer, a prominent British paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told BBC News: “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of humanlike creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa.”
This represents a shockingly teleological view, as if natural selection is seeking certain outcomes, which it is not. It doesn’t do so any more than a river seeks to reach the ocean.
News reports spoke of a “new ancestor,” even a “new human species,” assuming a ladder heading our way, whereas what we are actually facing when we investigate our ancestry is a tangle of branches. There is no good reason to put Homo naledi on the branch that produced us. Nor does this make the discovery any less interesting…
…The problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human. This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red. The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different. But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese…
… It is an odd coincidence that “naledi” is an anagram of “denial.” We are trying way too hard to deny that we are modified apes. The discovery of these fossils is a major paleontological breakthrough. Why not seize this moment to overcome our anthropocentrism and recognize the fuzziness of the distinctions within our extended family? We are one rich collection of mosaics, not only genetically and anatomically, but also mentally.