Studying Human Origins:
Disciplinary History and Epistemology

Raymond Corbey + Wil Roebroeks (editors)

Amsterdam University Press 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
The dozen essays in Studying Human Origins cover a range of issues in the history of palaeoanthropology, its connections with taxonomy, and its epistemology, combining general arguments with case studies. A few of the essays are relatively specialised and perhaps of limited appeal, but most (and the collection as a whole) should be right on target for those studying human origins who want an introduction to the historical and philosophical debates surrounding their work, or for lay readers interested in the area.

One key theme of the volume is the difference between historians of science and scientists who turn their hand to the history of their disciplines. Historian Peter Bowler opens with a sympathetic but critical look at the ideas of Misia Landau (palaeoanthropology as story-telling) and Wiktor Stoczkowksi (recurring elements); he argues that story-telling narratives are just one category of palaeoanthropological theorising (most common in adaptationist approaches), while recurring themes are more often the result of reinvention using common metaphors than a historical connection. Bert Theunissen stresses the differences between professional historians of science and scientists doing "scientific review" or "scientific criticism"; they have different goals, a different moral imperative. Looking at hominisation scenarios, Wiktor Stoczkowski finds the structures of a cognitively inherited cultural matrix: "there is currently no social mechanism which favours the production of less stereotyped, more original and more empirically sound knowledge". And David Van Reybrouck joins the debate about recurring ideas with a comparison of notions of primitivity in Lubbock's Primitive Times (1865) and McGrew's Chimpanzee Material Culture (1992).

Three other papers use particular episodes in the history of science to illustrate broader themes. Tim Murray describes the discovery of "high human antiquity" and the normalizing of the Paleolithic, as an example of the relationship between data and interpretation in archaeology and the way anomalous data is brought within conventional understanding. Robin Dennell describes the shift around the Second World War from theories of an Asian origin to theories of an African origin: the factors involved include changes in theories of centres and dispersals, in politics, in attitudes to racism (with a move away from an essentialist focus on the fixity and inequality of races), and in the discipline's sociology (notably the rise of United States anthropology and its distinctive approach). And Roebroeks and Corbey consider the dangers of periodization, in particular the double-standard that demands much greater evidence for such labels as "grave", "dwelling", and "sacred site" in Middle than in Upper Paleolithic sites.

Two papers consider the significance of taxonomy. Matt Cartmill sees Hennigian cladistics as a third stage in systematics, following essentialism and the Darwinian revolution; he traces the changing perceptions of the animal-human boundary, arguing that stage-3 systematics will only have fully triumphed when that boundary "ceases to be a feature of our mental landscape". Richard Delisle presents a more balanced view of the debates between cladism and evolutionary systematics, and in particular the different approaches (notably between "splitters" and "lumpers") they inspire to the genus Homo.

Two papers tackle general issues in epistemology. Herman de Regt applies Van Frassen's "constructive empiricism" to palaeoanthropology, taking as a case study J.T. Robinson's theory of Australopithecus. This is probably too technical to appeal to most anthropologists — and Van Frassen is rather more obscure than de Regt suggests, at least outside the Netherlands. Geoffrey Clark reviews the epistemological issues raised in the other papers in Studying Human Origins, responds to some criticisms by Steven Leigh, and makes a plea for archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists to take epistemology more seriously.

Studying Human Origins lacks an index, but has an integrated bibliography and has been carefully edited; physically, it is austere but at the same time attractive, an elegant quarto hardcover with a nice cover, glossy paper, and a clean layout.

May 2001

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- Raymond Corbey - Ape, Man, Apeman: Changing Views since 1600: Evaluative Proceedings of a Symposium at Leiden, 28 June - 1 July 1993
- more history of science
- more primates + paleoanthropology
- books about philosophy of science
%T Studying Human Origins
%S Disciplinary History and Epistemology
%E Corbey, Raymond
%E Roebroeks, Wil
%I Amsterdam University Press
%D 2001
%O hardcover, bibliography
%G ISBN 9053564640
%P viii,174pp