Why Are We Obsessed with Human Origins?

May 11, 2024

Religious accounts of human origins—the Bible, most significantly—were much more about the glory of God than about an explanation of human character and behavior. The science of human origins hasn’t been simply about displacing religious accounts to offer scientific ones. The study of human origins isn’t really about some old skulls or about some cave art. One thing that I learned while writing this book is that people who study human origins are not bad scientists, but they all have an ideal of humanity. This is a problem because a certain figure of an ideal humanity seeps into ideas that have virtually nothing to do with it.

“We may find archeological answers to some of these questions, but they’ll be completely immaterial to what war is today,” adds Geroulanos. “So if we had begun with the idea that we will solve the problem of war by way of these questions, we are misunderstanding the problem to begin with.”

Geroulanos’s research is not on illuminating human nature prior to written records but, rather on analyzing how others have sought to understand humanity through excavations of “prehistory.”

“I do not write to cast aspersions on particular researchers, their good will, or their ability,” he writes in the new book. “Nor is scientific inquiry my target here. I am much more interested in how these concepts shaped modern humanity.”

NYU News spoke with Geroulanos, director of NYU’s Remarque Institute, about historical inquiries into humanity’s past, the contradictions these pursuits reveal, and how they influence 21st century life.

You suggest that “every story about humanity is a tale of grandeur and dehumanization.” What do you mean by this?

Religious accounts of human origins—the Bible, most significantly—were much more about the glory of God than about an explanation of human character and behavior. The science of human origins hasn’t been simply about displacing religious accounts to offer scientific ones. It is really about explaining how, given the immense complexity of nature, from the Big Bang through evolution all the way to today, humans came to be conscious of themselves and, in a way, to see themselves as the most complex beings that we are aware of—the top of the great chain of being.

Of course, if that’s a story of achievement, which is how it’s usually told, it is also a story that’s had its victims. The study of human origins isn’t really about some old skulls or about some cave art. It is about the grandeur of those who made it, as opposed to the grandeur of those who didn’t. It’s about those who were found, those who went extinct, and those who have been deemed not civilized enough to survive. And the stories of the 19th and 20th centuries are very much about that distinction.

You write that the “humanity we wish for,” in part, depends on “our eagerness to deceive each other and ourselves.” Are you suggesting that what researchers hope may be true about humanity shapes the kinds of discoveries they make? 

One thing that I learned while writing this book is that people who study human origins are not bad scientists, but they all have an ideal of humanity. They have a humanity that they wish for. And in a way, the politics of that humanity plays into their work. This is a problem because a certain figure of an ideal humanity seeps into ideas that have virtually nothing to do with it. And so it becomes easy for someone to think that the humanity that they’re trying to understand is all good—that their ideals are pure and clean. And as we know, there’s great danger in this belief in ideals. That’s not simply a way of deceiving others. It’s also about deceiving ourselves.

Deception signals something intentional. But it seems part of what you describe suggests being naive.

I think that there is a way in which a certain kind of deception is part and parcel of this understanding of humanity—that every ideal involves a simplification. And in that gesture of simplification, there absolutely is a gesture of deception. It’s an argument that those who belong within that humanity—however open and large it’s supposed to be—couldn’t possibly be doing something wrong. 

The source of this news is from New York University

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