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Sapiens-Centrism is the New Eurocentrism

Homo Sapiens is a Recent Human Species

Going into my fourth year of intense research in human evolution studies, bringing a cultural history, linguistics and learning theory background to this research, I have been dismayed by what seems to me a re-incarnation of eurocentrism in the form of sapiens-centrism – the favoring of our recent human species over any earlier species, as if sapiens are the only humans that matter. Since the human genus first appeared in Africa around 6 million years ago, a number of human species emerged over the years, many of which dispersed out of Africa, and all of which became extinct except for us, a recent human species, homo sapiens.

The Most Recent Human Species Inherited Human Abilities

In the Nova program Polar Extremes broadcast in February 2020, the narrator and lead scientist for producing the program talks about “humans” originating only 300,000 years ago. This is a scientist who mis-places human origins by 5 million 7 hundred thousand years? Or a scientist who is unaware that humans invented tools 2.6 million years ago (and, I claim, invented language at that same time) and who controlled fire 1.8 years ago and learned to cook food at that same time according to Richard Wrangham? That is, he discounts the earlier species who, in a sense, founded the human enterprise as we know it now. His view is common among human evolution researchers, except that most focus on just the most recent 50,000 years, so their bias is even more extreme.

He should have said, instead, that the advent of developmental trends toward modern humans occurred around 2.6 million years ago with the invention of language, not 300,000 years ago when sapiens emerged. We humans may have been our best selves a million years ago when we already had a society and a culture, not now, when we have used society and culture to lead us to extremes that now have put all of human civilization in danger. We need to at least acknowledge that supposition.

Were Earlier Humans Species “Better” Than Us?

One could equally claim that sapiens inherited the most important human abilities from earlier human species and have squandered that inheritance through excess to the point of destruction. Eurocentrism was the result of deep bias and so is sapiens-centrism. This is not to say we recent humans are bad – I happen to love all the sapiens I know – but those earlier human species created modern humans. We only took their gifts and magnified the power of those gifts to an ungovernable extreme. They gave us our distinctive and unmatched skills and abilities and we created systems and trends that eventually got out of hand with nuclear weapons and ecological destruction.

But, why, when we face the 6th mass extinction on Earth, should we be concerned about human origins? Because if we know what humans are best at, if we know the origin of our special abilities, then we can shape the curriculum and learning designs in higher education to best fit our deep origins, our special abilities, and our inclinations and traits. In the case of this Project, we look to 2.6 mya as our “origins” because that is when human culture acquired its formative powers. That is when we humans (as homo erectus or habilis, most likely) invented language, which shaped the development of the human mind, our metacognitive abilities, and created the arena in which we could engage in collective learning.

Sapiens is an Outlier Species

If we focus only on sapiens, the last 5% of human history, we can easily ignore language and society and culture because those were already a given in human experience. Sapiens shows us the grand degrees to which we built on our cultural inheritance, including the grand degree of weapons of mass destruction and the grand degree of digital disruption. We might think of “humans” as mass destroyers and mass disrupters instead of the kinder and more productive traits and abilities of earlier human species. Sapiens is the outlier human species, not the representative human species. It would be good if we can use these decades of mass disruption and extinction to re-connect with, not deviate from, the “roots” of humanness.

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