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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Jul 15, 2021

Last week we saw the debut of two new possible human “species”, one in Israel and another in China (read my post on the topic or listen to the podcast with Vagheesh Narasimhan). The team out of Israel did not explicitly name their find a new species, referring to it as the “Nesha Ramla hominin.” But it is clear reading between the lines that they believe they did discover a new species-level hominin. In contrast, the Chinese team did explicitly propose a new species, Homo longi. Whether you accept this or not, some paleoanthropologists argue that this is a problem, because this fossil fits the parameters of an older proposed species, Homo daliensis. It turns out species are a more knotty matter than we might think.

With this is in mind I thought it was appropriate to post my conversation with John S. Wilkins, a philosopher of science whose specialty is the history of the idea of species (see his book, Species: The History of an Idea). He’s spent decades thinking about this concept, which spans thousands of years.

This conversation surprised me because it turns out that the ancients weren’t as unsophisticated as I’d thought, and some of the sillier ideas of Creationists in relation to speciation are actually rather recent innovations. We also tackle the fact that geneticists and other biologists often have disagreements on what a “species” is, and whether it’s a useful concept in the end (perhaps?).

If you are an American and don’t think discussions about what a species is matters, think of the Endangered Species Act. It turns out that a lot can ride on a “name.”