What’s So Bad About Asking Where Humans Came From?

Here is an origin story about origin stories. Once upon a time, we knew where we came from: Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Fall. Then came modern science, modern doubt. Geology, paleontology: The world grew older very fast. Skulls were discovered, and stone tools. Human origins became a problem and a fascination. Who are we? How did we emerge? And given who we think we may be, how should we live?

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In The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession With Human Origins, the intellectual historian Stefanos Geroulanos, who teaches at NYU, offers a compendium of the ideas—speculative, scientific, and somewhere in between—that have arisen in response to these and other questions. Beginning with Rousseau and his idyllic state of nature, we learn the genealogy of a familiar set of tropes: the “noble savage,” the “lizard brain,” the “killer ape,” the goddess-worshipping matriarchy. Other concepts may be less familiar: the “primitive communism” of Engels and others, which allegedly existed prior to the rise of patriarchy, private property, and class struggle; Freud’s “primal horde,” commanded by a father whose murder (and ingestion) by his sons, the original band of brothers, inaugurated civilization and its discontents.

We learn about “stadial” schema, theories about the stages (usually three) through which humanity has passed: Stone/Bronze/Iron, savage/barbarian/civilized, magic/religion/science. About disputes as to where Homo sapiens emerged (China? Egypt?) and where the Indo-European peoples did (Germany? The Caucasus? Somewhere between Iran and India?). About the impact of the unearthing of the dinosaurs and other fossils, of Darwinian evolution, of geology’s discovery of deep time. About questions that continue to engross us. Who were the Neanderthals? What do the cave paintings mean? Were early humans violent or peaceful?

All of this is fascinating—or would be, but for major problems. For one thing, Geroulanos is not a congenial companion. Like a professor who’s trying too hard to be cool, he sprinkles his language with clumsily modish locutions. “His prose was straight-up goth.” “Rousseau amped up the device of ‘nature’ to the max.” “Bataille vaporized history so as to teleport back to the very beginning.” Worse is the snark, which is relentless, and mostly aimed at nothing worse than the routine careerism of intellectual life. “Jumped at the chance to take credit”; “did his best to show himself to be a good schoolboy”; “had the bad taste to go over his mentors’ head”; “exudes an ambition worthy of Darwin.” Some of it is aimed at exactly the kind of work that scholars are supposed to do. Darwin used “masses of tedious evidence to establish a position others would find hard to assail.” “Other linguists insisted that thanks to their mind-numbingly dry comparative analysis of phonemes they could explain all these bigger issues.” It’s almost as if these people cared about the truth.

All of this points to deeper problems, ones that typify the drift of the contemporary academy. Geroulanos is the executive director of NYU’s Remarque Institute, a prominent center for research on Europe; an executive editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas; the author or co-author of four previous books; and the co-editor or co-translator of a dozen—in short, a major figure in the history of thought. Yet instead of coming to his subject with a scholar’s open-mindedness—this, alas, is no surprise these days—he does so with self-righteousness and an agenda. His purpose is to argue that the study of humanity’s beginnings is and always must be evil. “The Euromodern search for origins began in and then contributed to a long, brutal history of conquest and empire,” he writes. “It has been drunk on hierarchy. It is rooted in illusions—often murderous ones … Its beautiful ideas have justified force against those deemed weak, different, ugly.”

This is, of course, to a great extent true. It is also not surprising. We are well aware by now that scientific concepts—or, more often, pseudo- or at best proto-scientific ones—have been used to rationalize violence and domination (so, for that matter, have nonscientific concepts). That doesn’t mean we don’t still need to talk about this fact. To pronounce Indigenous people “savage,” as Geroulanos explains, was to license one’s attempts to “civilize” them. To designate them “fossil men,” vestiges of ancient times, was to declare them fit to be displaced. Germany was the birthplace of Indo-European culture, the Nazis believed, so Germans really were the master race.

But can we have all this without the attitude, the knowing, smug superiority? This so often seems to be the way now on the left—in academia, in media. We are better than the past. Or the rest of you aren’t better, but we are, my allies and I. But you aren’t better than the past; you’re just lucky enough not to live there. Nor are you better than everyone else; you’re just readier to claim you are. Exposing the sources of Western prosperity does not in itself make you virtuous.

Besides, the picture, on Geroulanos’s own evidence, is much more complicated than his politics will allow him to acknowledge. The study of human origins has not invariably been “rooted in illusions,” nor has it always “served ferocious power,” “justified force,” or “rationalized colonial domination.” Sometimes quite the opposite. Geroulanos shows this himself, yet he tends to downplay it, and in any case conveniently forgets it when making his general claims. Indeed, there is an entire through line in his book of figures who employed prehistory to criticize colonialism, capitalism, modern warfare, and modernity more broadly. Rousseau used his state of nature to attack the inequality and artificiality of 18th-century European society. Engels’s primitive communism “offered a model … for true socialist kinship.” The year after Lord of the Flies, William Golding came out with The Inheritors, a book in which he “asked his reader to identify with Neanderthals” against their aggressive, deceitful rivals, the sapiens.

Concepts developed to promote the idea of Western superiority could be turned in the other direction, and were. It is not “they” who are savages, but we: we who exterminate entire populations, slaughter one another in the trenches, bomb cities from the air. Cultural diffusionism, the idea that civilization spread from a single source, often identified as white—Mesopotamia, Northern Europe—“also contributed to an opposing set of political claims: Pan-Africanism and decolonization.”

Geroulanos presents these counterexamples as exceptions, never pausing to consider that, once you have enough of them, exceptions aren’t exceptions so much as a new rule (the study of prehistory: sometimes good), one whose tension with his old rule (the study of prehistory: evil) needs to be worked through into a broader one (prehistory: It’s complicated). So when he does mention someone who played a more positive role in Western relations with the nonwhite world, he often makes sure to undercut them, typically with little or no evidence.

Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer and an early ethnographer, advocated on behalf of Native Americans in the years before the Civil War. “The Seneca had adopted him in thanks for his legal and political activism,” Geroulanos tells us, “though today we would see Morgan’s role as much more problematic.” He doesn’t say why. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the great anthropologist, was relentless in his wholesale condemnation of the Western impact on Indigenous societies. Yet his arguments, Geroulanos insists, “had the peculiar quality of diminishing the effects of specific acts of colonial violence.” No reason is given. Other anthropologists are blamed for having tried to preserve what they could of disappearing cultures, if only in the form of artifacts and records of traditions. For this, Geroulanos refers to them as “drivers of colonial violence,” not bothering to explain what they were supposed to have done to stop the real drivers of colonial violence, the companies and states and armies.

This is the opposite of history, if the discipline of history is meant to help us better understand how people saw the world they lived in and the reasons they acted as they did. Instead of strutting through the past, wagging his finger and clucking his tongue, Geroulanos might have exercised a bit of generosity toward people who were trying to make sense of what they had, with the tools that they had. The theories he so gleefully belittles were responding, many of them, to developments that we’ve become accustomed to but that must have been incredibly destabilizing. What did it feel like to learn that the Earth was thousands of times older than we had ever suspected? That it contained remains of creatures more alien than anything we had ever dreamed? That among those creatures were some who looked remarkably like us, yet were somehow not us? There are flashes of this kind of sympathy, but, like the more progressive attitudes that Geroulanos keeps stumbling over, they are quickly overridden and forgotten.

Again, it’s easy to mock the humanitarian impulses of a supposedly benighted past—the belief, for example, that we are all one human family, sharing similar sorrows and joys, which displaced ideas of racial hierarchy after World War II but which Geroulanos condemns for minimizing “difference” (that postmodern holy word). But not only did this represent a real advance; it was a step toward our more enlightened understanding. Yes, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we know more than those who came before us, and what we know is them.

But the worst of The Invention of Prehistory is right there in the title. “Invention,” not investigation. Doesn’t it matter if this or that theory is true: about where human beings first evolved, or our historical and genetic relationship to Neanderthals, or the degree of violence in ancient hunter-gatherer societies, or how patriarchy emerged? Apparently, it doesn’t. “I do not much care if particular theories are true,” Geroulanos writes. “I ask what work they do.” It isn’t clear, in fact, if he thinks that there is such a thing as truth. This is someone who can write about “the invention of deep time” and “the ‘discovery’ of the earth’s past”—the scare quotes meaning not that the past was there all along, but that it isn’t there at all, not in any external, empirically observable way. The nascent science of geology, he writes, “played midwife to the birth … of a whole swarm of ostensibly ancient creatures” (that is, the dinosaurs). Ostensibly? So there’s no reality beneath the theories? Geroulanos ducks the question. “The story of human origins has never really been about the past. It has never really been concerned with an accurate, precise depiction of humanity’s emergence out of nature.”

I wonder what his colleagues—the geneticists and archaeologists, the linguists and the neuroscientists—would say to that. This is social constructionism, the idea that there is no truth outside our agreed interpretations, taken to its logical, inane conclusion. And it points to a crucial distinction that Geroulanos’s project denies: the difference between science and pseudo- or proto-science. We have theories about human origins now, and we had theories about them in the 19th century, but they are not the same kinds of theories. Yes, scientists can still have social biases, but contemporary scientific protocols, such as peer review, are meant to root them out. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But there is a qualitative difference between believing that humanity originated in China because (or in order to argue that) the Chinese are “backwards” and deducing that it originated in Africa because that is what genetics and paleontology suggest.

So if truth is irrelevant, what about that “work,” as Geroulanos puts it, that contemporary theories “do”? Well, that’s just the thing. For all his talk of “the new scientific ideologies,” he doesn’t turn up much, in recent decades, that’s indictable. These hypotheses include the notion that the cave paintings show evidence of shamanism; that tools and human bodies shaped each other in a “feedback loop” akin to those we know from the world of computers; that we all descend from a single genetic ancestor, popularly dubbed “Mitochondrial Eve.” All of this is pretty harmless, and certainly a distant cry from the “empire, violence” of his subtitle. Much of it, indeed, comes down on the progressive side of the ledger: goddesses and matriarchies, relatively peaceful tribes that existed before the invention of war, preagricultural egalitarianism. There are still plenty of ideologies running around that justify racism, militarism, and other evils, but they are not drawn from science, for the most part.

And insofar as they are, whose fault is that? “The archaeologists who dig up old bones and the biologists who study hominid genes,” Geroulanos writes, “are seldom the vectors of violence.” Seldom indeed. They also aren’t responsible, to name some of his targets, for Yuval Noah Harari (the “reigning prophet of prehistory’s future”), or 2001: A Space Odyssey (which popularized the idea of the “killer ape,” our supposedly brutal australopithecine ancestor, a notion that Geroulanos presents as having been designed to create an image of violent Indigenous Africans and thus to serve as an argument against decolonization). Nor should they be blamed for the far right’s appropriation of Neanderthals as the original white Europeans. If scientific findings are sensationalized by journalists, oversimplified by authors, and misused by political actors, what are scientists supposed to do? Stop doing science?

Geroulanos seems to imply that the answer is yes, at least for those who study human origins. The world of early humans, he insists, is “inconceivable,” inaccessible. Almost anything we say about it is “a narcissistic fantasy,” a myth. So he openly promotes the myths he likes, which are the ones that announce themselves as such. “I prefer [Georges] Bataille’s and [Annette] Laming-Emperaire’s myths” about the cave paintings—respectively, that the images reflect the moment at which humans became conscious of themselves as separate from nature (and thus conscious of death) and that they embody a complex symbolic system structured around gender (which Laming-Emperaire actually did not regard as a myth). Geroulanos writes admiringly about feminist imaginings that place the female at the center of human evolution. Elaine Morgan’s popularization, in The Descent of Woman, of the “aquatic ape” hypothesis—the theory that hominins developed not on the savanna but in the shallow sea, where mothers could protect their babies from feline predators—was “proudly speculative.” Susan Brownmiller’s assertion, in Against Our Will, that hominin social organization began in fear of rape, was “a primal fiction” that refused to “be judged by crude verification.” He even puts a word in for Wakanda as the “fluorescent triumph” of the Afrocentric view of human history.

This is what constructionism gets you. Geroulanos’s ultimate targets are “humanism, which has always hidden violence,” and the idea of human nature, along with the associated notion that studying the origin of the species can get us closer to understanding it. “In reality,” he writes (reality?), “humans have almost nothing in common with our paleolithic forefathers.” This is also a belief, an ideology, a myth. Human nature may be too, and so may humanism. But I’ll take them over what Geroulanos is offering.

This article appears in the May 2024 print edition with the headline “What’s So Bad About Asking Where Humans Came From?” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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