Weidenreich Multiregionalism and the Dawning Realization of Homo erectus as a Zoological Species

At the same time that paleoanthropologists were sifting through their data and refining the interpretation of Dragon Bone Hill and its hominids, pressure was mounting for anthropology to conform to the tenets of modern biology. Genetics and population biology, integrated with Darwin's theory of natural selection, had made evolutionary biology a new "synthetic" discipline. Old names, genera like Sinanthropus and Pithecanthropus, were criticized as conferring too much distinctiveness on populations of hominids that in the past were probably all members of one zoological species. Instead, the new biologists suggested that most, or even all, known fossils of early hominids would fit into several species all within one genus, our own, the genus Homo.

Paleontologists in general were wary of the new biology. They spent much of their research time and major portions of their careers attempting to show how their fossils were different from all previously discovered fossils, and thus were valid new species. Few paleontologists were interested in naming their newly found fossils the same as someone else's fossils. Similarities between fossils tended to be overlooked. Therefore, Weidenreich's recognition of anatomical similarity and thus zoological relatedness between Chinese Sinanthropus and Javan Pithecanthropus was greeted with acclaim by the new biologists, who urged him to name them both Homo, in accordance with the tenets of their new synthesis. But Weidenreich never agreed to use the new nomenclature even though he agreed with many of the new biologists' theoretical points. Perhaps he had used the old names too long and they held too many memories for an old man to give them up. He said that he would leave that to others.

Even if Weidenreich's naming conventions for fossil hominids remained old-fashioned, his grand theory of human evolution was influenced strongly by the new biologists. It contained a model that has been influential to the present day. He proposed what has become known as "multi-regionalism"24—the idea that there was genetic interchange among populations at any one time in the past (as there is today), and thus a greater degree of similarity among individuals within a region (within one "race," in his terminology) than between individuals from different regions. A corollary of this idea was that there could be evolutionary continuity of regional anatomical differences through time, even across species boundaries. This concept was important for explaining aspects of the Longgushan hominids' anatomy—shovel-shaped incisors, for instance, and their presence in modern Chinese people.

Weidenreich drew an interconnecting matrix of interbreeding populations at successive time periods in the past to explain his concept. His

Phase

Horizontal Differentiations

12 3 4 Australian Group Mongolian Group African Group Eurasian Group

Neoanthropinae

.._ \ N

Hos

Australian grouf

/ \

Mongolian group/ \

South African group\

Eurasian group

V IX Hof

Wadjak group (Java)\

[\ /K / Choukoutien (Upper CaveK

Boskop group^

CroMagnon group\( (W. Europe) \

u ffl

CL

VIII Pae

Skhül group (Palestine)

"■VII Pan

Tab un group (Palestine)

v VI Par

\ / Paleoa rhodes

nthic ensis\

/

v V Pis

Pithec i soloen

mthropu sis \

s

Pithecanthropu .eœctus \

/\

\ À Sinant x pekine

hropus nsis \

Pithecanthropu robustus \

^ II Meg

Meganthropus

^ 1 Gig

Gigantc

pithecu

>/ \

y

K

Weidenreich's (1945) trellis of multiregional evolution in the hominid family. Population networks are connected by the exchange of genes. This model included Weidenreich's outmoded gigantic theory of human origins, but it is important because it also incorporated early ideas about population genetics in human evolution. Multiregional evolution entailed significant vertical gene transmission from ancestors to descendants, within four regional groupings (horizontal differentiations), with less significant gene exchange between these groups, signified by the heavy lines between them. Archaic taxonomic terms used by Weidenreich are Archanthropinae (minus Gigantopithecus, largely synonymous with Homo erectus), Paleoanthropinae (Homo heidelbergensis and Neandertals), and Neoanthropinae (anatomically modern Homo sapiens).

meaning was clearly that species would evolve as interbreeding units across a broad front, even though some traits might survive preferentially in one population within one region. A colleague, Carleton Coon from Harvard University, misunderstood this aspect of Weidenreich's model and proposed in his book, The Origin of Races, five separate lineages of human races going back to the time of Homo erectus (obviously untenable for a modern species with fully interfertile populations). Biological anthropologists later corrected this misconception of Weidenreich's model and it became an important foundation for the modern multiregional interpretation of human origins and the single-species hypothesis.

Weidenreich's model explained the anatomy that he had observed in the Chinese and Javan hominids and also set the stage for a revolution in taxonomy that was to sweep anthropology in the 1950s. One of the new biologists, an ornithologist by the name of Ernst Mayr, made a proposal that if all early hominid populations at any one time in the past freely interbred, as Weidenreich had suggested, then by definition they had to be one species. He proposed that all fossil hominids then known be referred to by the single genus name Homo. Thus was born the single-species hypothesis, a powerful model that endured until the late 1970s when fossil discoveries in Africa disproved it, at least for the early part of the hominid fossil record. In the meantime, the panoply of Latin and Greek binomials was pared down substantially as fossils were compared and classified with categories that attempted to recognize their true biological relatedness. Weidenreich and von Koenigswald had unwittingly promoted this undertaking when they had concluded that Chinese and Javan fossil hominids were closely related. Now, using Mayr's new rules, both the names Pithecanthropus and Sinanthropus were relegated to the trash bin of paleoanthropology. Henceforth the Longgushan fossils and their Javan conspecifics became known simply as Homo erectus.

Franz Weidenreich died in 1948 bequeathing a wealth of anatomical detail and reasoned interpretation of hominid evolution to a generation of biological anthropologists ill equipped to deal with either. The leading academic biological anthropologist of the day was Ernest Hooton of Harvard University, an erudite and witty classical scholar whose extent of training in the anatomical and biological bases of human evolution consisted of brushing shoulders with Sir Arthur Keith in England. Nevertheless, he was responsible for training much of the next generation of biological anthropologists in America. Sherwood Washburn, one of Hooton's former students, edited Weidenreich's last papers and published them as a memorial volume.25 Only one young undergraduate student of Washburn's at the University of Chicago, the future paleoanthropologist F. Clark Howell, briefly studied with Weidenreich at the American Museum of Natural

History. With this exception, the rich tradition in anatomy and evolutionary anthropology from which Weidenreich had emerged in Germany, and which he had so brilliantly carried into China, was truncated. Today the Franz Weidenreich Institute (founded by Weidenreich in 1928) at Johannes Goethe University in Frankfurt represents an attempt to recapture some of this tradition, which, along with the Peking Man fossils, was an unfortunate casualty of World War II. Reiner Protsch, a German trained at UCLA in the 1960s by another Hooton student, Joseph Birdsell, returned to Germany to resuscitate Weidenreich's old institute.

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