Who is the Type Specimen for Homo sapiens?

Excerpt from Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall’s excellent Troublesome Science: The Misuse of Genetics in Understanding Race (2018).


Linnaeus was entirely correct in assuming we should know who we are (and, even more importantly, who we want to reproduce with). But complications have arisen anyway. In the interests of practicality, modern taxonomists have amplified the concept of the type specimen far beyond that of the holotypes from which original descriptions are drawn. “Allotypes,” “neotypes,” “syntypes,” and “lectotypes,” among many others, can be invoked when a researcher identifying a type encounters some procedural hitch. For instance, when a holotype is lost (which happens occasionally, because of bombing, bad curation of a collection, or other causes), there are rules to govern its replacement by a lectotype, which will now be the “go-to” specimen.

Since Linnaeus didn’t designate one, there is and never was a holotype for Homo sapiens. Complicating matters is the fact that in the definitive tenth edition of his great work Linnaeus also described the six variants of Homo sapiens we mentioned earlier—Ferus, Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus, Afer (African), and Monstrosus. The first and last can be discarded as valid subspecies names, as they do not describe real specimens (Ferus was used to designate feral children, and Monstrosus was used to denote mythical people with strange morphologies.)

Under current taxonomic rules, there is one subspecies missing here, as a result of applying the principle of coordination (article 43 of the ICZN). This states that one subspecies of any subdivided species must bear the species name. What this means is that, if we are to recognize subspecies within Homo sapiens, we need to add the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens—logically the subspecies Linnaeus had in mind when he wrote his description—to the other three.

In 1959 William Stearns, a taxonomist writing about Linnaeus’s legacy, suggested that Linnaeus himself should be the type specimen for Homo sapiens sapiens (the name that under the new rules automatically replaces H. s. europaeus). And, given Linnaeus’s estimable opinion of himself, it is certainly not out of the question that he had himself in mind when he gave our species its name. Since we don’t know for sure who he had in mind as exemplar, though, he would have to be designated as a lectotype to satisfy Stearns’s proposal. Of course, this would not help very much, because Linnaeus currently reposes in a churchyard in Uppsala, and it is not really practical for any contemporary taxonomist actually to use him as a standard of comparison.

Availability is a key consideration, and technically it became a factor some thirty years after Stearns made his original suggestion, when a group of researchers hoping to honor Edward Drinker Cope (and apparently unaware of Stearns’s proposal) suggested that Cope be designated the type specimen for Homo sapiens. Cope was a famous paleontologist who had willed his bones to science in the hope that he would be designated the type specimen (again, technically the lectotype) of Homo sapiens. And it certainly seems that Cope himself had wanted that: a possibly apocryphal story goes that a visitor to Cope’s laboratory shortly after the latter’s death in 1897 found his long-time technician weeping in front of a boiling preparation vat as Cope’s head periodically bobbed to the surface.

For anyone who cared, having two pretenders to the status of type specimen for Homo sapiens created a legally awkward situation that demanded resolution. Fortunately, the ICZN was up to the job. One rule states that a neotype can be assigned to a specimen if the lectotype is lost; and this might have given Cope’s bones a fighting chance as a neotype. But while Linnaeus is not exactly available, he is not exactly lost, for we know where he is. And his claim is reinforced by a couple of other provisions of the ICZN. One of them is that article 74.1 of the code happens to require that any lectotype must be among the specimens examined by the person who named the species. Linnaeus was long dead when Cope was born in 1840, so Cope could not have been “examined” by the namer. Also, the key article (74.1.1) clearly states the principle of priority under which validly proposed earlier names trump names put forward later. So unless Linnaeus’s name for our species is somehow deemed invalid—which, even in an uncertain world, is not going to happen—Cope’s claim doesn’t stand a chance. Meanwhile, Homo sapiens still lacks a usable type specimen.

This digression nicely illustrates the fact that, while systematists will always legitimately disagree, nomenclature is underpinned by an objective set of rules that we must apply in retrospect to Linnaeus’s four nonimaginary variants of Homo sapiens. The Swedish savant used highly typological reasoning to come up with what we would have to call subspecies, although he probably thought of them as races. And typologically, Linnaeus clearly felt justified in designating his four “real” subspecies based on geography and the skin color of the people involved. He also added some behavioral descriptions that he felt were diagnostic. These were pretty much in line with common European suppositions of the eighteenth century, and paramount were the ways in which the various groups controlled their behaviors. The “rufus” (red) Homo sapiens americanus from the New World used custom to govern its behavior; the “albus” (white) europaeus was governed by laws; the “luridus” (sallow) asiaticus from Asia was opinionated; and the “niger” (black) afer from Africa was impulsive. This blatantly racist and typological view of humans was hardly unusual for its time, and it remains significant as one of the first attempts to systematize the differences between human geographic groups.

In technical terms, Linnaeus’s trinomina stood until 1825, when Jean-Baptiste Bory de St. Vincent decided to elevate the subspecies names to species level and to add a raft of other regional populations to the genus Homo as separate species. But—to cut short a very long story that you can read about in our Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth—later experts have synonymized all of these with Homo sapiens, so that today no living Homo sapiens subspecies are recognized. Even Homo sapiens sapiens is entirely superfluous, since we have nothing to distinguish it from. Today, then, while we must revere Linnaeus for his achievements as a taxonomist, we must also admit that his splitting of the species Homo sapiens into geographic subspecies was the start of a hugely problematic—and hard to reverse or stamp out—trend toward the formal classification of human individuals and populations. Our colleague Jon Marks has suggested that this desire for racial classification has had an even greater impact on our modern life than the binominal system itself.

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