Accepted paper:

Human sexuality and human origins: the occlusion of sex and the exclusion of social anthropology from the human evolution debate


Robert Thornton (University of the Witwatersrand)

Paper short abstract:

We must include a distinctly human sexuality with tool-making, fire, language, etc., in the original human skill set that made the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens possible. The lack of an adequately anthropological theory of sex has excluded social anthropology from debates on human origins.

Paper long abstract:

The emergence of the 'human' from hominidae, and of 'human nature' from nature, must surely have involved the emergence of a human sexuality from a 'natural' sexuality. Paradigms rooted in Christian theology AND Darwinian evolution have precluded the conceptual separation of human sex/uality from reproduction, and have therefore prevented social anthropologists from engaging usefully with the human origins debate. A distinctly human sexuality, however, can be clearly distinguished from the sex/uality of other mammals by re-envisioning sex as a distinct form of social action/agency, and by recognising that, for humans, sex and reproduction are different forms of (social) action, even as they are often culturally conflated. Many Enlightenment debates revolved around the utility and rationale for 'marriage' as a sort of proxy for human sexuality, even as they necessarily failed to grasp the significance of the sexual. I argue that the emergence of a specifically human sexuality, together with tool-making, fire, language, etc., in the original human skill set, was one of the enabling conditions for the emergence of humanity per se. If the emergence of a distinctly human, culturally-configured sexuality can be seen as part of the original human skill set, then sex (as social action) had already separated itself from reproduction (and therefore natural selection). This perspective allows social anthropology to re-enter the discussion of human origins, and provides new perspectives on the relation between sex, religion, and human evolution.

panel P41
Social anthropology and human origins