During the 19th century, a radical reorientation took place in human self-understanding. As humans came to see themselves as part of natural history, the focus of inquiry into “the human” shifted from philosophical introspection to bits of bone. In the 150 years following this reorientation, fossils became crucial to the Big Question of what it means to be human. In that time, the image of “the human” shifted from a designed creature with distinct mental and moral faculties, to just one twig of a bushy evolutionary tree.
This project will ask how fossils became connected with fundamental questions of human character, nature, and origins, and with what consequences for the ways humans understand themselves. I will examine the evolution of paleoanthropology, and the reconfigurations of ideas of humanness that emerged as a result, by studying the impact of 3 fossils that were pivotal in the transition. These fossils challenged philosophical understandings of human uniqueness, exposing humans as merely one of many large brained, tool making, upright-walking apes. I will show how these fossils challenged notions of intelligence and superiority in humans, and how their analyses raised difficult questions about the consequences of humans’ superiority for thinking about human morality.
The project will include dissertation research and publications, as well as an interdisciplinary workshop and associated public lecture promoting conversation among scientists and humanists around the core questions of what it means to be human, how we think we know, and how we should think about scientific hypotheses' consequences for understandings of humans. Widening the intellectual scope of discussion on this deeply personal topic will allow us better to illuminate what is at issue. Articles from workshop participants will be collected for a special issue in a scholarly journal, and the project materials including the workshop will be shared on a website and through social media.