Linnaeus coined the term using the Latin words, homo meaning human, and sapiens meaning wise. In the same edition Linnaeus introduced a second species under the rubric of Homo; he named this species Homo troglodytes, meaning human cave-dweller. The term has since become obsolete. In his 1771 edition he introduced a third species, Homo lar. The classification of this species has since changed to Hylobates lar – the white-handed gibbon, found primarily in SE Asia, but originally spreading as far north as SW China and southward to the Malay peninsula.
Since Linnaeus’ original classification a number of other species of the genus Homo have been identified. Most of these have been identified only since the second half of the 19th century. Many of us know of the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalis) and the Denisovans (Homo denisova.) All these species have become extinct, leaving us – Homo sapiens – as the only representative of the genus Homo.
If we consider the naming of the various species of Homo, we notice that each is named either for a physical ability (H. erectus = upright, and H. habilis = handy) or for where the initial findings were made. H. neanderthalis is named after the Neandertal Valley in Germany. H. denisova named after the Denisova Cave in Siberia, itself named after a hermit (Denis) who lived there. H. floresiensis (sometimes nicknamed ‘hobbits’ because of their small stature) and H. luzonensis are both named after islands that they we found on; Flores (Indonesia) and Luzon (Philippines) respectively. H. naledi was first found only recently (in 2013) in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa. Naledi is the Sesotho word for star.
All named after a physical attribute or geographic location.
All, that is, except Homo sapiens.
When Linnaeus coined the term, he arrogated the appellation of a wise human to his own species (i.e., H. sapiens.)
Linnaeus was writing in the mid-1700s, a time of great philosophical, scientific, religious, and cultural change in Europe. We now know this period as the (European) Age of Enlightenment. Linnaeus presumably was aware of (and had probably read) the works of thinkers such as Descartes, Hume, Kant, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, and others.
In such an intellectual milieu Linnaeus can be forgiven for thinking that the species he was about to name was indeed wise.
In the ensuing two and a half centuries since Linnaeus we might now be forgiven for thinking that Linnaeus may have been premature in his nomenclature of us.
We now find ourselves in a cataclysmic broth of inter-related and mutually reinforcing predicaments largely of our own making, and most having accelerated since 1758. Indeed, we could now be facing a future collapse of all that we know (as humans.)
Have we been wise?
Was Linnaeus premature in giving ourselves the title sapiens?
Perhaps a more appropriate label for us may be Homo colossus, the term coined by William Catton in 1982.2 Catton characterised Homo colossus as: ‘the more colossal humanity’s tool kit became, the larger humanity became, and the more destructive of (our)own future.’ If we had acted with wisdom, Catton observes, ‘… we would have recognised that progress could become a disease.’
What do you think? Are we wise? Have we acted wisely? If we have not acted wisely, then do we have a chance of proving that we are truly worthy of the name Homo sapiens?
1. Linnaeus became known as the ‘father of modern taxonomy.’
2. Catton Jr., William, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1982.
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