The Missing Link as Othering: A Critical Genealogy of Paleoanthropology
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The science of human origins, known formally as ‘paleoanthropology’, was effectively born in the fierce late nineteenth century debate as to the human status of Neanderthal. Critical social theory on ‘scientism’ has generated a wealth of research on the ways the various human sciences contribute to the structuring and organizing of social relations. This includes Foucault’s well-known genealogical studies of clinical medicine, which have provided sociologists with crucial insight into how classifying and ordering practices actually create ‘Man’ in the way they operate as a field – or “technology” – of power (Foucault 1970). However, as yet there has been very little produced by sociologists interested in the impacts of science on society with regards to paleoanthropology specifically. This is especially surprising considering that Neanderthal, the quintessential ‘missing link’ and the hub of paleoanthropology’s speculative and explanatory universe, clearly occupies a central place in the socio-historical emergence of ‘humanness’ as an ontological category. Moving forward from the basic observation that the original 1856 discovery of fossilized Neanderthal remains in a cave in Germany’s Neander Valley generally coincided with the end of the colonial period, my dissertation seeks to fill a void in sociology via a genealogical study of paleoanthropological science. Drawing largely upon the insight of Foucault but also that of Saïd, I undertake a discourse analysis of the early debates surrounding Neanderthal with an aim toward shedding light upon the ways in which Neanderthal propagated or concealed certain anxieties, particularly as they relate to biological kinships. This is then applied to an exploration of how the debates surrounding Neanderthal were in turn pivotal to the emergence of today’s prevailing paleoanthropological models of human origins. The profound ontological and epistemological tensions embodied by these models, I argue, wholly reflect the inherently ambiguous nature of the missing link as both concept and metaphor. The result is that missing links, because of the discursive field in which they function, are a powerful source of normativity and stratification.