Mailbag: The hominins of our discontent

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Re: “Taxonomy on tap”, where I reminded readers about my lack of a principled reason to continue using “hominid” instead of “hominin”.

The only principle have to stand by is communication. Anybody who teaches and talks with their students should know how stupid this change is. Reading Begun or Harrison can't be compared to Smith, or [redacted]. Reading Early Begun can't be compared with late Begun. Students (and others) have no idea which meaning of hominid is in use in any particular publication, and authors rarely address this. All this confusion to conform to current taxonomy: but does it? Probably not, as Chimps and Humans are sooner or later going to be merged under the genus Homo. Then what? A third seismic change in what it means to be human - or a terminal confusion in a profession already widely recognized to be confused.

Good reason to adopt a clade-based taxonomy. On the other hand, that would force us to split up Australopithecus.

I will add on the topic of the chimp-human “Homo” idea that this is a good reason for a big congress on the definition of Homo. The reason for recognizing us at the genus level has to be defended by the events that led to our evolution, because it can’t be defended on the basis of phylogeny.

And from another reader:

Hi John I'm the kind of person who talks about human paleontology with my friends, although none of us are specialists. When the news came out about the sequencing of Neanderthals and Denisovians, I started saying hominins. My wife asked me why and I couldn't give an answer.

That’s an excellent perspective, thanks for sharing!

I’ve been having a conversation with a long-time colleague who doesn’t like the change. Many don’t. I personally don’t invest that much in the words, but it’s clearly an interesting case of contested change in terminology.