A subspecies is a taxonomic category applied to geographically, genetically, or physically distinct interfertile populations (those capable of interbreeding). Evolutionary theory dictates that species formation is a process, and it therefore may be analyzed or interrupted at various stages of completion. Charles Darwin summarized his argument in The Origin of Species with the conclusion that “species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species.”
A population is considered a full taxonomic species if it has evolved a tendency to see its own members as a pool of potential mates (or competitors for mates), in contrast to members of other animal groups. Local distinct populations, as partially formed taxonomic entities, have been variously called breeds, varieties, or races. Defining subspecies in terms of lacking the attributes of a species creates a flexible scale without any clear criteria, and consequently makes the concept difficult to apply rigorously.
Nevertheless, there are some primate species that live in complex structured populations that are amenable to the designation of “taxonomic subspecies.” The best known is the savanna baboon (Papio hamadryas ssp.), whose formal varieties are the yellow baboon (P. h. cynocephalus), chacma baboon (P. h. ursinus), olive baboon (P. h. anubis), guinea baboon (P. h. papio) and hamadryas baboon (P. h. hamadryas). Each is distinctive in appearance, and hybridizes with other subspecies along a border wherever they come in contact. Some primate species have subspecies with distinctions of the chromosomes, or karyotypes, including Eulemur fulvus (brown lemur), Hylobates lar (gibbon), and Aotus trivirgatus (night monkey).
Biological variation within the human species is patterned differently and is much smaller in its extent than can be identified in the generally acknowledged subspecies of great apes. Nevertheless, the common cultural process of naturalizing difference (i.e., rationalizing differences in social status and power by recourse to differences in biology) has often led physical anthropologists to attempt to identify subspecies among living humans.
One argument for the existence of human subspecies might be if interracial offspring were rare, distinctive, less viable, or less fertile than intraracial offspring. Indeed, the viability of interracial unions was considered to be an open question in human biology in the early decades of the twentieth century. Two infamous works of this period that suggested that race–crossing was biologically harmful were Eugen Fischer’s study on a South African “coloured” community (1912), and “Race Crossing in Jamaica” by Charles Davenport and Morris Steggerda (1929). The latter work, in particular, was widely regarded as ineptly executed and argued, even by other like–minded eugenicists.
Of somewhat longer–lasting value was Harry Shapiro’s careful study of the descendants of the English crew of the H.M.S. Bounty and their Tahitian wives on Pitcairn Island. Shapiro studied the biological and cultural syncretism and concluded that there were no harmful effects of race–crossing. After World War II, this came to be taken as axiomatic in physical anthropology, and it has since become recognized that there is a single extant subspecies of Homo sapiens. The modern disagreement is over whether Neandertals should be considered a different (though extinct) subspecies or a different species.
SEE ALSO Human Biological Variation
Darwin, Charles. 1909. The Origins of Species. New York: P.F. Collier & Son Company.
Marks, Jonathan. 1997. “Systematics in Anthropology: Where Science Meets the Humanities (and Consistently Loses).” In Conceptual Issues in Human Origins Research, edited by G. A. Clark and C. Willermet, 45–59. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Provine, William B. 1973. “Geneticists and the Biology of Race Crossing.” Science 182: 790–796.
Simpson, George G. 1961. Principles of Animal Taxonomy. New York: Columbia University Press.
a. geographically distinct
b. populations, not merely morphs
c. different to some degree from other geographic populations.
Subspecies ★½ 1990 (R)
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