Actor Josh Gad is calling for change after revealing on Twitter that a friend’s child was a victim of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. Gad said that he was “sad” and “angry” over the news in an emotional tweet to fans on Feb. 14.
Homo bodoensis is the new name given to a human ancestor who lived half a million years ago in Africa. The species is named after a skull from Bodo D'ar, Ethiopia.
The finding was made nearly 50 years ago, and it has been described by several different names over the decades. The new name is the result of a new reassessment of the fossil record. Species names are frequently revised thanks to the complicated nature of biological diversity and the rules constructed to categorize it. But when it comes to human ancestors, species names can carry emotional and political baggage, which the rules don't easily account for.
Around 100,000 years ago, towards the later part of the Pleistocene epoch, modern humans shared the planet with several other human species. These included our closest relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. We all evolved from a distant relative called Homo erectus, and our lineages diverged about 800,000 years ago, in the Early Pleistocene.
The intervening time period — known as the Middle Pleistocene or Chibanian Age — is particularly important because this is when our species, Homo sapiens, emerged.
A model of human evolution with Homo bodoensis positioned ancestrally to modern humans (Homo sapiens)
(M. Roksandic, P. Radović, X.J. Wu and C. J. Bae), Author provided
Unfortunately, the human fossil record from the Chibanian is sparse and poorly understood — a problem paleoanthropologists refer to as “the muddle in the Middle."
There are several human species named from this period, but since the 1980s, paleoanthropologists have tended to lump most of these fossils under one name, Homo heidelbergensis. This practice simplified things, but it obscured our understanding of variability in these humans. Many paleoanthropologists agree that it is high time to tackle this head-on.
The species problem
Species don't clearly exist in nature: they're a scientific construct. This might sound surprising — after all, dogs are dogs and cats are cats. But the closer we look into the details, the more problems emerge.
For example, how do we divide species over evolutionary time? Evolution can occur gradually by imperceptible increments, seamlessly transitioning from one “species" to the next. The boundaries between these “chronospecies" are inherently arbitrary so taxonomists — biologists whose work involves identifying and categorizing organisms — create rules to help divide living things into species when no natural boundaries exist.
These rules are called species concepts. The most popular of these, called the biological species concept, says that species are groups of organisms that can produce fertile offspring with one another, but not with other organisms. Dogs can make puppies with other dogs, but not with cats, so they are different species.
The objective criteria of this concept have made it very appealing to analytically minded scientists. But the biological species concept isn't perfect. Notably, it only works for sexually reproducing organisms, which excludes the majority of species, including bacteria and viruses. It's also not very helpful in paleontology, since we can't really crossbreed extinct animals to see if they were interfertile.
Over 30 other species concepts have been proposed, which try to account for these shortcomings. But if species are not natural categories, it probably isn't possible to create a single concept that applies to every possible scenario. Species concepts are scientific tools, and the best one depends on the questions being asked.
Naming species is a whole other issue. It can often be difficult to decide if a new fossil represents a new species or just individual variation within an existing species. The fossil record is constantly being reassessed: different species are combined into one or one species gets divided into two. This can lead to a lot of confusion over species names — different scientists may use the same names to describe different species and vice versa.
The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature was established to help mitigate this confusion. The ICZN publishes guidelines for animal names with the goal of promoting clarity and stability in scientific communication. One of the most important ICZN rules states that if there is a conflict between the validity of two or more names, the oldest established name has priority.
This is why, as children, many of us were disappointed to learn that Brontosaurus never existed: several fossils were reassessed and combined into one species, and Apatosaurus had priority. But the same approach resurrected Brontosaurus after another reassessment in 2015.
This brings us back to Homo bodoensis. Under the biological species concept, the new name is moot since we know that modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans all interbred. The claim that all these groups belong to a single species, Homo sapiens, is valid … from a certain point of view.
But a more pragmatic approach that defines species based on distinctive physical traits can serve us better here. From this perspective, all of the Chibanian fossils which share Neanderthal traits get reassigned to Homo neanderthalensis. This includes the fossil for which Homo heidelbergensis was named — according to the ICZN, that name becomes obsolete.
The remaining Chibanian humans in Africa and parts of Eurasia, which are ancestral to modern humans, but lack specific modern human traits, become a new species.
What should this species be named? The ICZN is unambiguous about this: the name Homo rhodesiensis has priority, since it was given to a human skull found in Zambia in 1921, although the species was poorly described at the time.
However, the name refers to the former British colony of Rhodesia and its namesake, imperialist mining magnate Cecil Rhodes. This name should be unpalatable to a scientific community interested in decolonization, but the ICZN has made it clear that it will not make provisions to allow name changes based on perceived offensiveness.
But the ICZN only maintains authority by convention — we respect it because we agree that it works. Researchers and publishers can make their own decisions about which names to accept and which to reject. Homo bodoensis represents a new option in this regard.
In the end, it's important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Species names are meant to help us understand nature, and when they start to get in the way of that goal it's time to rethink them. Homo bodoensis may be just a name, but the names we use influence the way we perceive the world. And rules or no rules, the best names are the ones that scientists use clearly and consistently.
Joshua Allan Lindal, PhD student, Anthropology, University of Manitoba; Mirjana Roksandic, Professor, Anthropology, University of Winnipeg, and Predrag Radović, Research Assistant, Archaeology, University of Belgrade
In recent months the government has proposed cracking down on online anonymity. The idea is that attaching online posts to a person's real name will reduce abuse and increase accountability.
Online bullying and misinformation are growing problems, and government action to address them is overdue.
However, limiting anonymity alone won't make social media less toxic. It will only work combined with broader reforms to platform design and business models, which drive polarisation, negativity, abuse and misinformation.
Reforms must also protect free speech and account for power imbalances between citizens and the state. The mooted changes come alongside suggestions of public funding for defamation actions by parliamentarians. Cynics might view these two suggestions together as an effort to silence reproach.
Potential anonymity reforms
In April this year, a parliamentary committee recommended requiring users to provide ID documents before opening social media accounts.
In September, the High Court held that media outlets can be liable for defamatory third-party comments on their social media posts.
Government comments indicate intent to further regulate online anonymity. Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently described social media as a “coward's palace", pressuring platforms to expose the identities of anonymous trolls.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also criticised platforms professing to be “vessels of free speech" while enabling users to conceal their identities.
Second, reforms must be scrutinised to ensure they serve public rather than political interests. While the state stifling dissent may seem less of a concern in a democracy like Australia than in authoritarian regimes, it is important to ensure new measures won't unreasonably compromise free speech and privacy.
In combination with Australia's defamation laws, removing online anonymity may further expose users and chill democratic debate.
Complex drivers of toxicity
Anonymity is only one factor contributing to online toxicity.
Most current platforms are designed to maximise user engagement. Platform algorithms, in combination with human behaviour, mean negative and angry content outcompetes positive content. This promotes negativity, polarisation and extremism.
Research further shows sharing of political misinformation is driven by partisanship more than ignorance. Online polarisation therefore propels misinformation in aid of the culture wars.
For example, the COVID-19 hashtag “#Danliedpeopledied" was driven by hyper-partisan and fake accounts. An anti-vax “infodemic" now spreads online, propelled by tribal influencers and anti-vaxxer communities.
Online toxicity is exacerbated by social media's addictiveness. Each “like" and comment gives users “a little dopamine hit". Outrage and negativity equal more engagement, which means more dopamine rewarding the behaviour.
Tribalism can encourage group attacks, reinforcing tribal connection. Social media “pile-ons" can be devastating for the target. Such bullying would probably not occur in person. But online, we have fewer physical and visual cues to encourage empathy.
While some (especially anonymous trolls) find courage on social media, others are frightened off. Negative online encounters can create a “spiral of silence", discouraging moderate users from participating. This creates more room for fringe voices emboldened by the echo chamber.
What reforms are needed?
Anonymity regulation will only help with bullying and misinformation if part of broader reforms tackling other drivers of toxicity, like engagement-driven polarisation. This means addressing platform business models and design – a complex task.
Reforms must also be fair.
Second, if anonymity is regulated, it is even more crucial to ensure citizens are not gratuitously sued or threatened by politicians for voicing opinions online.
Protection of reputation and accuracy are important, but we must safeguard fair debate. Politicians enjoy free speech bolstered by parliamentary privilege and media platforms.
Any anonymity regulation must be balanced by free speech protections, including more robust defamation defences accounting for power imbalances between citizens and the state.
Given their positions of power, politicians should accept a higher threshold of criticism.
This article was co-authored with Andrew Ball, who is an Associate Director at IT consultancy firm Accenture.
When Hulu's series The Handmaid's Tale premiered in 2017, reviewers noted its gripping drama and dystopian exploration of rape culture and misogyny at a time when both were hallmarks of Donald Trump's presidency.
The series is adapted from Canadian author Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel. It has won numerous awards and was recently renewed for a fifth season. But some commentators, including writer Ellen E. Jones, have criticized the series for its use of colour-blind casting that created inclusivity but otherwise ignored race in storylines. Others, including Noah Berlatsky, have analyzed how both the series and novel erase Black people's history.
The show positions Canada as a morally superior nation that has rejected the dystopian society's repressive and exclusionist thinking. This is especially apparent in Season 4's focus on characters' escape to Canada, a theme that references older abolitionist narratives. In so doing, the show obscures Canada's history of slavery, colonialism and racism.
Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' trailer.
Atwood's dystopian world
Both the novel and show draw on U.S. history to imagine a dystopian world facing an unexplained fertility crisis. Gilead, a theocratic nation led by religious fundamentalists, has overthrown the U.S. government. Atwood's female narrator is an educated white woman forced to become a “handmaid." Each month, a commander rapes her in a religious fertility ceremony. Babies born to handmaids are raised by commanders and their wives. The sole purpose of the handmaids is to rebuild Gilead's population.
Writer Priya Nair explains that Atwood's novel draws on the historical oppression of Black enslaved women and applies it to fictional white women. For example, handmaids who are disobedient are beaten or hanged.
Despite clear parallels to slavery, Atwood only obliquely references slavery when the narrator explains that the “Children of Ham" have been relocated to the Dakotas. “Children of Ham" is a Biblical phrase that was used historically to justify enslaving Africans.
Nair also notes that the novel focuses on white women's oppression, while seemingly ignoring “the historical realities of an American dystopia founded on anti-Black violence."
Actors are seen at the filming of Handmaid's Tale at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., February 2019.
(Victoria Pickering/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND
While the novel relies on historical experiences of Black Americans, its characters are predominantly white, a feature of Gilead that Atwood maintains in the 2019 follow-up The Testaments. As reviewer Danielle Kurtzleben notes, in this second instalment: “Readers hoping to hear more about race in Gilead will be sorely disappointed."
Atwood intentionally framed Gilead as both misogynist and racist: the theocracy is interested only in reproducing white babies and, therefore, only enslaving white women.
Colour-blind casting in Hulu's adaptation
In adapting the novel, Hulu relied on a diverse cast of actors. White actor Elisabeth Moss plays June and Black British actor O-T Fagbenle portrays her husband Luke. Black actor Samira Wiley was cast as June's best friend Moira. Actors of colour portray characters of all class positions in Gilead's society.
Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, arrives for 'The Handmaid's Tale' FYC Phase 2 Event in August 2017 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Executive producer Bruce Miller acknowledges that he cast actors of colour in many roles to avoid creating an all-white world, which would result in a racist TV show. The show doesn't address race, he explained, because: “It just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything."
The show then relies on colour-blind casting and colour-blind storytelling.
In Hulu's series, handmaids — including Moira — escape from Gilead to Canada where they find protection and safety, and are able to rebuild their lives. The series draws on older literary traditions that have been integral to maintaining the myth of Canada as free from racism.
Draws on abolitionist narratives
In the 1840s and 1850s, U.S. abolitionist authors intentionally represented Canada as a racial haven. By casting Canada as morally superior, abolitionists imagined what the U.S. might look like if slavery were abolished.
Abolitionist authors like Black songwriter and poet Joshua McCarter Simpson and white novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe celebrated Canada as a place that resisted racial violence and provided legal protection for Black refugees fleeing U.S. slavery.
Some abolitionists sought to capture the nuanced accounts of Black refugees in Canada. Abolitionist editor Benjamin Drew published oral testimonies of Black refugees, including their experiences of racism in Ontario.
Others, like Stowe, minimized the difficulties of the lived experiences of Black Canadians, focusing on stories of Black success in Canada. These celebratory narratives dominated representations of Canada in U.S. literature.
Canada as utopia?
Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' escape-to-Canada stories draw on historical narratives by abolitionists.
(Victoria Pickering/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND
Literary scholar Nancy Kang argues these abolitionist stories constructed an “allegory of Canadian freedom reigning triumphant over American bondage."
Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale escape-to-Canada stories draw on these historical narratives. The handmaid Emily, portrayed by white actor Alexis Bledel, escapes Gilead dramatically, entering Canada by wading across a rushing river, nearly losing June's daughter. Once across, she weeps over the baby, recreating an iconic scene from Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, when the enslaved Eliza escapes slave-catchers by fleeing across a river with her child.
Later in the episode, an Asian Canadian doctor welcomes Emily to Canada, saying: “You're safe here."
On some level, Hulu's use of colour-blind casting, as Berlatsky notes, “addresses the narrative's debt to African-American history." But viewers are still watching an adaptation of a novel whose emotional horror is based on imagining violent, racist aspects of U.S. history as if the atrocities happened to white people.
Myths of Canada
The series avoids Canada's history of anti-Black racism, slavery and state violence against Black bodies, as detailed by gender studies and Black/African diaspora scholar Robyn Maynard in Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. It also overlooks Canada's colonial violence toward Indigenous peoples. These forms of violence are intertwined with seeking control over women's reproductive rights and sexual freedom.
Hulu's series does explore some of the consequences of patriarchal oppression. But the show's positioning of Canada as a racial haven obscures its history and the contemporary reality of racism experienced by BIPOC women and communities in Canada.
Miranda Green-Barteet, Associate Professor, Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies, Western University and Alyssa MacLean, Assistant Professor, Department of English and Writing Studies, Western University