Should We Divide Homo Sapiens into Subspecies?

Are our differences as profound as our similarities?

Posted Dec 04, 2011

If you are a biologist, botanist, zoologist, taxonomist or speciation expert, you see it as part of your job to create categories of subspecies when you see what you consider to be significant or telling differences among the members of a given species. You consider, for example, the Eastern Purple Finch and the Pacific Purple Finch different enough, by virtue of their overall color and pattern differences, to warrant their placement in separate subspecies. This looking and naming goes on all the time; except when it comes to our species.

The speciation experts remain silent regarding the differences that we see among people. Of course, the subject is a minefield; that explains their hands-off policy. But when an edifice like psychology is built on the notion that we are built essentially alike (that in the Freudian view everyone has a superego, that in the Jungian view everyone has a universal unconscious, and so on) and you want to rethink psychology, then a fundamental question is, might not our species be made up of various subspecies?

Certainly we are a single species, given the definition of species. In chatting via email with one of the world's top speciation experts he provided me with the standard definition of species. He explained: "Species are widely recognized as groups whose members are reproductively compatible when they coexist in the same place in nature.  Groups that coexist without the possibility of forming viable and fertile hybrids are different species.  Homo sapiens is clearly one species by this criterion."

Fair enough. We are one species. But do we not see differences among us that are at least as great as the differences between an Eastern Purple Finch and a Pacific Purple Finch? I certainly don't mean differences in skin color or height; I mean differences in outlook. I look out at the human world and I see differences so profound that they seem to cry out for some sub-speciation talk. Don't you see the same great differences and the same great divides?

What if there is a sharp dividing line between people who are willing to think and those who steadfastly refuse? Aren't those differences more profound than whether one finch's song differs slightly from another finch's song? What if there is a dividing line between people who can tolerate introspection and those who can't? Maybe we are most properly homo sapiens introspectus and homo sapiens non-introspectus. What do you think?

And what about red-staters and blue-staters? What about homo sapiens conservatus and homo sapiens liberalus?

Everyone recognizes that if you put two very smart people in the same room and one believes in astrology and the other doesn't, it is imperative that they stay off that subject or else they will come, if not to blows, then certainly to that horrible dead silence that, to my ear, just possibly counts as proof of a subspecies difference. It is possible for these two people to get along, they can mate, they can even respect and admire one another, but are they really looking out at the world or existing in the world in the same ways? I think it is an open question.

When we talk about finding our soul mate or someone who completes us, maybe we are really talking about finding someone from our subspecies. Maybe there is an attraction between two people different from physical attraction that brings them together, even though they are completely unlike in a million ways, by virtue of the fact that they are alike in this profound way, as members of the same subspecies. Who knows? But aren't these questions worth considering?

What would be the purpose of pondering such sub-speciation questions? Not the obvious one of finding new ways to relegate one group or another to second-class status. Rather, it would be to help us think through if all human beings need and want the same things. Suddenly we would have a new sort of conversation available to us: not a debate about how we can all get along but a debate about how (or if) subspecies can actually communicate with one another.

Right now the presumption is that the absence of a common language is the only barrier between two members of our species communicating. But what if the barriers are more profound than that? Wouldn't that be something useful to know?

It is entirely possible that there are other, better ways to get at what may prove to be major differences among human beings than by contemplating creating subspecies. But whether we consider the idea of subspecies or some other way of asking the question, it is imperative that we think through the extent to which fundamental differences exist among people. If these fundamental differences exist, psychology should take them into account. Subspecies may not be the answer; but there remains an important question.

In noimetic psychology we do not accept at face value any of the old saws about what is normal, what is human, or what is a given.

I invite the speciation experts among us, and everyone else too, to think about whether there is a sensible discussion to be had about dividing homo sapiens into subspecies. If it turns out that the question is interesting but the answer unknowable, then we would add human sub-speciation to the long list of things about which we do not know and perhaps can't know.

It is progress to know what you don't know and can't know; and rampant hypocrisy built deep into current psychology to act as if fundamental questions have been answered or even asked.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, and widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach. His latest book is Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning (New World Library, February, 2012). He is the founder of noimetic psychology, the new psychology of meaning. Please visit Dr. Maisel at or contact him at You can learn more about noimetic psychology at