Tag Archives: paleoanthropology

Pathological Science and mtEve

While reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, the author discussed the concept of ‘pathological science.’  ‘Pathological science’ results from scientists who cling to their ideas even when there is plenty of evidence against them.  For instance, Kean discusses the idea that megalodon sharks might still be circling the deep oceans even though there is no evidence for this, while there is evidence that those sharks died out at least one million years ago.  Yet, some scientists are pathologically attached to the idea that the megalodon lives.

I realized that ‘pathological science’ was the perfect term to describe what happened over the past 25 years with the rise of mtEve and the demotion of Neanderthals to non-H. sapiens status.  There was/is little evidence to support mtEve as a concept, but it so excited many otherwise respectable scientists, not to mention the media and the general public, that mtEve swept away anyone who disagreed that she was the mother of all modern humans.  This was a pathological science creation event par excellence. If this non-existent entity had been named mtMable, the rush to embrace her probably would not have occurred.

The name ‘mtEve’ fed into the creation stories many scientists were raised with; even if they no longer believed the stories, the concepts still manifested at an unconscious level. For the media and the general public who did/do still believe these creation stories, mtEve provided immediate validation that humans were special.  Humans were not just another animal; not just another result of evolution.  Pathological scientists also want ‘modern’ humans to be viewed as special, distinct, better than any preceding humans who were ‘archaic’ and different, more like an animal, less intelligent.  Given the location of mtEve (Africa) and the poorly-derived date of mtEve (it varies a great deal, but many use 250,000 years ago), Neanderthals were relegated to the ‘archaic’ heap.

I have spent the past two-plus decades fighting against this pathological science, only to see it become accepted dogma even in textbooks. This is disturbing. If scientists can be so swept away by their emotions that they totally ignore evidence, is it any wonder that respect for science is softening?  Fortunately, science is eventually self-correcting. It’s taken too long, but it is finally becoming clear that Neanderthals were no less ‘modern’ than so-called ‘moderns.’  There was no creation event 250,000 years ago in which mtEve popped into being and begat the first modern human.  For 25 years, I asked for evidence of how speciation occurred between ‘archaics’ and ‘moderns’ and was shown no evidence.  I was not surprised since there was and is no such evidence: mtEve was a creation of pathological science.

Robert G. Bednarik’s chapter, “The Expulsion of Eve” in his book The Human Condition, is a precise and detailed refutation of mtEve and the concept of ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’ humans. He slices and dices the ‘evidence’ (morphological, genetic, lithic, and cultural) until there is nothing left but hot air.  While Bednarik does not use the term ‘pathological science’, it is clear from his analysis that mtEve proponents were and are acting pathologically.  “…the Eve supporters have led the study of hominin origins on a monumental wild-goose chase.”


Material Wealth Equals Intelligence?: Part 2

In Part 1, I concluded that the relationship of >power = >possessions =>intelligence = >human leads many of those with numerous possessions and great power to view those with neither as somehow sub-human.  This attitude applies not only to the present, but to the past.

Archaeology is the study of the material culture (possessions) of past peoples. While many archaeologists are primarily interested in finding out how the average person lived, others are more concerned with the elites.  This is to be expected when one considers what the general public prefers to view in museums. Commonly, one does not wait long hours in line to see how the workers who built Tut’s tomb lived, but rather the material possessions of Tut.  One does not brave crowds to look at the few possessions of the sailors who crewed a ship that sank, but rather the cargo of that ship.  How many tourists travel to France to tour 17th century slums rather than Versailles?  In our view of the past, the wealthy are more real, more intelligent, more human because they are the ones with the most material culture to be found by archaeologists.

If material possessions carry great weight in our view of the past, then it is no surprise that the further back in time we go and the less material culture we find, the less intelligent we think our ancestors were.  Of course, this ignores the fact that much of material culture decays. Therefore, the further back into the past we delve, the less material culture there is that would be, could be, preserved. Somehow, we manage to ignore this and assume that what we find is all our ancestors had. When we travel back to the ‘dawn’ of material culture around 2.5 mya we find only stone tools and a few fossilized bones with signs of cut marks.  We think: ‘They had so little, they clearly weren’t very intelligent.  They probably couldn’t even speak.’ This ignores the fact that by this point our ancestors had been bipeds for over 2 million years and that bipedality is related to language ability.

This also ignores the fact that much of culture is immaterial, intangible.  As I said in Part 1, the focus on possessions has led many to assume and treat modern foragers who necessarily, due to their lifestyle, have few possessions, as sub-human, even as animals that can be killed with impunity.  If modern foragers are viewed this way, how much less human must our ancient ancestors be?

It seems to be a given by the general public, and even by many anthropologists, that ‘modern’ humans came into existence around 100,000 years ago.  That is, there was a speciation event.  However, I have yet to read anywhere what caused this speciation event.  There is no real evidence.  It makes no sense.  And yet, it is believed to be true. The date of 100,000 ya appears to have been chosen because the site of Klasies River Mouth in South Africa dates to about 100,000 ya and has a few skeletal pieces that some paleoanthropologists believe look ‘modern.’  By ‘modern’ they mean more gracile. Also, the Klasies people ate a lot of shellfish, which is considered a more modern behavior. However, the earliest bipeds have been found in what would have been a marshy environment, so it is probable that our ancestors have been eating shellfish for millions of years. The earliest non-lithic material culture is also found in sub-Saharan Africa and dates to about 80,000 ya.  This is viewed as more evidence of modernity. Add in other gracile skeletal material of about the right age and voila! Modern humans popped into existence. The idea that no one used bones and shells for tools and decoration until around 80,000 ya is ludicrous.  These materials will decay rapidly in most environments, so it is not surprising that they do not show up until later in human ancestry.

Now, why is the date of 100,000 years so important?  Because if ‘modern’ humans did pop into existence around that date, that would mean that Neanderthals were not human. For some reason, it is critically important to a lot of people, many anthropologists included, that Neanderthals not be ‘us.’  They would rather make the unsupported claim that a speciation event occurred and that Neanderthals are a different species than to accept the more logical deduction that there was no speciation event and that Neanderthals are simply a population of modern humans.

Years of effort and reams of paper have been devoted to ‘proving’ that Neanderthals were subhuman.  One of the methods used was to point out that Neanderthals had a very limited material culture compared to so-called ‘modern’ humans.  But, surprise!  More and more research is showing that Neanderthal material culture and ‘modern’ material culture were very similar.  In fact, it may turn out that Neanderthals were the first European artists, not the ‘moderns.’

Will we finally admit that Neanderthals were fully as modern as any other group alive at that time?  Does it take clear evidence of plenty of material culture to admit a population to full humanity?  Or could we at last realize that material culture is only one limited aspect of being human, and one that is easily lost to time. Having more possessions does not make a person more intelligent or more human.




Is racism OK if the group is extinct?

Along with some of my physical anthropology students, I attended a public lecture on the Neanderthal genome given by one of the men who worked on the genome.  An issue my students and I hoped the speaker would clarify is whether he considered Neanderthals a different species even though he admitted that EurAsians had some Neanderthal genes.

When one of my students asked about this, he stated that it was obvious they were a different species.  “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”  However, it was not obvious.  His graph compared the DNA (presumably nDNA rather than mtDNA, but he was unclear on this) of three Neanderthal females from the site of Vindija, Croatia, to the DNA of multiple individuals from different 21st century populations.  There was a bit of a deviation of the Neanderthal lines from the non-Neanderthal lines, but the trend of the lines was the same. To further support his contention of different species, he said it was obvious from a comparison of the skulls of the two “species”.  He then showed a comparison of a La Ferrassie Neanderthal with a current European skull. This same student said that differences were not obvious when comparing skulls from around the same time period that belonged to Neanderthal and so-called moderns.  The speaker then began a jargon-dense explanation of a skull analysis technique that he felt proved his point.  I let this slide because of the type of audience present, but I did e-mail the speaker after the talk.  In that e-mail I noted that I’d been at conferences where one speaker using the technique he described ‘proved’ Neanderthals were a different species based on skull morphology, while the very next speaker, using the same technique and skulls, came to the conclusion that Neanderthals fell within modern human variation, and so were the same species as we are.  He didn’t respond to this.

Back at the talk, another of my students asked the speaker how he could be so sure of his conclusions when he had only three samples and they all came from the same site; and, further, had not been compared to ‘moderns’ from the same time period.  The speaker’s answer to this was not really clear, but seemed to be “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”   I also asked him about this in my e-mail. He responded that he saw no point in comparing to “moderns.”  His comment: “We know that most of the DNA variation present within currently living humans dates back, on average, hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, there is little to be learned from sequencing early modern humans. Nevertheless, this is being done anyway. In fact, there was a paper in Science last week
(http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/466.full) with DNA from several Neolithic humans. Unsurprisingly, they differ little from currently living humans.”

I replied that Neolithic humans lived thousands of years after Neanderthals (the time period in the article was about 5000 years ago) and were in the midst of one of the most severe selection events to affect humans due to the rise of contagious infectious disease among early agricultural populations, along with impaired nutrition due to restricted diets.  As we are still living in this changed environment of infectious disease and poor nutrition, it is not too surprising that “they differ little from currently living humans.”  Nor would it be surprising if they differed somewhat from Neanderthals, although that analysis was not done. However, the article does not really appear to support his point anyway.  Four individuals were tested: three northern European hunter/gatherers and one farmer who appeared related to southern Europeans. What this article points to is that, as with the Neanderthal genome, a tiny sample is used to make huge generalizations.

To enforce his point during his talk that Neanderthals were a different species, he implied that they were stupider than ‘moderns’ by comparing Mousterian tools of 150,000 years ago to cave art of 30,000 years ago.  In my e-mail, I reminded him of that fact that Neanderthals of 40,000 years ago were using Upper Paleolithic tools, and that the 10,000 years from 40,000 to 30,000 years ago is an extremely long time.  My comments were:

“Think how much our culture has changed in the past 10,000 years.  But even if you do not like that comparison, what about the Tasmanians who were isolated from the rest of the world for 10,000 years until found by Captain Tasman in the 1600s?  When found, their material culture was hardly more complex than is true of chimpanzees.  This, of course, says nothing about the complexity of the intangibles of their culture.  Were Tasmanians less than human because they had so little?  Certainly, many Europeans thought so since they willfully destroyed them.  But I think you will agree that racism is not a good way to judge whether a group is truly human or not.”

His response to this: “I think it’s OK to be racist against Neandertals. It’s the least of the offenses we are guilty of committing against them. In seriousness, though, they are extinct.”

My response to him: “So you think it is OK to have racist views about extinct populations?  Since the Tasmanians and Taino (among many other groups) are effectively extinct in the same sense that Neanderthals are extinct (i.e. their genes live on in current individuals, but their culture is gone), were (are) racist attitudes towards them OK?  Isn’t it racism that was key to their extinction?”  He did not respond to that e-mail.  Perhaps he realized he had gone too far.  Perhaps he was annoyed that I refused to accept his “obvious” evidence.



Plundering the Deep

As I discussed previously, we humans are who we are in part because of a fish/shellfish diet that allowed for advanced brain development.  Without these items in our diet, I think it is doubtful that our hominin ancestors would have advanced much beyond the bonobos/chimps.  What will happen if we no longer have access to these food sources?

Given that we live on an ocean planet, this fear would seem pointless.  The world ocean is vast and immensely deep.  And yet, we are destroying its productivity at frightening speed.  The 1990s saw the total collapse of what had been one of the most productive fisheries on Earth: the cod fishery of the Georges Bank off Newfoundland.  Almost overnight, families who’d produced fishermen for generations were suddenly out of work.  A great book on the story of cod is Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.  Cod were once so large and numerous that they could be scooped from the sea with buckets.  Now they are so scarce and tiny, that fishing for them is under extremely strict regulation and management.  Without such management, cod have little chance of rebuilding a healthy, sustainable population.

But it isn’t just cod.  Factory ships are scraping the seabed clean of everything, whether they want it or not.  Unwanted sea life is dumped overboard becoming sea death.  These ships are devastating the seas and the livelihoods of traditional fishing groups, and destroying the life of the seabed.  They are also threatening the survival of seabirds who rely on these same sea food sources the factory ships are harvesting or destroying with abandon.  More information on the problems associated with overfishing can be found at Oceana.org.

Tuna and salmon are especially problematic fish whether wild caught or farmed.  Farmed salmon develop lice that spread to wild salmon.  Catching wild tuna and salmon with factory ships has all the problems mentioned above.  The best thing to do is to quit eating tuna and salmon.   Switch to sardines.   Get all the brain and health benefits of eating fatty fish without the problems associated with tuna and salmon.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed Seafood Watch which gives guidance on the best fish and seafood to eat and which should be avoided in order to preserve ocean productivity.

We still have so much to discover about the world ocean.  How can we continue to support activities that will destroy it before we are truly able to explore the Deep in all its glory?





Focusing on Differences Can Lead to Mistakes

Anyone who has studied the concept of Natural Selection knows that one of the requirements is a variable population.  Adaptation to a changing environment cannot occur if every individual in the population is very similar.  So, variability is a given.  However, when scientists look at fossil material, many of them seem to forget this important tenet.  Any differences they find in fossil material are given, minimally, a new species name, and frequently, a new genus name.  That fossil then becomes the type specimen of a new species, and any other material found in that region that looks different will be given yet another new species name instead of considering whether, in fact, it is just a new individual in a variable population.

Or, in the case of dinosaurs, a juvenile rather than a small adult of a different species.  Jack Horner’s TED talk on this topic is both amusing and enlightening. Paleontologists who focused on differences created many dinosaur species which had no juvenile forms.  Horner felt that this was not only odd, but clearly impossible.  By carefully analyzing the skeletons, he discovered that many species of dinosaurs were just the juvenile forms of other species.  The focus on differences was a mistake.

Focusing on differences and assigning new species names to every new find is also common among many paleoanthropologists who study primate/human origins.  Natural selection and population variability are thrown out the door.  If we treated present human diversity the way we treat past diversity, every different population of humans would be a different species.  We know this is not the case since all humans can potentially mate with each other.

There are two major groups of paleoanthropologists: those who operate from a population viewpoint and those who operate from an essentialist viewpoint.  For instance, populationists view Neanderthals as a population of modern humans, while essentialists view Neanderthals as a different species.  Why does this matter to the average person?  It matters because the underlying viewpoints affect how we view each other.  Essentialists view anyone who differs from their idea of the ‘norm’ (generally someone like themselves, i.e. of European ancestry) as deeply biologically distinct from themselves.  In effect, that there are distinct races of humans that are somehow quite different from each other.  Populationists, on the other hand, expect there to be many people who differ from themselves because that is what a successful, adaptable population requires.  They do not view these differences as creating deep distinctions.  That is, they do not view humans as being divided into distinct racial groups.  Rather, humans form varying, over-lapping, constantly mixing populations.  They also hold that this has been true since the beginning of the Homo genus.

Genes flow, drift, mutate, select, and adapt as the individuals carrying those genes meet, mate, and adapt.  For the past two million years our ancestors have been meeting,mating, mixing, and adapting to differing environments as one unified, but variable species.  Just as the lack of juvenile dinosaurs was an artifact of paleontologists who operated from an essentialist mindset, the many “species” of human ancestors are an artifact of paleoanthropologists who operate from an essentialist mindset.  The juvenile dinos were there all along.  The necessary variability of the human population that allows it to adapt to the vast array of environments on our planet has been there all along, too.  The essentialist’s mistake has been to divide that variability into different species or races.