Sciencepolice report – Brian Cox – Human Universe 1: Apeman – Spaceman

[Update: a very early draft of this went out prematurely!]

Brian Cox… on human evolution?! Oh ghod… But I thought I’d better watch it anyway. To be fair, the series was on how we got to explore our place in the universe or something, but I felt sure we’d get some massive bloomers to enjoy along the way.

Programme one strung together a sequence of visits to interesting places. Early on, the human evolution side wasted trips to a vital venue – Danakil depression/Afar in the Ethiopian part of the Great Rift Valley – to illustrate concepts whose timings were out by a factor of ten, and which also failed to tell pieces of story that should have been told long ago by the BBC but still weren’t this time.

If the crucial steps of your evolutionary story are an order of magnitude wrong, will there be enough truth in it to make it worth telling? He showed us an obsidian spear point from the Danakil in Ethiopia: that was the point, he said, at which we first started making things which had only existed in our imagination. (This idea might well have come from or via “Sapiens: A Brief History Of Mankind” by Yuval Noah Harari on which I recently commented.) Unfortunately it most certainly wasn’t at that point, since his spear tip was only about a quarter of a million years old – one tenth of the age (as I pointed out in my book two years ago – see upper right 🙂 ) – of the first worked stone tools we’re certain of, at 2.6 mill.yrs ago. Semaw et al. (2003) strongly suggest stone tools were a serious business by then, and this was widely accepted by 2012.

But not only was that milestone horribly wrong, but by 250k yrs ago we’d already split from the Neanderthals, yet they were also well able to make nice stone tools (and musical instruments) – and their common ancestor with us was a skilled creator too. Recall that we actually have very cunningly crafted wooden spears from a German bog about 400k yrs old.

And bearing in mind that most vertebrates, as I said recently, are able to work towards a situation where currently non-existent food might be made to appear, the idea of humans recently becoming creative is shown to be a figment of the BBC’s imagination. Chimps and even crows make tools, as the BBC well knows.

The evolution explanation started with Cox on a hillside with Gelada baboons. He is remarkable calm. Does he know some big monkeys have huge canines? It seems so but he hides his concern well, whispering to the camera. He reminds us of the scene with Attenborough and the Gorillas, even using the same voice. This then puts us in mind of Attenborough’s quote that Cox will be his successor. (He won’t – a better candidate is Chris Packham who is able to introduce up-to-date research that will be new to almost everyone, yet weave it simply into a story that all can enjoy – novices and the more up to date.) So is Cox simply doing a pose here or is this scene to be the start of the story told by this episode?

Here’s the problem. These programmes have to tell a story, of just three chunks, or maybe just two or one, but well illustrated and exemplified across the 50 minutes. What does this scene with the Geladas put into our minds? Attenborough? Presumably it’s not trying to be that cheap. Are we supposed to be reminded of the theory that large brains evolved so we could keep track of others in large groups? These Geladas live in groups of up to 500 he tells us, yet we know their brains will be smaller than solitary orangs’, even adjusting for body size. Is this what the film wants us to think about? As it doesn’t mention it, what are they there for? But it does tell us that these monkeys are not actually baboons but the last remnant of a special kind of primate. ??? What kind of special primate? How do they know? Fascinating, but why drop the whole thing there?! …and where does that take the story??

Actually, on watching the programme again, I suppose a reasonable story does eventually appear: each increase in brain size is linked to changes in earth’s orbit, and our knowledge is passed down the generations through writing. OK – let’s not challenge that, and let’s say it does help explain how we got to the stars. We visit Petra, and we’re told how it got prosperous through being on trade routes. Well, ok. We’re taken on board an East African fishing boat (the second fishing boat we visit). The fisherman is called Abdullah. Our minds start thinking: fine – he looks half African and half Arabic. He is translated into subtitles… but why on earth is he speaking French? Rather than think about the overall story, I now scour my mind’s map to try to remember if there are any Francophone countries on the east coast. OK – trying to forget about that, I now try to read the subtitles. He tells us his first wife is the sea. I always hate that. It’s horrible when men tell you “their first wife is…”. I was taken back to a bar in a French channel port towards the end of an InterRail holiday, where a nice English lady came over and started talking to me. A bit alarmed at first, I soon realised she was in the habit of going to the bar just to find someone to talk to in her own language, her French husband having told her his first wife was his guitar.

OK, the fishermen demonstrate skills passed down to them, and we realise this links up with writing; we are presented with a letter found in Petra from 500AD. On our way to pick up a cosmonaut in Kazakhstan (how much did all this cost?!), Prof. Brian takes us through some equations of orbital motion, and makes the valid point that we’ve built up this culture of science through writing. Unfortunately now we are posed with the Genius thing. BC couldn’t have worked out those equations himself, he tells us, even though as he says, we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants (a valid part of this story), but “Newton was a Genius”. That isn’t part of the story, and it’s something we must try to steer clear of. It isn’t a standard term in psychology, and its main use in science is in selling it to the muggles. It’s main harm is when someone comes up with a radical new idea, which is then judged on whether the inventor “is a genius” or not. That and people not trying to think up radical ideas because they feel they’re not a genius. There’s only a certain number of ways to combine simple equations, even if you also have to invent the difference between force, energy, etc. You also need to have faith that such solutions might exist, but since Newton had faith that both angels in heaven and apples on earth were ruled by simple laws, he had the power (one reason not to laugh at the harmlessly religious!) There were also only a certain number of ways to fiddle around with and link together nucleic acids. Don’t put everything down to genius when you could be getting on with segmenting and systematically exploring your possible solution space! (Even if it’s infinite!)

In an earlier version of this post (working the next morning from memory), which was not supposed to go out, I claimed he missed the opportunity to put that obsidian point in the snow, to appear next to the returned spacecraft – a la 2001, with the tumbling bone turning into the space station. But I’m glad say that he did, so credit to him there 🙂 .

But he was also happy to repeat the old lie that the human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe. There are something like a dozen or more animals around the UK with brains not just bigger than ours but incorporating five lobes in their cortex instead of our four, able to reconstruct 3D models of the world using sound and/or vision, and having to go further than us in cortical folding.

And the next time the BBC goes to the Great Rift Valley, perhaps they could refrain from stepping carefully around Ardipithecus ramidus ramidus, and not ignoring it just because it is surprisingly interesting and important for science: our steps towards humanity started much earlier than commonly thought; we split from the chimp line much later; and only the first australopithecine was ancestral to humans but most were ancestral to chimps (or gorillas unlesss you use the name Paranthropus). I’m pretty sure BC has read chapter 2 of my book in the 15% free section on Amazon; a pity he didn’t read chapter 10. When the programme said that Australipithecus from 3 mil years ago was a grim looking chap, really not much more than a chimpanzee who stands upright, that’s actually what the up-to-3mya Lucy (Austr. afarensis) and the from 3 mya Austr. africanus really were! And what did he mean when he said the 200,000 year old Omo 2 skull, with its 1,400c – 1,500cc brain was “Close to my brain size”? I think the modern human average is below 1,500; it used to be quoted as below 1,400cc.

When it comes to evolutionary science, all the BBC’s principles of fairness go out the window, so non-specialists like Cox and his broadcasting managers can try to keep their precious backsides away from anything “controversial”. But since science is controversy about theory, and the majority view never keeps up with the smart money, the the BBC message is always “One View – The Wrong One!”

The programme was another example of fascinating glimpses of interesting images, touching on evolutionary science, but corrupting it (even though the style might well be entertaining).

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