Before actually picking over the bones of the intriguing ancient humans under consideration, let’s consider the intrigues of some of their modern investigators and commentators…
Readers will know that the Homo naledi fossils were found mysteriously tucked away at the back of a hard-to-reach South African cave, and though impossible to date with current technology, they are triumphantly proclaimed to be a crucial link in the chain of our evolution – just like every other “ape-man” fossil discovery always is! This means, 100% of the time they will be right when it actually is a crucial missing link – like this time!
The Guardian article reported a number of disputes over what was said and done:
1: Some people, e.g. Tim White, complained that the fossils were just another example of Homo erectus, and that it was very wrong to suggest they were something new.
Well, a claim in science (i.e., a theory), might end up being less favoured in the end, but it’s central to science to put forward theories and argue about them! You can argue that the theory isn’t a good one, but if you’re complaining that just offering a reasonably plausible theory is some special kind of “wrong”, the theory has to be much worse than mis-assigning a fossil to “the” “wrong” “palaeontological species”. And that’s even if the critic White was right on his own assessment, which he wasn’t.
2: Some people say it’s absurd for the authors to suggest that the fossils were originally posted, as dead bodies, through a kind of letter-box into the underworld, by their kin.
The critics think it’s way beyond the cultural/cognitive capabilities of people that primitive to do anything that sophisticated? The critics are so sure about what is involved behind this kind of behaviour, are they? And they’re so sure that naledi wasn’t that far advanced? Have they ever watched primates carrying dead babies around for ages? They clearly don’t want to abandon them. Same with elephants, and maybe other species. H. naledi was almost certainly somewhat beyond the sophistication of chimps. It’s clear that many/most sophisticated mammals deal thoughtfully with dead of their species on occasion, and indeed much the same thing seems to have happened (fruitfully for us, whether to fellows or victims) in the Spanish “Sima de los Huesos” cave, with humans that might only be a million and a bit years younger. Are any of the critics any kind of psychologist? I don’t think so, and no psychology is harder than evolutionary psychology. What’s closer to certainty is that there was no other way in to the end chamber, and nothing bigger than a vole or tiny bird seems to have made in it that far, because returning from the very end without ropes and torches would have been practically impossible. Not even traces of bats were found at the end. So… none of the critics on this are psychologists, none of them have been into the end chamber and had a good look round, and none of them even seem able to remember the Atapuerca cave. Their ‘certainty’ is meaningless.
It is often said that ancient human remains are the rarest of rare. As I mention below, there seems to have been an especially odd gap in the tree at this point. Can this absence of fossils, and the apparent “disposal” of the dead (in this cave), be connected? It’s an interesting question. Remember also the amazingly firmly conserved cultures of stone tools (e.g. Olduvan style) which sometimes lasted a million years or more. These people may have come to believe that being ferociously, superstitiously stubborn with their behaviours was the best way of surviving. We think of humans as being distinguished by their intellectual flexibility, but it’s a truism that most people only really think when they’re desperate. Consideration must be given to the possibility that “disposing of one’s dead” is a human tendency with a high probability of occurrence and perhaps of being sustained, and may have started early. Alternatively the possibility that naledi was in Africa but usually not in the hinterland, must also be considered.
The cave was 90 metres from the exit. That’s a long, long way through a dangerous, dark, and very frightening 3D maze. You might guess that a creature like this wouldn’t have been able to use fire, but tool-makers like this would have created fire accidentally at least once a century. Don’t doubt that a chimp could use matches or even a flint and steel to make fire, if it only had the thumbs and sufficient training (and the steel 🙂 ). I bet you could even train one to kindle by rotating a stick using a bow, given time. For the naledis to light their way using a torch might well have been rare, and might have been frequently forgotten, but I guess it had happened at least once by 2mya; who knows – perhaps also cremation or burial at sea for all we currently know.
3: Some people, e.g. Tim White, complained the authors didn’t take enough years (or perhaps decades) to release the information, and that the report hadn’t been made to run a strict enough gauntlet past people like, say, him, so they could veto it and delay it further.
White says: “…making sure you have got things right is also of critical importance…” What does he mean, “right”? To claim that you can ever be “right” in palaeontology is to admit you aren’t a good scientist. In any case, who’s “you”, Berkeley man? There are other scientists out there too, and it’s a bit rude to imply everything ‘has to be completed by you’ before handing the finished product over to others to consider.
Here’s an idea: you dig things up taking complete care not to corrupt them or anything else down there, and you note their positions, and then make them and their images available to the world. And since time is always an issue, speed would be good. Just getting the shape of the bones out to the rest of the world is vital; getting ideas “right” is an aim but it’s ultimately unacheivable in science. “Just the facts, lady – just the facts” – and fast; and by “facts” is meant the bone shapes, where they were found… and that’s just about it. Everything else is opinion, even though science is actually just belief, i.e. opinion. Dating and chemical/genetic analysis of the bones can come along in their own time. And peer review has as much relevance to genuine knowledge husbandry as do black magic or politics.
John Hawks has for some time criticised those such as Tim White for delaying reporting of fossils (13 years for the Ardipithecus detailed report), and blocking access to them. This is something I fully agree with Hawks on. It would be amusing to compile a top ten of the most serious cases of fossil-squatting! I note that White is at my least favourite university: Berkeley. It would be amusing to compile a top ten of examples of the crassest arse-hattery coming out of that place. I’ve pointed out several candidates from time to time but it would be a big job to do… ‘properly and scientifically’.
But there’s this too, from the Guardian article:
‘…anthropologist Christoph Zollikofer – of the University of Zurich – disagrees. He was involved in the discovery of a series of early humans in Georgia, with findings that took more than seven years to publish. “There were things we simply did not understand, and we worked for years to verify our findings,” he told the journal California.’
…where mention is made of “verify”. Sorry Christoph – did we not tell you that use of the word “verify” was one of the 1001 ways of announcing you don’t know what science is? And, because you didn’t understand something, you had to delay for, say, five extra years? You didn’t understand… whether something was a piece of fossil or substrate? Because anything much beyond that is Your Opinion, and though that is part of science, your fussing over your conclusions is not an excuse for delaying delivery of the world’s heritage to the world. (Thanks for those fossils though – they were nice! And yes, they were difficult to understand, but even with the benefit of your diligent explanation, I find I still can’t quite grasp their true significance. Even after your verification.)
Before considering the significance of naledi and its position in the fossil tree in the next posting in this series, I’d just like to point out that was only in 2010 that Australopoithecus sediba was supposed to occupy a crucial position in the human family tree according to the authors, er…: Berger et al. who also found this latest one: naledi. Now I’m not going to be so churlish as to let slip a suitable opportunity to congratulate Lee Berger and his merry men (and in an anonymous comment whose style shrieks to me of Tim White, his rather too many women, if you please!) for digging up, sometimes actually finding, and reporting swiftly, these two important sets of fossils. But having said that, now he’s given us naledi, we know sediba, with its smaller brain, less impressive legs, and probably later date, isn’t really where it’s at, or was supposed to be at. But I have to say this because no-one else will and it’s important to know which mouths the smart money comes out of so as to know who to listen to next time, that I warned immediately that sediba was not on the critical path. Conversely, note also that he who dug it did not necessarily suss it. And Berger, and Hawks, who also thought naledi had a good chance of being on the human lineage, are also paid to get this right. Yet one more example of an armchair being the best location of your backside for getting things in the right perspective, so long as you’re one of the few people with your head in the right place!
And this is also another suitable opportunity to wheel in, once more, the Great Apparently-Invisible-3-million-Year-Old-Ancestral Gorilla In The Room… and simultaneouly to reveal the most scandalous skeleton in the cupboard: the 2 million year old apparently invisible chimp ancestor skeleton! NO THEORY THAT CLAIMS WE’VE FOUND NO CHIMP/GORILLA ANCESTORS BETWEEN 1 AND AT LEAST 4 MILLION YEARS OLD, CAN POSSIBLY BE ASSUMED CORRECT. I explain this and its significance in detail in my book, and I’ll highlight it more forcibly in due course, but it’s pretty straightforward. Because all the working palaeoanthropologists – all the usual suspects and everyone else too – make this mistake, neither they nor their theories can be taken seriously. And because, for example, I, made sure my theories do assign certain known fossils to the chimp/gorilla lineages, people such as myself and many others I’ll name in the next post, found we had a mysterious gap, so we were…
…somewhere in the 3 to 2 million year gap starting from Kenyanthropus plateops, or even, if plateops isn’t as important as we’d hoped, between 4 and 2 million years. That’s a brave gap to nurture (though not as brave as the missing chimp/gorilla gaps!) This isn’t just someone blowing their own trumpet; since science is all about conferring plausibility on theories, on methods of theorisation, and on theorists, claiming credit is not an annoying concommitant to the business, it is the business. And refusing to acknowledge and propagate the creditable is scientific fraud.
John Hawks, Razib Khan and Chris Stringer have, to my knowledge, failed, perhaps for decades, to adjust their theories to correct this gigantic anomaly, or to appear to make any effort towards its resolution, or even to ascribe any significance to it at all! The only reason every other working palaeontologist or prominent commenter on the field isn’t also on that list, is solely because I haven’t seen a high enough percentage of each individual’s output. But anyone happy with that rotting fish-head sitting in the middle of their keyboard while they type around it year after year, especially once it’s been pointed out to them, either can’t use the Popperian scientific principle or they have no real feel for stats in science.