What would an off-world viewer think of the current state of palaeoanthropology? In just a week, we’ve had two banana skins for the field to slip up on – and show itself up over. First, the over-hyping of the mitochondrial DNA evidence for a wetland southern African…Homeland. Then, the astonishment at the forty-year-old news that our ancestors were already upright 10 to 20 million years ago, soon no doubt to be forgotten again. Whether viewing from the classic Mars or even from the shoulder of Orion, the appalling mess would be equally clear.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe!” our spectator would report to their mates, on stepping back from the eyepiece. Years ago when my father was arguing with the garage fixing his car, he questioned the man on his use of the term “you people”. But that was over fifty years ago in the high street. Surely dodgy terms wouldn’t appear in scientific journals today? Well, in the paper by Chan et al., “Homeland” was used for the area of apparent origin at some point in our ancestry, in Botswana, but it’s an unhappy term for land areas in South Africa. I sort of knew that but wasn’t too bothered as I don’t come from there or feel the sensitivities personally; but there were other issues of that nature too, and that’s the sort of thing top journal editors are supposed to be on top of.
But the main problem with the Chan et al. paper was using the family tree of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to work back to a time and place where “it started.” That does work a bit, except it depends what you mean by “it” – the mtDNA tree or the people tree? Also, the place where the original versions seem to cluster now is only the place where they started if people haven’t done their usual trick of moving around a lot. You only know where that lineage of mtDNA seems to have started, but other lineages of people will have barged in all down the line, messing up the neat tree. mtDNA doesn’t combine sexually, but people and most other creatures recombine “most of” their DNA of course, so a family tree must include cross-linking marriages like a royal lineage does, not like a coarse scale evolutionary tree. An excellent example is that of the earliest evidence we have for modern humans leaving Africa: by about 250,000 years ago most Neanderthals seem to have had their original mtDNA replaced by ours. Judge that Neanderthal tree by its mtDNA and you’re way off. mtDNA is passed down by mothers, and fathers pass their Y chromosome down, which also doesn’t recombine. You can get neat –too-neat– family trees from the Y chromosome too, but they converge back to a different place, west Africa, at a different time.
Having said that, neither the mtDNA tree nor the Y chromosome tree offer many certain facts, but a big mistake made by some scientists is to assume that only definite “facts” count. Most of our evidence is circumstantial, or clouded by noise or complication, and many patterns of male invasion from the Y chromosome base, or female invasion from the mtDNA base, for example, might have happened, and might be the cause of what we see. Obliterating this possibility by slaming the Chan et al. paper ruthlessly into row Z is a classic common scientific error. “Not certain therefore impossible – and Unscientific”.
So yes, Chan et al. should have included these well-know complications in their account; but the sub-editor should have been on top of all this too. One reason people attacked Chan et al. so hard was that their own viewpoints were being ignored. If it were my viewpoints being ignored they wouldn’t have given a damn. The current view is that since the different features of modern people seem to have sprung up first in places dotted all round Africa, moderns must have sprung from a pan-African melting pot. Evolution can happen like this but I think most people consider it a bit unusual; multiregionalists were sneered at 20 years ago.
That is a problem of not reflecting the current theoretical landscape – i.e. no adequate literature search appears to have been done, or been insisted upon before publication. People hate that if it’s their literature being ignored.
In the other case, the majority literature has been scrupulously observed way beyond the call of duty, to the point where the science becomes absurd. Science is conducted by people, a bit like goods are conducted along railway lines, but it should be done for the good of the cargo, not to optimise the experience for the trucks. In Böhme et al.’s paper on an apparently bipedal European ape about 11.5 million years old, we have an even more gob-smacking example of failure to literature search, assisted once again by a default of duty by the editor – the same sub-editor in the same journal as before. It would be inconvenient for some people if Böhme et al.’s results became accepted. The issue centres on our walking on two legs, when it happened, and what it means.
By the time I wrote my book in 2012, it was already decades past the time for a new understanding of bipedality in human evolution to have arrived. Though little in historical biological science is absolutely certain, some things are pretty damn obvious, and simply cannot be excluded from our portfolio of theories being considered. We can tell by the structure of the spine whether an apelike creature tended to stand upright when on the ground, or on all fours. Imagine little spikes attached firmly to your vertebrae and sticking out through the skin of your back, with strong elastic bands joining adjacent spikes and pulling them together. That stops your spine bending forwards, and it helps it stay upright. That mechanism, subcutaneously using muscles and tendons, is what we have, but with the bone spikes actually sticking out sideways from the vertebrae but still high up near the skin. In this we resemble a tail-less ape-oid called Morotopithecus, which lived in Africa some time between 14 and 23 million years ago. We do not resemble chimps and gorillas in this; their predominantly quadrupedal habit on the ground means they are different from us. But they are also different from each other. Chimps suspend their diagonal/horizontal spines by ligaments from the dorsal pelvis, while gorillas use interlocking vertebrae. We have therefore been walking upright on the ground, with whatever degree of perfection, for over 14 million years, and probably nearer 20, and chimps and gorillas dropped back down again, separately. Either that or bipedality evolved more than once. You can tell whether it was more than once or just once by the fact that NO quadrupedal forms except those clearly on the separate Proconsul lineage, have EVER BEEN FOUND. That is, until modern chimps and gorillas start to show up less than about a million years ago.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask Aaron Filler, a long-time successful spinal surgeon, who has investigated this for years, and explained it perfectly adequately, decades ago. He is not an imaginary person. His expertise is not imaginary. Imagine how good you would be at doing his job! Imagine how good Henry Gee would be at repairing people’s spines so they worked well and didn’t attract court cases! Henry Gee? That’s the expert who allowed the Chan et al. paper through without either understanding the limitations of mtDNA evidence, or considering the new multiregional viewpoint worthy of mention. Of course you’d have to be an expert at sub-editing to be a sub-editor at Nature, wouldn’t you. And that expertise means he knows more about spines than Aaron Filler does. For this reason an interpretation piece by T.L. Kivell, accompanying the principle paper by Böhme et al., was able to claim: “The commitment to terrestrial bipedalism, characterized by skeletal adaptations for walking regularly on two feet, is a defining feature that enables the assignment of fossils to the hominin lineage – which comprises all species more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees”. If that were true, Danuvius guggenmosi on which they report, from Germany, would have to be closer to humans than chimps, because it clearly preferred bipedality, and the human-chimp split would be over 11.5 million years ago. Blatant rubbish.
So the explanatory piece contains a logical inconsistency, and the overwhelming evidence that we have been upright for most if not all of 20 million years, is ignored yet again. But Nature magazine offers us a further example of sloppy thinking as the second page of Kivell’s piece begins: “Each living ape species is a result of its own long, evolutionary history, and, in the case of African apes, one that we often forget because there is so little fossil evidence of it. This absence of fossil information to reveal how African apes evolved makes questions about the nature of our common ancestor even trickier to answer.”
What makes evolutionary puzzles more tricky to answer than anything else is the failure of most scientists in the field to master basic thinking skills. That quote in the paragraph above, that we have no chimp or gorilla fossils, depends on the family tree you draw up! We have a dozen distinct ape-man fossil types between 1 and 6 million years, and where you put them on the tree determines whether you think you have any chimp or gorilla fossils. Draw the lines of lineage back from chimps/gorillas through some of the fossils and you have chimp/gorilla fossils. Draw all the lines away from chimps/gorillas and hey presto – you have no chimp/gorilla fossils! Simples. When asked why they choose the family trees that they do, workers will say they just know those types are all closer to humans than the other apes. How do they know? Because all the types are upright, so they must be closer to humans. Then when you ask them if they’ve forgotten that the entire human/chimp/gorilla lineage has been upright for more than 20 million years, they just drift off and don’t answer. They get paid for doing this. When you offer the nuclear bomb argument that African monkey fossils have been found accompanying supposedly human ancestors, and you ask them to consider the probability, assuming equal fossilisation and discovery likelihoods, of finding no chimps or gorillas, they will start to accuse you of being an obsessive crank. By the time you tell them the p value of the missing apes observation not being explainable by chance goes into six places of decimals, they will have blocked your communication channels to them… so they escape having to offer an explanation excusing chimps and gorillas from being fossilised and found in the usual way.
It’s clear that the field of palaeoanthropology has drifted way clear from reality and is not under the control of responsible adults. It’s barely disguised groupism: never risk voicing or even thinking alien ideas for rear of group disapproval. When it is pointed out that the Botswana marshes suggest waterside environments, and the clay in which the fossil Danuvius guggenmosi was found implies it lived in mud, those paid to climb into and occupy a respectable position in the tree of human evolution study will go ape-shit at the implications.
We deduce people’s aims by long-term observation of their patterns of behaviour. You may think we can deduce their level of intellect in this way too, but ignoring the obvious, and failing to communicate it even if it’s your duty, is actually a symptom not of stupidity but of dishonesty. These people are not robots programmed to follow the same tracks of stupidity decade after decade. Instead they are following a cogent plan to serve their own interests, and avoid being on the losing side of any scientific argument, and to hell with the effect on science. They have abandoned their duty to serve science with honesty and without deceit, and they make all their decisions first of all in the semi-unconscious state which ensures they never stray from the pack. It is not robots we have to fear now. It is lying, irresponsible power-seeking buffoons.