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1998: “The Fossil people … fight like cats and dogs”

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Way back in 1998, paleoanthropologist, author, and commentator Milford H. Wolpoff noted on a radio program, “DNA and Evolution: Where Did We Come From? Where Did We Go?”,

“MILFRED WOLPOFF: If you thought, as a paleontologist, that everybody descended from Africans, what you might expect to do is to go to different regions of the world, find the first modern humans, and say, aha, I’ve studied these people and they look like Africans, and this shows that all modern people came from Africa. But that isn’t the evidence that was there at all. The Fossil people squabble with each other all the time. They fight like cats and dogs, and they do it in public on radio shows and in front of the TV cameras and everyplace else, which leads to what I like to call the “yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t” argument: “Yes WLH-50 is a modern human,” “No is isn’t,” “Yes it is,” “No it isn’t,” “Yes it is” “Well I studied it and it is.” These don’t get anywhere.

No, but he doesn’t draw attention to the main reason for that: The ridiculous uncertainty of the field. And things haven’t changed much. Witness such recent stories as “Missing link a hotchpotch, may never have existed and “Complete skull of an adult male homo erectus creates shock waves.”

When a discipline is undergoing these chops and changes, the problem lies deeper. Most likely that desire for information about human origins has surged far ahead of genuine evidence, tempting many to take positions that the next fossil unearthed can destroy.

Hat tip: Slawek Bioslawek

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One Reply to “1998: “The Fossil people … fight like cats and dogs”

  1. 1
    tjguy says:

    This is so true! It illustrates the difficulty in properly reading the fossil record.

    There are lots of different ways to read it and bias plays heavily into this. Fossils are notoriously difficult to interpret. Their ages are questionable to begin with.

    Much of the aging has to do with what layer of rock they were laid down in and sometimes the layer of rock is dated by the types of fossils in them. This doesn’t seem to be a very accurate way to measure the dates of things.

    We have all seen the canonical parade of apes, each one becoming more human. We know that, as a depiction of evolution, this line-up is tosh. Yet we cling to it. Ideas of what human evolution ought to have been like still colour our debates. — Henry Gee, Nature, October 5, 2011

    Here is another similar quote, this one by Tim White, a paleontologist, that was published in Current Biology (Feb. 2013):

    The unilineal depiction of human evolution popularized by the familiar iconography of an evolutionary ‘march to modern man’ has been proven wrong for more than 60 years. However, the cartoon continues to provide a popular straw man for scientists, writers and editors alike.”

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