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Journal: Human ancestor claims driven by politics

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Surprised? (Maybe you need the public guardian for your affairs if you are.)

Here’s the abstract of the article you must pay for:

Almost 300 years ago, Linnaeus defined our genus Homo (and its species Homo sapiens) with the noncommittal words nosce te ipsum (know thyself) (1). Since then, fossil and molecular biology studies have provided insights into its evolution, yet the boundaries of both the species and the genus remain as fuzzy as ever, new fossils having been rather haphazardly assigned to species of Homo, with minimal attention to details of morphology.

Here’s the lowdown for free:

The limits of our genus Homo have long been controversial. One problem is that evolutionary biologists sometimes try to shoehorn un-human-like fossils into Homo in order to make it appear that ape-like and human-like creatures are kin. It’s a classic case of scientists letting their evolutionary bias direct taxonomy.

What’s less common is to see evolutionary paleoanthropologists admitting this has happened. Now in a recent article in Science, “Defining the genus Homo,” Jeffrey H. Schwartz and Ian Tattersall explain that Homo habilis (literally, “handy man”) was originally placed within Homo because researchers wanted an old species that apparently made tools: …

Elsewhere Tattersall has critiqued the entire species Homo habilis by calling it “a wastebasket taxon, little more than a convenient recipient for a motley assortment of hominin fossils.” He has called it “a rather heterogeneous assemblage, and it is probable that more than one hominid species is represented.” Paleoanthropologists Daniel E. Lieberman, David R. Pilbeam, and Richard W. Wrangham likewise co-write that “fossils attributed to H. habilis are poorly associated with inadequate and fragmentary postcrania.” In an article titled “Who Was Homo habilis — and Was It Really Homo?” in Science, Ann Gibbons notes that “researchers labeled a number of diverse, fragmentary fossils from East Africa and South Africa ‘H. habilis,’ making the taxon a ‘grab bag… a Homo waste bin,’ says paleoanthropologist Chris Ruff of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.” More.

Why? Because … Darwin!

Now, peasants shuddup. Okay?

Jeffrey H. Schwartz? Name rings a bell: He was speaking honestly  as far back as 2006, and has apparently survived. For now.

This stuff recalls Dmanisi, which of course got silted over. That’s the thing; it always gets silted over.

It must be silted over because the whole field would otherwise largely collapse. And then what would pop science and Darwin lobby textbook writers do?

See also: Why it all has to be this big a mess

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16 Replies to “Journal: Human ancestor claims driven by politics

  1. 1

    However, it is not only the current molecular theory that intrigues Schwartz, but the failure of the scientific community to question an idea that is more than 40 years old:

    “The history of organ life is undemonstrable; we cannot prove a whole lot in evolutionary biology, and our findings will always be hypothesis. There is one true evolutionary history of life, and whether we will actually ever know it is not likely. Most importantly, we have to think about questioning underlying assumptions, whether we are dealing with molecules or anything else,” says Schwartz.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....170623.htm

  2. 2
    PeterJ says:

    Just when you thought it was all getting somewhere, up pops another head from the family tree 😉

    http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/.....cid=HPCDHP

  3. 3
    jerry says:

    Jeffrey H. Schwartz? Name rings a bell: He was speaking honestly as far back as 2006, and has apparently survived. For now.

    It is certainly easy to survive if one adheres to the overall orthodoxy which is that all evolution is naturalistic. When will people learn that burying Darwin is not the total answer. It will go a long way but like Whack a Mole, a new naturalistic theory will pop up.

    Darwin survives now only because there is no alternative theory they want to consider.

  4. 4
    Learned Hand says:

    “Journal: Human ancestor claims driven by politics”

    That makes it sound as if this is the editorial position of the journal. Is it? Is it good journalistic practice to make such implications casually?

  5. 5
    News says:

    Learned Hand (or Colin, or whoever/somebody anyhow at 4) wrote:

    “Journal: Human ancestor claims driven by politics”

    That makes it sound as if this is the editorial position of the journal. Is it? Is it good journalistic practice to make such implications casually?

    Yes, absolutely. Let’s call them out. if the journal allowed this accusation to be published, it can only be because the editors agreed that it should be given air. How far will they go in supporting it?

  6. 6
    Learned Hand says:

    I’m Colin, yes, pleased to meet you.

    Is this how you think journals work? That a column the journal prints is the official position of the journal? I’m not a scientist, maybe I’m way off base here, but I don’t think that’s how it works. They solicit pieces from scientists, who often disagree with one another. Sometimes the pieces are well-supported in the field, sometimes not.

    But maybe you didn’t mean to say that the journal took the position as its own by publishing a submission. In which case, isn’t your headline misleading? That’s my core question–isn’t it just incredibly sloppy journalism to intentionally create the impression that the journal itself has adopted this perspective as its own, rather than just published a submission?

  7. 7
    News says:

    Fine, Colin/Learned Hand: Then let the journal deny it.

    If true, it is a serious accusation.

    – Denyse O’Leary (not known under any other name).

  8. 8
    goodusername says:

    One of the interesting things about the news stories on this site is seeing the extremes of “lumping” and “splitting” in taxonomy being advocated at the same time.

    One moment you see a story advocating lumping everything from H. erectus, to H. heidelbergensis, to H. antecessor, to modern H. sapiens, to Neandertals, etc and sometimes H. habilis and H. rudolfensis (depending on the mood that day) all into a single species; and the next moment it’s being advocated to split a single species, either H. erectus or H. habilis into multiple species. Or it’s being claimed that there’s a huge unbridgeable gap between two barely discernable species (sometimes claimed to be between H. habilis and early H. erectus, or alternatively between H. habilis, and A. afarensis, or sometimes even somewhere within H. erectus). All this with no rhyme or reason other than what’s most convenient at that particular moment.

    This stuff recalls Dmanisi, which of course got silted over. That’s the thing; it always gets silted over. It must be silted over because the whole field would otherwise largely collapse.

    I’m glad you mention Dmanisi. Dmanisi is important because it strongly implies that paleontologists have been far too eager to “split”. With Dmanisi we see characteristics of H. habilis, early H. erectus, and other supposed separate species of early Homo all together in perhaps a single population.

    Tattersall and Schwartz are known for being the most extreme of “splitters”.

    The only people I know of trying to silt over Dmanisi are the very people you’re praising here for their honesty.

    I looked up the article in the OP specifically to see what they had to say about Dmanisi because it is so devastating to their position.

    Dmanisi is perhaps the most important paleontological discovery in decades, and deals specifically with the very subject they are talking about here – the taxonomy of early Homo.
    So what did they have to say about Dmanisi? Nothing. They never mention it! All the while trying to take “splitting” to new extreme levels.

  9. 9
    Learned Hand says:

    Fine, Colin/Learned Hand: Then let the journal deny it.

    If true, it is a serious accusation.

    Let’s assume that the journal is adopting this piece as its official position, and make the claim that this is so, and let them deny it if it’s not true? That… doesn’t seem like journalism.

    Honestly I think you just came up with a quick and dirty headline, and never stopped to ask whether it was reasonable to assert that this is the journal’s position as opposed to someone else’s position that the journal published. And you don’t want to make a correction, so you’ll wait for the journal to notice this obscure blog post and correct the record for you. That does not seem like solid journalism to me, even by blog standards.

    – Denyse O’Leary (not known under any other name).

    You realize that you post as “News” here, right?

  10. 10
    News says:

    Learned Hand/Colin/whoever/ at 9: My desk is News. My name is Denyse O’Leary. I go by no other name.

    You are free to change your name if you want. I am not. Nor wish to be.

    Claims about what I might have been thinking are irrelevant. Mightn’t remember myself, so best would be that the journal eds just follow it up.

    I want to know whether the journal really backs the claim that Homo habilis was grafted into the human line due to claims about tool use that may not be valid but served a political purpose. Lot of people might like to know that and other stuff like it.

    Transparency?

  11. 11
    goodusername says:

    News/Denyse O’Leary/whoever,

    I’m not sure what “politics” you’re referring to. I’m guessing you mean this quote from Schwartz:

    the main motivation appears to have been Leakey’s desire to identify this hominid as the maker of the simple stone tools found in the lower layers of the Gorge, following the dictum of Man the Toolmaker. This association has subsequently proven highly dubious. The inclusion in Homo of the H. habilis fossils so broadened the morphology of the genus that further hominids from other sites could be shoehorned into it almost without regard to their physical appearance.

    Strange that you find such psychoanalyzing so interesting considering your previous comment.

    The reason that H. habilis is believed by most to be a maker of tools is because habilis fossils are found with tools.

    That everything has just been shoe-horned in with habilis is demonstrably false as there are several other hominid species that lived at the same time. There’s rudolfensis, and early member of erectus, not to mention several Australopithecine species (A. garhi, A. africanus, K. platyops, etc).

    And, as Dmanisi demonstrates, not only should H. habilis not be split up into multiple species, but just the opposite – more combining/lumping should likely be done. There isn’t enough “shoehorning” going on.

  12. 12
    wd400 says:

    I want to know whether the journal really backs the claim that Homo habilis was grafted into the human line due to claims about tool use that may not be valid but served a political purpose.

    No. Partly because that’s not how journals work. In this case it’s especially not true because this claim is not made in the paper.

    FWIW, at least one of authors on this paper wants to define Homo so narrowly that it doesn’t include neanderthals!

  13. 13
    Learned Hand says:

    I want to know whether the journal really backs the claim that Homo habilis was grafted into the human line due to claims about tool use that may not be valid but served a political purpose. Lot of people might like to know that and other stuff like it.

    Transparency?

    I think it might be helpful, reading journals in the future, if you remember that journals exist to publish things. They don’t adopt the things they publish as their own statements–they’re a vehicle.

    And grafting “transparency” onto this doesn’t solve the underlying sloppiness: you’re still asserting that this is the journal’s position. Not because it’s true, or even because there’s any reason to think it might be true, but because you won’t make a correction.

    That’s not “news,” News. And if that’s how your desk operates, it’s not a news desk.

  14. 14
    Robert Byers says:

    As people do better research they will the bones for human evolution were poorly researched and indeed they desperately wanyed to prove man evolved. Then it simply was also not the smartest people who got into these obscure things. Its all silly.
    The starting point should be IS there a single bone that can be shown to be from human lineage before we got to our present situation? Any bone they bring can be dismissed as convergent evolution from a primate lineage.
    You could never tell.

  15. 15
    News says:

    When serious accusations are aired in a journal, we must suppose the matter was raised at an editorial board meeting. Or should have been.

    Some of us would still like to hear from the journal’s editors and – who knows – maybe we will.

  16. 16
    Learned Hand says:

    When serious accusations are aired in a journal, we must suppose the matter was raised at an editorial board meeting. Or should have been.

    Which would still not transform the publication of a submitted opinion piece into the journal’s opinion. But hey, whatever backflips justify the headline, right?

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