Many paleoanthropologists are bent on self-promotion, and the field lacks ability to regulate itself, a veteran researcher complains.
Tim White of UC Berkeley took the occasion of the Leakey team’s promotion of a new juvenile hominid jaw to point out troubles in the field. Writing in Current Biology with palpable sarcasm, he made comments that should cause concern among those trusting proclamations about human evolution made by researchers and their press agents. Here are some samples:
- Human bones are common in cemeteries, but remains of our more ancient ancestors and relatives are fewer, further between and notoriously difficult to recover. This is particularly true for fossils that are millions of years old. Biomolecules are geologically short-lived and thus unavailable for parsing truly ancient species lineages.
- Disagreements are common, and the configuration of the hominid twig on the tree of life remains a matter of particular contention.…
- Kenyan fossils announced in Nature have historically figured prominently in paleoanthropology. In their latest paper of this genre, Leakey et al. introduce the fossilized partial maxilla of an ancient juvenile.… This new paper’s conclusions are said to confirm the authors’ earlier published conclusions.…
- The authors take an unusual approach to constructing, in 3-D digital space, what they think the dental arcade of the new fossil maxilla should have looked like. They accomplish this feat by filling the fossil’s empty and broken tooth sockets with digital models of modern human teeth. Why modern human teeth were better suited than available contemporary fossil teeth is left unexplained.
- 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.
- Do most of these species labels reflect real, biologically distinct lineages? Or have the alleged species proliferated merely as a result of taxonomic exuberance misapplied to within-species variation (idiosyncratic, geographic, sexual, and/or ontogenetic)?
- The sequence of prominent paleoanthropological publications across the last decades reveals a pattern of diversity promotion.
- Paleoanthropology’s ecosystem of publishing, access, fundraising, career advancement, media promotion and celebrity seems squarely aligned against the field’s ability to self regulate, a condition exacerbated by the limited fossil resources available. There is ample and obvious motivation for authors to generate ‘new’ species names in this environment. Readers should, therefore, beware of attendant species diversity claims. Illegitimate names have become part and parcel of the symbiosis itself. Furthermore, ‘chronospecies’ are merely artificial segments of evolving species lineages, rather than truly separate species. Such assertions of biological species diversity via taxonomic hyperbole are questionable representations of the real paleobiology of our ancestors and their few close, now extinct biological relatives. Despite the branch waving, our family tree still resembles a saguaro cactus more than a creosote bush.
So is there a credible story growing out of research into human origins in spite of the personality conflicts and pet theories? White ended by complaining that funding agencies are strangling long-term field research in favor of expensive lab equipment. “More fossils will be needed” to resolve the current conflicts, he complained. “Until a better balance is achieved — and better biological understanding applied — the origins of our genus will remain shrouded by a paucity of paleobiological data.”
It’s so nice when one of their own writes the commentary for us. We especially enjoyed #5 and #8. Thank you, Tim White. Now get a real job dealing with something you can know.