Paleofantasy Runs Amok
Early-man researchers continue to weave fantastical tales on flimsy evidence.
A story making the rounds now is that big eyes doomed the Neanderthals (see PhysOrg, Live Science, and the BBC News). Some Neanderthals had larger eye sockets than those of modern humans. Even though they also had larger bones, muscles, and brains, some paleoanthropologists reasoned this way: bigger eyes take away brain power from “higher-level processing.” Without sufficient higher-level processing, they might not have devoted as much time to social networking. So without the cave equivalent of Facebook, they couldn’t compete with the socially-adept newcomers, and died out. This sounds preposterous given the many tens of thousands of years evolutionists believe they thrived over wide areas, cooked food, hunted successfully and made ornaments.
Another story on Live Science is claiming that it could make “evolutionary sense” for male humans to spend more time helping their sisters’ progeny than their own. This takes a key Darwinian principle of selfishness and twists it into a new counter-intuitive possibility, adding to criticism that Darwinism can explain opposite outcomes with equal ease.
And in a third story, Live Science reporter Tia Ghose suggested that Homo erectus must have been smarter than the average hominid to be able to use fire. The black figure accompanying the article was “surprisingly smart,” opening Ghose to charges of racism. Her expert of the day is Terrence Twomey, who reasoned that it takes a lot of brain power to keep a fire going. Imagine all those smarts one million years ago. Why didn’t group fire-maintenance improve their social skills? And why didn’t they pass that on to the Neanderthals? These questions don’t matter to the early-man crowd, because apparently anything goes when it comes to fantasizing about human evolution.
John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist with more skepticism than most of his colleagues about just-so-stories like this, enjoyed a new book he reviewed in Nature by Marlene Zuk entitled, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. He agrees with Zuk that much of what passes for early-man science is little more than “pseudoscience based on an imagined past.” The “paleofantasist” uses meager archaeological evidence mixed with assumptions about the ability of natural selection to weave his tales.
By presenting the state of evolutionary science, Zuk shows that palaeofantasies cannot be justified across a range of environments or with a range of behaviours. She details the evolutionary analysis of human mating patterns, showing that monogamous mating goes way back. Human childhood is long compared with that of our ape relatives, and the palaeofantasy explanation is that cognitive development necessitates a long childhood. Zuk runs through extensive data on the supply side, establishing the credibility of the alternative hypothesis that humans have maintained high rates of reproduction by reducing maternal energy investment in children, instead recruiting grandparents and other relatives to help care for them.
But then, after some refreshing sermonizing, Hawks proceeded to justify paleofantasy. He claims it is the scientific process at work.
As an anthropologist, I observe that Zuk’s use of the term ‘fantasy’ is just an emphatic way of describing the hypothesis-forming that is essential to evolutionary science. We play with hypotheses, explore their predictions and try very hard to falsify them. So it is, in a way, unremarkable that so many hypotheses proposed by anthropologists about ancient environments now seem to be wrong — and, in a few cases, even ridiculous.
It means that science is working. Genomics, high-resolution climate records, and microscopic and isotopic evidence have changed our understanding of what the past has to offer. With that in mind, let the next round of palaeofantasies begin.
No, John! Not you, too? We had hope that you were a voice of reason amid the Vanity Fair of evolutionary storytellers. But then, after you chastised your fellow storytellers, you encouraged them to do more!
My dahling, what big eyes you have.
John, don’t you realize that there are infinitely more wrong stories than right ones? Don’t you realize that one can never get at the truth with wrong assumptions? Thinking, for instance, that random, unguided processes can take a brain from grunting to logic is logically self-defeating. You will never get the truth of human history that way.
Oxymoron: “Evolutionary sense.”
We don’t need more paleofantasies; we need scientific truth. Get your machete and cut the fantasies out. Paleofantasies are not even hypotheses; they are stupid stories. You err to think that paleoanthropologists try hard to falsify their fantasies. On the contrary, their habit is, the bigger the whopper, the better.
The better to see your Facebook page, my love.
Don’t you also realize, John, the harm done by these paleofantasies in the media? Secular science reporters, who could probably not keep a fire going if their lives depended on it, suck up these sugary stories and barf them back out uncritically. Is this the kind of educational diet you want to give impressionable children about science? For shame! You should be teaching a science that cannot endure fantasy, but holds truth, integrity and logical justification as its highest values.*
*Exercise: Explain why these values cannot evolve, and could not have evolved.