Saturday, April 09, 2005

Richard Roberts, Little People, and Snits

` Okay, I'm not going to bother any more with this - I've just spent since last post working on this one, something about the supposed controversy over the Homo floresiensis. But it went bye-byes. So I'm going to give you instead some badly-typed transcript pieces to look at of the annoying issue where a professor Jacob swiped the complete skull and didn't let very many people look at it.
` These are from an Australian show on ABC called Lateline. I'm going to copy this down and then go to bed, sorry if I made any annoying mistakes, but I'm not feeling well.

` Here we find Professor Richard Roberts from the University of Wollogong being interviewed... on 25-11-04. Yea.

Roberts says: "...the team leader on the project has been living in Indonesia this year for longer than he has in Australia. He's living with these guys day in and day out. He has daily updates on what is happening.
` To say we weren't kept abreast of information is completely misleading. In fact, Professor Jacob wouldn't know that or not because he is not part of the project.
` From Mike's perspective, he is there telling everyone what is going on right up to point of publication and for three or four years before that. I do find that a really exceptional claim of his."

*Interviewer Tony Jones asked: "The Indonesians were named in the publication?"

* "They were. They are holding prominent positions, including one who is claiming at the moment that he hasn't been given enough information. That I find mystifying."

* "But not Professor Jacob?" Jones said. "He obviously wasn't named. Could that be part of the problem?"

* "Maybe. Perhaps politically we would have done better to have included him in the project from day one, but as you have pointed out quite rightly, he does have a reputation for hoarding away fossils and not letting people look at them.
` We would probably not be having this talk now if we'd given the material to Professor Jacob in the first instance. It may have simply stayed in his fault for another five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten years!"

* "How critical is it for you to have access now, we have seen the hairs that are going to be DNA tested, but we heard from that scientist from Britain that in fact you desparately need to dig into teeth to get DNA from them as well?"

* "There is no replacement for the original material. We can take casts of specimens but sometimes you really need the genuine article and DNA analysis is just one of these examples.
` We do need the original material. This year we have found a completely new jaw, lower jaw with a whole set of teeth. Any of these would do the job for our present purposes of extracting DNA."

* "Where is that?" Jones asks.

* "That's back in Jakarta with Professor Jacob. We are in something of a difficult position where we don't have access to the material we really need access to. But as Allan Cooper correctly said, if we can get DNA from the hair, perhaps we can make a good case to the Indonesian Government to say let's look at some DNA from the teeth."

* "It's an extraordinary situation. This was billed as one of the great scientific discoveries of our time?"

* "It is." says Roberts. "It has moved beyond science now into the political arena. We're trying to take it back to the scientific arena which is where it belongs.
` It shouldn't be used as a trophy to trade around as a power base. It is something for the scientific community to say; 'This is what it is or isn't.'
` I don't object to Professor Jacob having a different view from ourselves. I think he should let others look at the material and he can come to his own conclusions as can everyone else."

* So Tony says: "Let's look at his different view for a minute, that's the bigger picture. He is claiming that this is a human, not a new species."

* "That's right."

* "He is saying it's a modern human, human suffering from microcephaly. Microcephaly is an extremely rare disease amongst modern humans.
` The fact we have found a human with microcephaly would be an acheivement. The probabilities of finding it are vanishingly small. The fact that we now have seven indiviuals, from this cave, presumably all with microcephaly... the chances of that are utterly remote.

* "Let's take a point of argument that this particular individual with a small brain is a microcephalic individual, is such an individual." Roberts continues. "They have other features that indicate they're not suffering from microcephaly, they have unusual tooth structures - three roots to the teeth.
` You find those in three-million-year-old people like Lucy in Africa, that only exist in very early Homo erectus. You don't find those with modern humans. We don't suddenly develop three roots to the teeth. Nor do you suddenly develop long arms if you have microcephaly. And that's what the hobbit has, they have slightly longer arming[?] compared to ourselves.

` "The pelvis is wider than in modern humans. They have very thick eyebrow ridges. None of these are features of microcephaly. When you look at a complete set of features of the skeleton, one or two of them might be credible as being microcephalic problems, but the rest of them can't be explained by microcephaly. If you pick some of the ones like Professor Jacob has done I can understand how he reached that conclusion. But not on the basis of all available features."

` (Gee, do you think he's suggesting that this Jacobs guy isn't being OBJECTIVE!)

* Jones asks: "What about the other conclusion that you got the sex wrong?"

* "Peter Brown was always saying he thought it was a female. That's not absolutely locked in stone. He might say maybe it's male and that might come out in the wash. I'm less worried by that then by his claim that it's a modern human.
` None of the referees on the papers, and we had lots of them, of course they were looking for something simple like this, saying it's a modern human suffering from a medical problem, it's something the referees on the paper thought 'is this going to be the explanation?' and they quickly reached the conclusion, 'it's not the explanation.'

` "This is definitely a new species of human. In fact, so different, originally Peter Brown even thought this was a new genus of human, that's how different they are. Professor Jacob is really out there by himself.
` Interestingly, it is history come full term again. Every time a new human species is discovered, suddenly everyone is saying it's some sort of demented modern human."

* "I was going to say you have to be a bit philosophical about it." says Tony Jones. "This is pretty much what happened with the Neanderthal man?"

* "That's right." Roberts confirms. "They were first thought to be some poor cossack who got stuck in a cave and died or some demented human.
` Same with the first Homo erectus, Java man, people thought; 'Oh, look, he's a sad case of a poor soul who's a demented human.' As the fossils began to accumulate, everyone says, 'No, that's not the case.' We've now got too many 'demented humans' for that to be an explanation. It's a new species."

* "From Professor Jacob's point of view there's some history here. He refers to a Dutch Priest called Verhoven who made similar claims for a discovery in the 1950's, at least that's who the professor is saying. It appears he was directly involved in refuting those claims. Is history repeating itself for him?"

* Roberts explains: "Verhoven was the first person who found this cave. He was a very talented archaeologist, ?be he was a full-time priest, or was supposed to be a full-time priest, but he did an awful lot of digging but never dug deeply, only about the first two or three meters, then stopped. All he ever did find was modern humans.
` If Verhoven claimed it was another human species, Verhoven would have been wrong. So Professor Jacob might have been right then but I don't think he's right on this one."

* "He does claim that many people have been hunting a pygmy population in Indonesia. He seems to be suggesting this is some sort of mythical creature, a holy grail for archaeologists."

* "There is a population of pygmies who are throughout Southeast Asia. There's no doubt there are very small modern humans and there are pygmies in other parts of the world, but they're just dwarf versions of ourselves - they're just small modern humans with rather large brains compared to their body size.
` This individual had [a] brain only the size of a grapefruit. A three-year-old child has a brain three times the size of that hobbit. They would have to be not a modern pygmy human, but a malformed pygmy human. And if it had been the only one, but there are now another six or seven of them. So it really becomes implausible as an explanation for everything we've found."

* "What will it take to settle this argument once and for all?"

* "If we can get DNA from the hair and the tooth as we can say, as they did Neanderthals, and say they are not related to us, in fact we seemed to have diverged 500,000 years ago anatomically the hobbit is even further back in time, two million years ago. They should be even more distinct genetically from us that they are from Neanderthals."

* "We seem to be in the scientific version right now of a diplomatic stand-off. Do you think in the end there's such tremendous interest in this around the world that the scientific community will band together behind you and put pressure on the point where it's needed."

* "Yes, I mean we don't want to put pressure on Professor Jacob so he feels bitter about the way things have turned out, we have tried to be as inclusive as of all the Indonesian scientists as we possibly can be.
` Others do need access to these specimens, other scientists need to be able to take a look at them. They should be able to go to his university or the Institute for Archaeology in Jakarta and look at this specimen and then the scientific community might reach a final consensus as to the species."

* "Are you hopeful that will happen?"

* "I'm sure it will happen in the fullness of time."

` From Lateline, 03/03/2005, the guests are Professor Richard Roberts again, and Professor Maciej Henneberg - who supports Jacob's view that Homo floriensis are Homo sapiens and says that Jacob is not really hoarding the skull material away. We also learn a little bit more about the specimen.

* Naturally, Richard Roberts is arguing with this Henneberg fellow... "Two things: firstly, Professor Henneberg is wrong about the memorandum of understanding. Both parties have to agree to allowing a third party to look at it, not just one party. Therefore, that one is incorrect.
` "Second one - the people who have looked at the material at Professor Jacob's invitation have all been people who agree with Professor Jacob's position in terms of human evolution. People from another point of view, which is in fact the majority point of view, have not yet seen the specimen themselves apart from ourselves, and we've not been allowed to look at it because Professor Jacob hung onto it and hung onto it and hung onto it, each time pushing back the deadline, until he was only forced to return it by his political masters who actually put a great deal of pressure on him to return it to us immediately, and that's the only reason it happened - otherwise they would still be there in Yogyakarta now."

* So, what have they been doing with the skull, now that it's been returned?

* Roberts answers: "It's compared it to 3-million-year-old people who used to live in Africa, modern human people, modern human people with a medical condition called microcephaly as well as pygmy modern people, Homo erectus - a whole range of different sorts of human brains, and the outcome is certainly in our favor in that comparison as opposed to Professor Henneberg."

* Tony asks: "Maciej Henneberg, are you prepared to reconsider your position on the basis of the endocast results if they do indeed show that the brain of the hobbit is not a diseased brain as you seem to be suggesting it is?"

* Henneberg replies: "I'm not, and the reason is that... [t]hey compaired it to one single brain of a person who has the kind of microcephaly that we never suggested the LB1, the skeleton in question, ever had. So it's like comparing a patient with tuberculosis to a patient with bronchitis or pneumonia. I don't think it bolsters their case in any way."

* "Let's speak about your other objections or your other views about why this skull and the other bones are not the bones of a new species."

* "Well, I have now had an opportunity to study the skeleton. I must add that, when I did any discoveries on skeletal material, I welcomed my colleagues to come and have a look, especially those colleagues who had a different view because I thought that when they come and look at the original material they can change their minds, and I'm talking only about looking at the bones that were already described.

` "Those bones clearly indicate that the person suffered from a growth anomaly and this growth anomaly caused anomalous, very slow or retarded growth of the brain...."

* Jones asks: "Richard Roberts, I know you know some of Professor Henneberg's other criticisms. He is suggesting that, in spite of what you're saying - that it's... the brain of a hobbit, a new species of human, but a normal brain, not a diseased brain - how do you answer the claims that it is in fact diseased without referring to the endocast?"

* "Professor Henneberg, in a paper which I've seen in a journal, not a referee's paper but one where he expresses a point of view, pointed out some features that he believed to be that of a microcephalic individual.
` Peter Brown, our expert paleoanthropologist, pointed out in reply that, while individual features such as a very small brain, such as certain things like even perhaps a slightly receding chin or sloping forehead, are consistent with a microcephalic individual, lots of details are not consistent.

` "In fact, they've got nothing like that in microcephalic individuals ever reported. So, when you consider the whole package of features that we found in the skeleton, and not just the facial features but also the post-cranial features, the rest of the body, it has a very flared pelvis and arms that come down almost to the knees - these are not conditions that occur with microcephalic individuals. So, when you consider the whole overall anatomy of this person, it doesn't wrap up into a microcephalic person."

* "Is the problem here there's only one skull? I know there's a part of another skull - I think it's the mandible -"

* "That's right. We've got two lower jaws, and they're both very, very similar to each other which again argues against the fact that we've now got two microcephalic individuals and we've got the remails of eight individuals now from the cave, so if they're all equally small, which they seem to be, then if Professor Henneberg is right we've found eight microcephalic individuals and it's an extremely rare disease and to find eight of that antiquity would be quite a remarkable find."

* "Professor Henneberg, you couldn't possibly have a nest of diseased individuals in this cave, could you, so how do you answer that?"

* Maciej Henneberg; "We don't. There is only one skull. The so-called seven or eight, they seem to be multiplying now in the discussions, individuals are represented by mostly a single bone or a little bone fragment, like a fragment of a Spinous process of a vertebrae. And those have nothing to do with brain size. The only thing they indicate is small body size of local population....

` "...there's only one - and I stress it - one brain case and actually one face attached to it, and this face is fitting into modern human range of sizes and has a lot of features Australian and Indonesian people who, yet again, live in Flores and islands to the east of Flores until today....
` "It's not normal to have this amount of asymmetry in the face. When we come to long bones, they are actually unusually wide in relation to their rather short length and, yet again, this is indicative of abnormal growth, not of growth that is compatible with a new species. Let me finally straight out say that we are not discussing fossils at all.
` Neither the skeleton LB1 or any comparing remaining bones, but we didn't really study them, neither of these are fossilized. They're as fresh bones as those that are excavated - I have excavated several thousands of them - from cemetaries and burial grounds that are a few thousand to several hundred years old. This is not a fossil."

* Roberts is given the chance to reply: "Preservation is a geological issue and the particulars of preservation in this case are a wet, damp cave environment can keep things soft for a very long time. It certainly isn't fossilized in terms of minerals getting replaced in the original bone but it's certainly an extremely old skeleton, about 18,000 years old.
` The fact that it's not completely mineral-replaced is neither here nor there. It's a complete red herring....

` "He talked about a slightly deformed skull. Of course we found this skeleton six meters underground. A cubic meter of sediment weights 2.5 tonnes - you'd feel pretty squashed too if you were stuck under six meters of sediment.
` So you're going to expect some amount of crushing of the original skeleton when it's that deep underground. Then he mentioned - there was a point that followed from that one but I can't quite remember what it was now....

` "...What he was saying about the fact that referees never had a chance to look at the skeletal material, it should be said that Professor Henneberg, three days after we published our paper, was quite happy to write himself in the Adelaide Sunday Mail what he thought about it without having seen a specimen himself and he had already made his mind up. All he's done by going to Yogyakarta is made up his mind further. It was always a microcephalic to him. No amount of data will change his mind on that subject."

` The very next day, Lateline, Michael Carey interviews Richard Roberts and Macief Henneberg with Peter Brown. We learn more about the new species.

* Richard Roberts says: "I certainly feel that we're vindicated now, that we've got, at the present time, as much evidence as we can possibly stack up in favor of this being a new species of human, based on the fossils and based on the endocast of the brain."

* Carey asks: "The results, which were published today in the journal Science, looked at a 3-D model of the brain cast from the skull found in the cave in Flores. The picture the study suggests about the life of the small creatures is fascinating."

* Brown replies: "One of the interesting things about the endocast of Homo floresiensis is that the frontal region in particular is very, very convoluted and not smooth. So it provides some information about the external structure of the brain. Modern human brains, of course, are very convoluted as well."

* "In other words, the brain is different from modern humans, but surprisingly sophistocated."

* Richard Roberts answers that: "Foreward planning activity happens in the front of the brain, and that's where the hobbit brain is really well-developed. That explains a lot of mysteries that we had the first time around, which was; 'how could something with a brain the size of a grapefruit do so many sophistocated activities?'
` How could they make stone tools so well? How could they hunt elephants as groups? How do they speak to each other? How do they make ocean crossings? All of this is now explicable by the fact that they had a well-wired brain that, though small, could do extraordinary feats."

` Importantly the study concludes that these features are almost certainly not from a modern human suffering from a brain disorder. That claim was made by some dissenting scientists."

* Brown says: "They are not consistent with the size and shape features which you might expect to find in a pathological or abnormal modern human. They are normal brains, they just happen to be different to modern humans and different from those in Homo erectus and much smaller than Homo erectus in overall size."

* Richard Roberts sums it up: "Professor Henneberg said they only looked at one microcephalic individual's brain, and that's true. But out of all the brains that they compared the hobbit to, the microcephalic's was the least like the hobbit's brain; that is, this brain was so distinctively different from the microcephalic it really is very, very improbably that it was somebody suffering from microcephaly."

* Carey says: "The argument will probably go on, given the heat of the debate so far. Bad blood worsened when a leading anthropologist in Indonesia locked away the bones, only allowing access to scientists who shared his view that these were not the remains of a new species.
` The bones have now been released, but the researchers are still angry at the group of scientists who studied them while they were locked away."

* "But he invited in some friends of his from the (?) to take samples from the skeleton, without our permission, in fact without even telling us what was going on, and taking them back, out of Indonesia, again without the permission of the relevant Indonesian authorities."

* "The ill feeling will go on, but for today the researchers are more excited by what they believe they're learning about the life of the Hobbits."

` Bone wars... this is why I'm glad I'm not a scientist - it's important to be objective, and when that is denied... it sucks. Anyway, I had something else written but it's gone, so I'm just going to get to bed - it's 2:06 in the morning here.

` UPDATE: I have, ironically, another transcript from another ABC radio program with better-studied information on these hobbits on this post.

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