Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Silly Hobbit! Trickses are for Humanses!

` I'd just like to reiterate and add onto the ugly situation I wrote about in Richard Roberts, Little People, and Snits. Why? I'm still not done with going through my e-mail, (which I did most of during my entries of 16 July 05), and I got to something else from Nature which I'd missed before: A July 1st EMBO 'Science and Society' Report, entitled Skullduggery by Tabitha M. Powledge.
` Basically, she writes about the consequences of the actions of certain tricksy, cheating humanses, which were talked about during the television interviews which I copied transcripts from (only because the thing I'd just written before got erased when I tried to save it).
` As I am too frelling busy to write that much here (I only have, like, one hour), I think I'll just do the annoying 'too much on my plate' direct cut-and-paste again. (Writing just one of my blog entries takes 2-6 hours, and sometimes more than a day!)

` Basically, this is the part of the article where Powledge talks about this thing with Professor Jacob:

The fragile bones—never fossilized and originally described as being like wet blotting paper—were kept at the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, but were moved in November 2004 to the laboratory of Teuku Jacob, an eminent Indonesian palaeoanthropologist. The circumstances surrounding the transfer remain murky. Jacob is not a member of the original discovery team, but is in charge of a large collection of H. erectus fossils at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, about 275 miles from Jakarta....

` If you will recall, he's kind of obnoxious and sneaky.

...Jacob also allowed Australian, US and German researchers to study the bones without asking permission from the discovery team members.

` Very sneaky.

Team members and other scientists were enraged over the moving of the bones. "From comments I have received or heard, most scientists are very concerned about what has happened to the material, and are hoping it can be returned as soon as possible to be studied by the original team. What has happened threatens all further research on the Flores site," said Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum. "The people who originally excavated and studied the material should be the ones taking forward work such as DNA testing, not someone who had taken over the finds from them."

` And did I mention inconsiderate? He's got his own adgenda, to be sure.

The dispute was further fuelled when Jacob charged that the discovery team had bungled their analysis. LB1 and company, he said, were not a new species of Homo, they were simply short people; LB1 was male, not female, and had prehistoric microcephaly.

` And for those of you who did not know what this malady was before, she conveniently describes it:

` Microcephaly is a nonspecific term for an abnormally small brain and skull; the condition has many variations and scores of known causes, both genetic and environmental. The main Nature paper had actually raised and dismissed some of these possibilities. This paper argued that LB1's skeletal features are not consistent with dwarfism, including microcephalic dwarfism, nor are her stature and brain size similar to pygmy populations. And although some features, such as her canine teeth, are sapiens-like, her skeleton resembles australopiths, the authors of the paper noted. Palaeoanthropologists have never before seen anything like this assortment of modern traits mixed up with hominid skeletal anatomy that dates back millions of years.

` Who knows? It could be more ancient than Homo erectus!

In the meantime, Jacob's diagnosis has been backed up by a handful of other palaeoanthropologists, including some visitors who have seen the bones. The discovery team—and many others—think this is nonsense. Team leader Michael Morwood of the University of New England (Armidale, NSW, Australia) declared that "the vast majority" agree with their original assessment. "We don't have any credible critics. All we have is opinion in unreviewed publications."

` That's basically the gist of the whole 'debate' - it's kind of like the birds-as-dinosaurs thing, where one side sticks with science and the other side abandons parts of it (failing mostly in the 'objectivity' category), and stretches reality to the point where other ancestry options for birds seem to appear and eventually, become more reasonable.
` Not only that, but it's now more suspicious that Jacob is trying to hide the more primitive traits known in Homo floresiensis:

After months of negotiation, most of the bones were returned to Jakarta in February, 2005. Discovery team members were delighted to once again have access to the second mandible and other bones from the 2004 season, but there soon came another shock. The bones had been seriously damaged: the pelvis had been smashed, the second mandible had been broken and unskilfully repaired, and LB1's skull had been mutilated by latex moulding; Science published photos of the damaged pelvis (Culotta, 2005). Morwood charged that bones with australopithecine traits had been almost destroyed. "The condition of some finds is absolutely appalling," he said. "This is not the action of responsible scientists." Jacob acknowledged taking moulds, but says he has photos showing that the bones were in perfect condition when they left his care.

` Teuku Jacob: Irresponsible jerk or irresponsible moron? You decide.

Meanwhile, a study of LB1's brain, based on skull endocasts made before the bones were moved, was also published (Falk et al, 2005). First author Dean Falk of Florida State University (Tallahassee, USA) concluded that the brain was unique and somewhat erectus-like, but had advanced features, such as an enlarged prefrontal cortex, that hinted at respectable cognitive capacity. Comparing it with a single skull from a microcephalic, the group also concluded that LB1's brain was not altered by disease. Falk is now studying additional microcephalic endocasts for comparison. "This was just a thrill," she said. "We said to them, 'We stand ready. If you find any more skulls, we'd love to analyze them!'"

` Let's hope we do. Now, this article goes on and on about how the hobbit seems to not be one of us, although it is not entirely out of the question that it had something wrong with it. It's so unlike anything anyone's ever seen, it's hard to tell - we don't know what a mutated hobbit would look like!
` Surely, certain tricksy humanses have exploited the seemingly abnormal with the probably normal. But here's the thing:

The Hobbit story seems designed for twenty-first century media because indeed it was. The US National Geographic Society has funded palaeontology research for many years, always promoting and portraying it as notably successful—sometimes even before journal publication.

` This was also a problem with the 'Archaeoraptor,' a fossil 'find' on the black market which, (after the National Geographic article) turned out to be the four-winged dinosaur, Microraptor, and a bird glued to one another to increase their value.

The Society has underwritten the Hobbit research, and its news on the Hobbit began appearing simultaneously with the Nature papers; television followed soon after. Nature accompanied the papers with its own press conferences, press kits, videos and news stories. The Hobbit tale is a natural draw, featured in print and broadcast media everywhere. Discovery team members have led journalists and TV crews to the dig site, taken part in teleconferences and appeared regularly in TV studios.

` Being that I don't have television, I suddenly feel really left out!

Formerly inconspicuous palaeontologists, anthropologists and microcephaly experts are suddenly in demand. Broadcast networks, especially in Australia and the USA, launched TV specials. And there is no end in sight; Holloway and his cast of endocasts are scheduled to star in a BBC television special in the UK.

` And, because the Hobbit is so famous, now we have problems:

The sponsors probably would have preferred that the Hobbit remained one of the Top Ten science stories of 2004. Instead, it has turned into a particularly rancorous scientific dispute, to say nothing of a territorial battle that has degenerated into name-calling. Jacob has been quoted as saying the Australians on the discovery team lack expertise and has called them scientific terrorists. Morwood has countered that taking bone to Germany was unethical and illegal. Such comments have proven irresistible, even for some media that usually ignore science.

` Typical of pseudoscientists, I guess ol' Jacob just can't get enough attention, can he?

But, ultimately, the impact of the dispute on the science of human origins may be as small as the Hobbit itself. "It's extremely interesting and provocative, but it is not going to upset the apple cart on the whole picture of hominid evolution," Holloway said. "It is clearly a localized phenomenon that took place on one small island in the Indonesian archipelago."

` Well, yeah. H. floresiensis obviously didn't evolve into us.

Instead, Hawks worries that the dispute has been bad for palaeoanthropology and good for creationism. Searching the World Wide Web for information on the Hobbit, he pointed out, uncovers many creationist sites. "They're saying, 'Look! These people don't know what they're doing! They don't know what they're talking about! They're disagreeing about the most basic issues—about whether something is diseased or not!'", Hawks commented. "It's wrong for them to do what they do, but we certainly make it easy for them when we have disagreements like this one. I think that a lot of what has been said is going to have to be retracted. Given the amount of media attention, it just makes the field look incompetent." His conclusion: "Everybody wants a piece of this. Nobody is on the side of the angels now."

` Hopefully, you can see why I'm all for raising awareness about science - including the differences between science and pseudoscience: 'Tricksy humanses' like Jacob (and Feduccia, for that matter) can suddenly make everybody look bad with their illogical notions.
` Arrrgh! The frustration!!! It burns! We hates it!

No comments: