Hominin Evolution Book Review: Bones of Contention (1987)

It has been a while since I posted on my blog and so out of guilt I’m back again to give you all a new post. This time I want to review a book published in 1987 on the political history of Palaeoanthropology. Written by biochemist Roger Lewin (1944 – Present) it charts the history of the science of Palaeoanthropology and is a must read for anyone interested in the origins of the genus Homo. In 1989, Lewin won the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books, for this very work. Many palaeoanthropologists at the top today could use with reading this book, to help them reflect on their own interaction with other workers in the field. The book was later revised in 1997, which at the time of posting was 21 years ago. There is no question that the field in need of an update to see if the field has changed or remained the same. I hope we will see this 3rd edition in the near future. Among other topics there is no doubt that the recent sexual misconduct of some scientists will need to be discussed in that new book. Let’s talk about the book. The title is very appropriate but when I first heard of it many years ago, I couldn’t help but bring out the immature side in me and snigger at the close similarity of the title with “Boners of Contentions”.  I pondered on the potential look of the T-shirt, I could have printed. Anyway, the book covers a number of important moments in palaeoanthropological history.

In no particular order, Lewin discusses the storm surrounding the Taung Child, Ramapithecus, the KBS Tuff, the famous Australopithecus afarensis A.L. 288-1 and finally the work of the Leakey, specifically the father and the son. Here we see human nature at its worst usually, particularly when we get emotionally invested in a fossil or hypothesis or even flawed radiometric dating. Human evolutionary research, whether the workers in the field, like it or not, is storytelling. Storytelling based on evidence, I might add, but it possesses shades of science fiction. The hominin fossil record is extremely fragmentary and the stories told by these fossils are also extremely fragmentary. They are necessarily weak and this is not particularly useful in a field, where the scientists develop emotional attachment to their pet hypotheses. Even in the light of new evidence many still ignore due to the embarrassment of admitting you are wrong, based on the new evidence. In Palaeoanthropology, admitting you were wrong has been virtually impossible. There is really only one recorded case of a straight up “I was wrong and someone else was right”, that honour goes to Arthur Keith and his review of Raymond Darts Taung Child.

The book allows me to reflect on my own strongly held convictions that Homo heidelbergensis is a valid taxon, at a time when palaeoanthropologists generally shy away from using it. I have imbued it with my own emotional attachment and will remain unconvinced that it should be invalidated. But equally, those who argue the latter, are blinded by their own biases. They do forget that the fossil record of the species is incredibly sparse, with only a handful of skulls representing it. Admittedly, they have a point regarding the Mauer Mandible as the holotype of the species. Ideally, the holotype should be a complete skeleton, but the early science of palaeoanthroplogy was not rigorous in how it proposed new species. So, we are stuck with a mandible in a hypodigm entirely of crania, you read right one mandible and a handful of crania. This, I would argue is no grounds to invalidate a species. In debates, the emotional investment, gets in the way of objective thought and they can get quite heated. Thankfully, I’m not the only palaeoanthropology student indulging in Pro-Heidelbergensis camp. In 2017, Roksandic et al., conducted a revision of the representatives of Homo heidelbergensis. Bones of Contention has allowed me to at the very least be aware of my flaws when it comes to interpreting the fossil record, but with the above paragraph, I’ve really only scratched the surface and it will require a separate essay on the topic for the future.

Bones of Contention is a well written book and while it loosely follows event chronologically, Lewin does compare and contrast most of the events, concluding with a theme that binds these momentous events together. The reminder that we are telling stories is the key thought all palaeoanthropologists should be aware of. I’m aware that the latter is quite a risky statement, but in order for the palaeoanthropology student to be as objective as possible, we need to keep reminding ourselves of that. Many at the top, I suspect, will laugh at this as obsurd. One could argue that the science is far more rigorous in every way today than the time Eoanthropus dawsonii was first unveiled to the world. The Humans that study the fossils, well they have not changed. We are still flawed scientists, whether we like to admit it or not. This is uncomfortable for me to say, but it is true. In the early 1900’s, scientists saw hominin evolution as a variation of the chain of being, a line from ancient apes to human’s, today a variation of multiregional evolutionism is the hip new hypothesis with the “river delta” as its logo.

One topic that the book does not cover is the nature of public engagement of palaeoanthropology contrasted with scientific process associated with palaeoanthropology. For me, these are two different worlds, incredibly incompatible and one scoffs at the other in righteous indignation. There will be no way to bridge the gap between the two. Yes, some seem to be bridging this gap, but if you really dig deeper, the reality is very different. Science is an ever shifting process of evidence evaluation, something that is incompatible with the requirement of certainty in the press. I often cringe at the often used phrase that “textbooks will have to be re-written on palaeoanthropology”. This comes as no surprise to any palaeoanthropology student, but this statement implies that palaeoanthropologists had figured out the evolutionary steps hominins took over the past seven million years to get to where we are today. Far from it and this is what angers a lot of palaeoanthropology students and lecturers. The media need a hook and unfortunately the most effective hook to draw the public in is the above statement. You can’t blame them for reaching as wide an audience as possible. But this has meant that palaeoanthropologists in particular are cautious when they engage with the media. The seemingly innocuous move to record conference talks on new scientific findings is very risky from the point of view of the speaker. Choice of words at a presentation on record and the choice of words on the academic paper may be subtly different but they have the potential to ruin the academic standing of the speaker. Additionally, journals have strict embargo rules on when engagement with the media can begin. Break these rules and the paper will never be published. There will remain a tension between these two worlds for many centuries to come. I hope that the 3rd edition of Bones of Contention will cover this in more detail than I have here.

The only criticism I have of the book is the placement of the black and white photographs in the book. It would be more beneficial to have them scattered throughout the book, associated with their appropriate chapters, instead of combining them together  in two groups in the centre of the book. This is not much of a criticism, but it does demonstrate the difficulty I had in my attempt to find one. It is an excellent book. To use a quote from Leonard to Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, reading this book “is like looking into an obnoxious little mirror”. It help us re-examine ourselves and re-focuses our thoughts on a very controversial science.

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Abel Lived 3.5 Million Years Ago Along The Shores of Megachad – Australopithecus bahrelghazali

On the 23rd of January 1995, a team of palaeontologists discovered a fragment of fossil jaw lying on the gravel desert of northern Chad. The fossil could not be accurately dated, nevertheless stratigraphic layers nearby suggested it could be around 3.5 million years of age. Back then, the site of Koro Toro was on the edge of africa-11117a 3 million square kilometre Lake called Megachad. The fossil, now codenamed KT 12/H1 consisted of the front portion of the jaw with a number of teeth still in place. By using Isotopic analysis the diet of the hominin shortly before it died, can be determined. The fossil showed a preference for C4 plants, including sedges and grasses, suggesting that the area around Koro Toro was predominantly grassland. Comparing the fossil to other hominins, the features were considered very different compared to Australopithecus afarensis, 2,500 km away in Ethiopia and Kenya. The French team, led by Michel Brunet, concluded the fossil was part of a new species of AustralopithecusAustralopithecus bahrelghazali. This caused a bit of a stir in the palaeoanthropological community, but progressively began to die down. The lack of fossil finds in Chad thereafter contributed to the rate at which the palaeoanthropological community forgot about the fossil, that was, until 2001. Given the same variety of animals can be found in both Ethiopia and Chad, it is not a stretch to imagine australopithecines travelling between the two regions three million years ago and many palaeoanthropologists now consider the fossil, a variant of Australopithecus afarensis.

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KT12/H1 the holotype of Australopithecus bahrelghazali

How did the fossil make palaeoanthropologists rethink their understanding human evolution? “Abel” as the fossil became to be known reminded palaeoanthropologists that human evolution could have been more complex than previously accepted. Though once you considered the features of an Australopithecus afarensis jaw and compare that to “Abel”, it is acceptable to attach it to the Ethiopian hominin. The differences are subtle. It is worth reminding here however that the use of species names don’t tell us much about the hominins palaeobiology, are primarily to put, order to our understanding of evolution and are a useful means of scientific communication. Palaeoanthropology has had a long history of naming new species, when later we realize we were too optimistic. In the sense, that we forget how useless this venture is. More is learned from the fossils, about a hominins diet, locomotion patterns and physical characteristics than what species it belongs too. Thankfully, science is less focused on this and we are now learning much more about the hominin and the ecosystem it was once a part of. The second way in which “Abel” got us thinking, was via the surprise geographic location. Up until that time, any fossil finds made on the continent of Africa were made exclusively in eastern and southern Africa. “Abel”, reminded us that hominins were not just restricted to those regions and likely could be found all over Africa. Exciting though this prospect was, it could not solve the problem of preservation in areas where fossils cannot survive, in the hostile environments of the Sahel.

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A Gravel Desert in Tunsia