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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Eventlog – 15th of January 1942 – Dawn and Demise of Meganthropus palaeojavanicus

The History of Palaeoanthropology is dominated by an obsession of applying new latin genus and species names to nearly every fossil that made its way into scientific scrutiny. With the passing of the 20th century, this obsession dissipated as scientists began to realise such preoccupations were redirecting some much needed attention away from many important relevant questions. Today’s Eventlog reminds us of what had been. But first let me introduce three gentlemen.

W. C. B. Koolhoven was a Dutch Director of the Geological Survey of the Netherlands Indies. Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) was a german anatomist and palaeoanthropologist, based for much of his life in Beijing, China and had a long association with the Homo erectus fossils of Zhoukoudian, China. Finally, let me introduce Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald (1902-1982) a german palaeontologist, geologist and Palaeoanthropologist. Interested in geology and fossils from a young age, Gustav vonKoenigswald worked in Java propecting for hominin fossils. The Dutchman and two germans crossed paths in discussions about two Javan fossil mandibles. The debate centred around the size of the mandibles, which at that time seemed too big to be attributed to Homo erectus.

And so on this day the 15th of January 1942, Koolhoven wrote a letter to Weidenreich letting him know that vonKoenigswald was keen to attribute Sangiran 5 and 6a to Meganthropus palaeojavanicus. It would be eight years before vonKoenigswald would introduce the new genus and species formally. Over the next few decades, M. palaeojavanicus began its slow dissolution from scientific discourse, replaced by the hominin Homo erectus.