Marks Biological Anthropology

Between Press Release and Science

Posted by / Science


In the last month we’ve seen big press releases announcing big discoveries: sequencing gorilla DNA, Clovis tools, Red Deer People. But in each case, there has been distance between press release hype and actual science. Of course we need good science–DNA sequencing, archaeological interpretations, fossil finds and analysis. And it is inevitable that press coverage can take things to places where careful science never intended. However, there is also scientific responsibility. As Ken Weiss puts it in the first entry below: “How much should we tolerate?” The danger is that in overblowing the significance of these findings, funding and other resources could be cut, or people could become more skeptical of science than they already are.

Fortunately a number of smart anthropology bloggers have stepped up to provide context for these findings. It’s also interesting to see that at least in the case of the gorilla DNA paper, some of the co-authors have been quite active on the blogs, so it is worth reading into the comment streams.

I provide a selection below, but please let me know what I’m missing.

Gorilla DNA

Pander Bear: How much should we tolerate?, Ken Weiss
The gorilla genome sequence represents another bit of data we have to work with in studying our evolution and genetics. Like many other kinds of knowledge, it could contribute to important advances in understanding. But that’s true of almost any kind of data about life. Claims like this story’s are close to the line of outright lying by otherwise respectable scientists, or else by journalists who are either unqualified or dishonorable. The pander bears cry wolf so often that we in genetics will have richly deserved to have our funding deeply cut, if the austerity police come round looking for fat.

The Mermaid’s Tale, 9 March 2012

Gorilla my dreams, I adore you, Jonathan Marks
The model that fits the data best is not a model of two successive bifurcations, but what we called at the time a “trichotomy” and now would call “reticulate” or even “rhizotic” evolution.

Anthropomics, 17 March 2012

Go, go, Gorilla genome, Adam Van Arsdale
Speciation in large-bodied mammals is not instantaneous and true isolating mechanisms are especially slow to develop, allowing for continued periodic or isolated instances of meaningful genetic exchange between diverging lineages. . . . The fundamental messiness of speciation across this group as evidenced by these genomic data is a big part of why I am not sympathetic to models of human evolution postulating many concurrent hominin taxa.

Gorilla genomics and hearing evolution
It is a mistake to view the evolution of hearing to be directed specifically to language; instead human and gorilla lineages are both adapting to an aural environment different from ancestral hominoids. In both these lineages, there was an increase in body size and reduction in the mean frequency of vocalizations, enough to prompt adaptive changes.

John Hawks Weblog, 8 March 2012

Clovis technologies

A Solutrean publicity blitz
About all the “Solutrean Paleoindian” news this week. There is no new evidence, no revelation, no reason why other archaeologists should revisit this issue at this time. The news is free publicity for the release of a book. . . . At this point, somebody reputable needs to review this and give a serious account of the book’s claims, because there’s too much hype going around.

John Hawks Weblog, 3 March 2012

Peopling of the Americas: Stanford and Bradley’s Across Atlantic Ice, Rob Gargett
Has anyone actually seen whatever published findings gave rise to this claim of Solutrean-tool-making Europeans migrating across sea ice or along it, just to stake a claim on a place they’d never seen before and had no reason to know even existed?

Red Deer People

Longlin Fossils, Adam Van Arsdale
These discoveries (actually documentation of fossils recovered in 1979) have gotten a lot of attention in the news media, and I am a little baffled. As an example, The New Scientist story on the PLOSone paper describing the fossils is titled, “Chinese human fossils unlike any known species.” But they are. They are like recent modern humans from East Asia.

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