My uncle used to work at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was an artist in his soul and, among many other activities, designed the dioramas for the various exhibits. His favorite by far was the work he did at the Hall of Human Origins. He would often talk with great respect of Ian Tattersall, the British-born paleo-anthropologist who has spent his career at the museum and is still there as a curator emeritus. Indeed, as I have become familiar with the human evolution literature, I have gathered that Dr. Tattersall has a rock-solid reputation for doing high quality work, and has an even hand in a field given to academic drama. He has just published a book, The Strange case of Rickety Cossack, and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution.
I have not read the book, but. rather, a review of it in
Science, but that is all I have to read to know that it will irritate me no matter how well written it is. It will irritate me because he is dragging out for a flogging, the paradigm that paleontologists of all stripes have been beating to death for a half century. Steven J. Gould was the reigning impresario, dishing down decades of dripping disdain. The object of all this scorn is the man-centered “ladder” approach to evolution, like Homer’s evolutionary history depicted below.
Splitter: “Evolution is a bush, you hopeless narcissistic dopes; its not all about a line of you-wannabes climbing up the ladder of evolution! All the different species go their own separate ways, and one of them just happens to squeak through”
This, of course, is part of the Enlightenment narrative (see this) of progressive dethronements of human arrogance. But please trust me, when I tell you that it’s truly not hearing yet another version of this academic grievance that would grate on me in this book; it’s the accompanying courage-brave-frontier portrayal—the ethos that splitters are in a tough-but-noble crusade—that really gets under my skin.
What we have here is a another splitter disrespecting us lumpers. In a cheap shot, he (or maybe it is the person who wrote the review) claims that the lumper-ladder-theory enjoyed an edge after WWII because “It became associated with an anti-racist commitment to variation within a singular, progressive human lineage.” Really, did he have to drag race into this? So, in all fairness, I do feel compelled to point out that Dr. Tattersall owes his readers the courtesy of a disclaimer like we doctors are forced to make with respect to our dubious connections with the pharmaceutical industry. The disclaimer is that, of course he likes the bush theory because that creates lots of splitting work; he’s a professional splitter; that’s what he does—he is in the business of making distinctions between hominin fossils. He wouldn’t be in much demand working in the straight-up lumper-ladder paradigm would he?
The splitters hate us lumpers because, while they’re down in the trenches sweating out the details, us fuzzy-wuzzy big-picture lumpers sit back and do nothing but make pronouncements that splitting is a boring waste of time.
I do enormously admire Dr. Tattersall for remaining true-blue to his mentor/predecessor, George Gaylord Simpson and not caving in like the rest of us meek sheep to having our hominid family demoted to a hominin tribe. He still uses the term hominid: BRAVO!
But, seriously, according to this blog’s theory of human evolution, the physical differences between the various hominin species is superficial. That is because the real evolutionary action was in the brain, not the skull or the rest of the skeleton. The changes rendered in the brain were on account of the principle hominin adaptation, which has always been coordinated behavior. With the evolution of coordinated behavior came a language system in which all individuals in a given group had to fathom together the evolved intentions of their group. This meant constant signaling and receiving (jabbering) in order to ascertain, in-the-moment, a running consensus, or at least a quorum, of, what the very best move would be for all of them to next make. Everyone has to look at each other all the time because they are constantly talking, talking, and back six million years ago, most of the talking was gesturing, mainly with the hands. The point is that the volume of information that had to be transmitted—essential for the maintenance of their crucial advantage—was of such a magnitude that they had to evolve to stand up so everyone could look and gesture at each other continuously.
Under this theory, information from leg and foot bone fossils becomes less relevant to the physical environment, because it is more an adaptation to the social environment, which all hominin species shared in common. The evidence for such an hypothesis would be found in seeking similarities in the bones and not differences, i.e.: lumping.
Any paleoanthropological lumpers left out there?