Thursday, October 05, 2006


Even if you absolutely believe in evolution, you might not get much support if you start investigating who are ancestors are? Because the people you are certain know the most, most certainly know nothing for certain.

On October 4, 2006, Stony Brook University began its annual human evolution symposium. The convenor was Richard Leakey, now a Stony Brook professor (more honorary I believe) whose family has discovered many of the supposedly human or near human fossils that make up the supposed human evolutionary record. Also on hand was Phillip Tobias, now almost 82 years old, a self described founding father of the field, who worked with Richard’s father and mother back in the day. I won’t say he’s old, but he should have began by saying “I knew Homo habilis, Homo habilis was a friend of mine . . . .”. Actually, he was amazingly cogent and brilliant and it was great listening to him.

The speakers were split into two groups. First, in the morning the old guard, Leakey and Tobias, as well as a Leakey protege, Bernard Wood, discussed the early fossil discoveries in Olduvai Valley, Tanzania, and more broadly, how little we actually know about these possible ancestors. The afternoon was dedicated to three relatively younger speakers, from related fields who demonstrated their theories of what we can surmise from the little we do know.

The topic of the morning, particularly Professor Wood’s discussion “Where Does the Genus Homo Begin, and How Would We Know” explored the vast holes in the prevailing theories. Virtually nothing is even relatively certain except that there are old bones, possibly from ancestors, from roughly 1.6 to 2.2million years ago, hewed out of African rock and mineral. Apparently, according to Professor Wood, you could take all the known fossils from the four creatures (if they are actually different) who are our possible ancestors, and store them in one carry-on bag, with room left over for a bottle of whiskey. Using a power point demonstration (watching the difference in familiarity with the relatively new technology between the older and younger speakers was an unintended highlight”) Tobias demonstrated how he recreated the likely skull of Homo habilis (“able man”) from tiny broken pieces in the early 60s. Although there are a couple of relatively complete skeletons around, when you see these complete looking skulls and bones, you are more often looking at much Plaster of Paris and a little bit of bone.

It would be unfair to say that paleontologists don’t know anything about our origins. As Professor Wood said, responding to my own question, “Professor Tobias knows more about the morphology of (ancient man) . . . .”, but it wasn’t clear from his answer what it was Tobias knew for sure. Probably there wasn’t time, and likely my question was too broad to really answer without giving another long lecture. Like most science and other specialties, the language of the field quickly becomes arcane, and there is only so far that lay persons can follow without it.

The morning was not without its drama. Tobias was quite concerned about clearing up what he called the myth that Louis Leaky (Richard’s father, and perhaps the founding father) had hammered away at him with his instinctual decision that habilis was a new species. Tobias’ own recollection, was that Louis did hammer away at him, as was his habit. However, it did not convince him. He described how he slowly pieced together his growing understanding based on Leakey’s findings as well as others involving the skull, jaw, hands and feet, and concluded Leakey was right some five years after the discovery. Regrettably even a revered octogenarian may still be plagued with the same jealousies, misunderstandings and feelings as we all are. It was a lesson more aptly demonstrated than anything you could have learned about paleontology that day. For the record, I believed him, and I would guess everyone else did too.

When Leakey spoke, he directly addressed Tobias, but some spoken tension clearly exists between Tobias, a founding father, and Leakey, a “founding great grandchild” that Leakey addressed. But he said he would do it in a kind way, as Tobias had done with respect to Leakey’s own family. Little more could be learned of this tension, but it appears it was this. Tobias who long labored, and at some risk to his reputation (it was roughly 20 years before his confirming of Leakey’s theory was generally accepted) seemed humbly, but fairly wedded to this theories. Leakey, despite the fame those theories have brought him and his family, openly declared his willingness to throw it all up in the air and consider whether they were all wrong. Doubtlessly, Tobias’ grandfatherly presence in the audience, was occasion for tender steps by Leakey, no youngster himself. There were no flamethrowers present among the speakers, just congenial peers.

Several days of non-public discussions in the home of a benefactor were in front of the participants. That would seem a much more interesting show than what passes for reality on television, to nerds and dweebs at least, the only group I proudly claim membership in. Unfortunately be secluded away from it all to focus on the scientific issues at hand, would probably preclude being filmed. Too bad.

The day after the conference’s opening, I e-mailed the following question to Professor Wood, the rest of the correspondence closely resembling a soppy love letter from a paleo-groupie. Note to the uninitiated in reading this question below – pan is a chimp; ergaster and habilis are possibly early humans up for membership in the Genus Homo, that is the same group as Homo sapien -- us.

“Imagine we could go back in time and actually meet ergaster and habilis, presuming they are different species, and could somehow obtain perfect knowledge of them. Suppose it turned out that ergaster was exactly like modern day humans in appearance and anatomy, differing only in the inability to learn a language, and habilis more closely resembled pan than H. sapien, but was just as capable of learning speech as we are. It is my bet that even with that hypothetically perfect knowledge, some experts would argue that ergaster was Homo, some that habilis was, some neither, and some both. If, in your opinion, I would likely win my bet, then is answering the question of where Homo begins, no matter what degree of knowledge we can obtain, more a matter of simply deciding which paleontologist is deemed most authoritative at any given time? Or, to put it another way, is it a little, or maybe a lot, like determining that Pluto is no longer a planet or that Sedna is? Or is there some point where questions involving the distant past can be said (and I’m borrowing this next concept from law) to be answered with a reasonable degree of paleontological certainty, as perhaps we can say of some physics or biology of living creatures”.

What I was trying to get at is whether there are some studies which can only lead to educated opinions that likely will never be proved or disproved. Darwinism, or evolution, is a theory most often held up to question, particularly of late. The conference did not concern itself with whether evolution exists. It assumed it. Lay persons may have more difficulty in saying whether evolution will ever arise out of its infancy, doomed by the antiquity of its subject matter to finding any final answers. There may be no smoking gun or Manhattan Project for it, even with all the promise the greater understanding of genetics brings to the field There are many open questions about evolution that have nothing to do with creationism or intelligent design. Astronomers, dealing with billions, not just millions of years, seem more confident in considering the beginning of everything, than paleontologists do in considering the beginnings of man.

The paleontologists and other scientists at the conference should be congratulated, not sneered at, for the immense difficulty of their task. Tobias’ own patient studies since 1959 alone (not the beginning of his career, but the first major Leakey finding), is a remarkable achievement. If this field of study does no more than raise new questions, or moves the ball even a little bit, it will be worth it, at least to some of us. Those who believe it

Journalists love to end their pieces with some form of . . . “One thing is for certain . . .” . So, bowing to convention . . . one thing is for certain -- the lunch I was treated to by virtue of being a pre-registered conference attendee and the lowest form of staff at Stony Brook (an adjunct instructor), was sensational. Long live the Wang Center at Stony Brook University.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:46 PM

    This reminds me of the first thing I thought of when Carl Sagan passed away....... he finally knows.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .