Sunday, March 20, 2005

Understanding the problem

The frequently pro-science New York Times has this bizarre TV review of National Geographic's 'Search for the Ultimate Survivor'. Rather than criticize the errors in the review, I'll assume the reviewer's response is similar to that if an average member of the public. (All emphasis is mine.)
Redrawing a Family Tree With Tryouts From Nature

The National Geographic Channel, as intrepid as a colonist in a pith helmet, lights out once more tomorrow night for perilous ideological territory while remaining resolutely scientific. "Search for the Ultimate Survivor" presents recent revisions to the old ape-to-man version of the development of humankind while spending exactly zero time on religious or other objections to the theory of evolution. …

The discovery that hominids tall and small lived simultaneously further undercuts the authority of the already outmoded standard evolution chart, which represents human development as linear, with one iteration of hominid ending as soon as the next one begins. The documentary argues strenuously against this model, suggesting instead that "nature experimented wildly with the human form," and the lucky experiment that made it through to 2005 - that's us - left the others in the dust. …

So how might humans have turned out, if they hadn't been us? This is where colloquial Darwinism's longstanding reliance on composites, time compression and assumptions about what qualifies as the sine qua non of species-hood begins to muddy the movie's argument, and I got lost.

In spite of the documentary's use of computer-generated images and elaborate man-ape costumes, in other words, it's not really clear how radical the differences were among the various walking apes. Though we learn, at one point, that erectus triumphed over Nutcracker and Handyman, it's hard to see how the winner differed from the losers any more than modern humans differ from one another. In the case of the hobbit and Goliath, the height disparity is supposed to prove that they're two entirely different natural experiments, although equally unlike creatures - for instance, Shaquille O'Neal and the Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan - today are considered equally human.

A striking figure cited by the movie may shed light on the impressionism to which anthropologists and archaeologists are often driven. It's simply this: The few human fossils we have from the relevant period would barely fill the back of a pickup truck. In short, scientists are trying to recreate the world of walking apes from precious little evidence. No wonder so much guessing goes into all of this.

At times, in this suggestive but inconclusive documentary, it's enough to make that old "In the beginning" story sound like hard fact.
Now, it's possible that Ms. Heffernan is a creationist plant sent to muddy the waters, and maybe she's using this as an opportunity to trot out creationist lines and create a false controversy. Maybe this deserves a Behe-style whupping, but I think it should be taken as a sign of where the public is.

There is a sense that evolution is under attack, and that National Geographic ignored that controversy, but did engage a controversy within evolutionary biology. Given the debate over IMAX theatres in the same day's New York Times (and Fafblog's anger that his Fire Monkey theory of volcanoes is ignored), there's reason to worry that pressure will build to include these theories in all documentaries.

Then the reporter repeats the creationist claim that the human fossils we have would barely fit in (some small object). This ties into her concerns about the importance of one single character (size) in distinguishing different hominid species. Either National Geographic does a poor job explaining the details of cranial morphology which, independent of size, distinguish different species, or the reporter didn't catch the importance of that.

Why do evolutionary biologists (or "Darwinists," whoever they are) use composites, time compression, and species definition? Because we have fragmentary fossil evidence that tells us about events stretching across thousands and millions of years. Composites and time compression are the easiest way for scientists to integrate that information into our minds. Maybe it gives the public the impression that we're story telling.

Has the public moved to a better place in their understanding of science, to where they don't need stories with all the complexity stripped out? Could scientists explain some of the statistics they used to distinguish Homo floresensis from H. sapiens and H. erectus?

Please leave comments with your thoughts. Is this an area where scientists need to shift tactics? Are we underestimating the public, or am I (and Ms. Heffernan) over-estimating them?