Dean Falk’s Flores Circus

By Robert B. Eckhardt

(written for and reposted here and on The Conversation 10 August 2014)

Excerpt from the above link:

“The debate over the origins of LB1 has been going on for about a decade now. Other researchers have posted several rebuttals to claims made by researchers working on the skeletal remains, ‘When this one is refuted, and it will be, then they’ll find something else,’ said Dean Falk of Florida State University and the School for Advanced Research NBC News. ‘It’s good to have people who can be skeptical, but this is turning into a circus.’”

Dr. Falk’s comment seems to have been written as a nonce reaction to news reports about our group’s interpretations of the Liang Bua Cave skeletal remains, because our view differs from hers. The Falkian approach as quoted insists that the findings of anyone who disagrees with the “new species” dogma will of course be refuted. This may happen, of course, because our group accepts that we are dealing with scientific inference rather than divine revelation, but there is a difference between reflexively attacking the authors of scientific papers, vs. assessing the substance of the findings that they have published. In this case Dr. Falk clearly has done the former, which although not surprising, is disappointing. Her insouciant preference for emotions over evidence is signaled by various subtle glosses: The phrase “rebuttals to claims made by researchers working on the skeletal remains” implies that members of our group have not worked with the original materials; our papers make it clear that we have, which Dr. Falk knows very well anyway. Saying that the continuing disagreement over interpretation of the bones “is turning into a circus” is a partially true but peculiarly distorted perspective, like that given by a funhouse mirror that turns one’s perception upside down from reality.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Flores circus. It rolled into view late in October of 2004 with the first two papers published by the group dominated by the Australians Peter Brown and Michael Morwood (sadly, Mike now is deceased; he was a complex, energetic, and interesting person, and is survived by a wife and daughter, both of whom I have met and like; I send them my condolences and wish them well). Back to the circus. As initially represented in contemporaneous and subsequent media reports, the parade was led by a sort of gender dysphoric Snow White being, accompanied by 7 + 6 other little people. The LB1 individual stereotypically is referred to as female but in the earliest reconstruction is depicted as rather hirsute facially, though with skin elsewhere sufficiently glabrous as not to mask prominent male external genitalia; holding the latest mode in magic wand/cudgels; and with a fetching giant dead rat as a combination fur stole/takeout lunch draped fashionably over the left shoulder. The circus menagerie trailing after what later came to be marketed as an “alien from earth” included elephants, great slithery voracious dragons, those giant rats that had managed to survive the hunt, and eventually even hominin-menacing storks. Leading from behind was the bandwagon. Aboard that vehicle were a great many people tricked out as scientists, some with formal academic credentials that had been left behind at the office or lab in the hurry to climb aboard. Not having access to the evidence or time to devote to analysis, most traded snatches of gossip and rumor, employing skills honed during the childhood game of “grapevine.”

I’ll make a brief attempt here to cut from what one wishes were mere satire, to science: LB1 was said by Brown, et al., to be female, but with no detailed, systematic evidence ever presented in support of this guess; our 2006 PNAS paper gives calculations that show LB1 to be male, but on the gracile end of the distribution, as would be entirely consistent with the present human population living in the region. Our current papers provide further data on this point. The specimens originally described in Nature numbered just two, one of which was an isolated tooth. Since then the number of accompanying little people variously has been given from about three to thirteen, with no systematic estimation yet provided of minimum/maximum/probable numbers of individuals whose bones were recovered from Liang Bua Cave. The elephants were stegodons that reportedly grew and shrank with time and inter-island group swims; the “dragons” of course were of the varanid sorts, giant monitor lizards found on Komodo and elsewhere. The large rats often have been said to occur only on islands and thus to be part of the Flores isolation story (now largely abandoned anyway, though still sporadically embraced), but they also occur on New Guinea as well as the Asian, African, and South American mainlands. The South American Giant Rat, Kunsia tomentosus is the largest living rat. The storks were reconstructed to be twice the height of the hominins

[ ]. For a long time no “hobbit” height was too short in the minds of creative writers. Commenting in Science, Jared Diamond used words alone to lop about half a foot (15 centimeters or so) from the originally reported, exaggeratedly short, stature.

For the last decade our group – and a few other groups that deserve mention (those associated with Albert Czarnetzki, Israel Hershkovits, Robert Martin, Ralph Holloway, Charles Oxnard and Peter Obendorf, Gary Richards, come to mind, and I apologize for those that I may have missed) – have been trying to turn the “Hobbit” circus into science.

As we point out in one of our pair of recent papers in PNAS, the approach taken by Falk and her associates has been to attack one or another supposed flaw in each of the attempted diagnoses offered so far to explain what is abnormal about LB1, then to proclaim something on the order of (I paraphrase here) “See! The Hobbit did not suffer from [particular diagnosis], so is normal after all.” This is illogical, and I do not know whether I would prefer that Dr. Falk does or does not realize that her reasoning is faulty. So far, however, this tactic at least has seemed to work on many science writers (though not all – John Noble Wilford is a notable exception, and there are a few others).

Now we are confronting this tactic head on. The first of our recent papers, with the catchy title “Rare events in earth history include the LB1 human skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a developmental singularity, not a unique taxon,” makes the point that whatever the specific diagnosis based on its symptoms, LB1 is abnormal. Being abnormal, it cannot be used as the type specimen for a new species.

In our second paper we have made the case for LB1 having Down syndrome. This diagnosis cannot be counted as certain, for the simple reason that material needed to reconstruct a karyotype does not exist; so far recovery of even reliable fragmentary DNA has been elusive. But Down syndrome was diagnosed even before its underlying developmental genetic cause was found to be due to chromosome imbalance in 1956. Those earlier diagnoses were based largely on physical features, as is ours.

Together our two papers provide an elegantly simple unifying explanation for all of the data that have come out of Liang Bua Cave, not requiring multiple subsidiary hypotheses or special pleading. The same cannot be said for the dogma (morphological difference = new species) stereotypically favored by Dr. Falk and many other paleoanthropologists.

To us the uncommon physical characteristics of the LB1 individual do not require exclusion from our species as it existed thousand of years ago on Flores, any more than they would justify rejection of developmentally different people among us now as less than human. Rather, the differences we see in LB1 signal that even in a marginal environment, compassion and mutual aid can be hallmarks of our common humanity that allowed survival of a developmentally unusual individual to adulthood.

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