Dean Falk’s nonce sense

Open letter, 21 August 2014, to Hannah Devlin of the Times (London), edited and posted 24 August 2014 on www.LiangBuaCave.org

Written in the first person by Robert B. Eckhardt, edited and co-authored by Maciej Henneberg

Dear Ms. Devlin:

I thought that your longer piece in the Times of London (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/science/article4179086.ece), written several days ago on the evolutionary connection of Hallucinigenia to the extant velvet worm, was a succinct report on an elegant and long overdue bit of science: (http://docs.newsbank.com/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/AWNB/14FC8920EB4E0770/0EB90CA9CF65E92A?p_multi=LTIB&s_lang=en-US ). It is gratifying to see solid, objective closure given to scientific problems that in previous years were presented as fabulous (in all of that word’s denotations and connotations).

Hallucinogenia was part of the Burgess Shale fauna around which Stephen J. Gould spun imaginative but sometimes unlikely tales in Wonderful Life. But even lost, lamented Steve at his most creative extreme is likely not to have matched the tales that have been invented and merchandised this decade past about “Homo floresiensis,” aka “The most important find in human evolution for the last 100 years.”

Just below the Hallucinogenia story for some reason you inserted an untitled paragraph, excerpted here: “? Scientists have dismissed as nonsense new research suggesting that the so-called hobbit man of Flores was simply a modern man with Down’s [sic] syndrome….The paper failed to include any comparisons between people with Down’s [sic] syndrome and the fossil [sic]. Professor Dean Falk…told The Observer: ‘If it had, you would see clearly that they look nothing like the Flores specimen. The idea is nonsense.’”

No scientists are named in your excerpt other than Dean Falk, who is part of a very small group of paleoanthropologists who believe that science is advanced by spreading rumors to journalists rather than gathering data broadly instead of narrowly, and only then testing hypotheses, before making nonce comments. It is impossible to stop that sort of behavior, but neither must one credit it. Despite Dr. Falk’s claims, it is the “hobbit” story that, in the context of evolutionary biology, is an absurdity, however persistently and passionately defended. As an aside, I believe that hobbits and dwarfs have their places, but it is in literature rather than as inappropriate ornamentation used to divert attention from deficient inferences that rest chiefly on social validation: see my short essay on “Dean Falk’s Flores Circus” at www.LiangBuaCave.org and posted separately on the site of the British Museum of Natural History, NaturePlus as well as elsewhere.

I am a great fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work as is my wife Carey, a Medieval paleographer who has done serious research in the field including, among other works, publication of the 14th Century Thomas Castleford’s Chronicle in the Early English Text Society series. Since we work together we have been to the Liang Bua Cave multiple times, with Maciej Henneberg, as well as having seen and studied with other members of our group the bones from Flores and the small people still living there. All of us, knowing some literature and science, feel that when we visited Flores we would have recognized a hobbit. We didn’t see any, dead or alive. Per the title of the press release that accompanied our group’s previous paper on the subject (by Jacob T, et al.) in PNAS, “No hobbits in this shire.”

So far, two framing hypotheses have been offered by the Hobbiteers to explain the reported characteristics of the alleged new hominin species (sorry, though never a member, I am of the Mickey Mouse Club generation in the U.S.A. so see many immature behavioral resemblances between the Hobbiteers and the Mouseketeers, though from my preteen years I still think that Annette Funicello was perkier than any of the present Hobbiteers). The hypothetical taxon “Homo floresiensis” first was said to have descended from Homo erectus during long isolation on the island of Flores, with resultant dwarfing to tiny body and brain size. Subsequently an alternative rationalization was offered, deriving the hypothetical new hominin from an unidentified African ancestor that already was characterized by small body and brain size before it migrated between one and two million years ago to Flores over an unknown route, conveniently leaving no remains anywhere along the way. These framing hypotheses are mutually contradictory. Moreover, both are logically indefensible, together or separately, and in any case neither fits all of the biological and cultural evidence without a lot of selective presentation of data, concealment of inconvenient elements, special pleading, and frantic ex post facto jury-rigging.

The latter origin myth (stealth migration from early Africa to Flores) is effectively untestable aside from the Godot strategy: waiting forever for something, anything, to be found along the way; while the former trope (island dwarfing to the extent of separate species status) has been tested by the discoveries on Palau, by which hypothesis test “Homo floresiensis” failed. Palauans from the same broad regional (Australomelanesian) human population of several thousand years ago had very small bodies but brains within modern range for Homo sapiens. Consequently, the LB1 skeleton, with the only known skull from the Liang Bua Cave site, is one off, or a “singularity” as we have termed it, drawing the parallel to mathematical functions having a point that “blows up” under certain circumstances (in this case, that circumstance being examination without rose-colored glasses or the Mallinkrodt Institute CT scanner that eliminates problematical anatomical parts and substitutes impression for quantification). Failure of the Island Isolation framing hypothesis appears to be why the Stealth Migration hypothesis then was invented to account for the unusual bones and unsurprising stones from Flores.

Against this background we have framed and tested an alternative hypothesis: that the Liang Bua Cave skeletons represent a population small in body size but otherwise normal except for the LB1 specimen, which is developmentally abnormal. Because of the alternative framing hypothesis that we have offered, our group finds itself being smeared (a tacky enterprise which your paragraph has furthered to some extent, however unintended). Our main choices are either to ignore a determined disinformation campaign that operates at the edge of slander to impugn our scientific integrity and veracity, or to play a game of whac-a-mole with various smug paleoanthropologists (you quoted Dean Falk, but there are some others with similar fantasies and agendas). My own assessment is that these few highly vocal paleoanthropologists are in the situation often depicted in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons, which are not sophisticated but are symbolically evocative of an insupportable situation as yet unrealized – up in the air inertially before a kinetic fall. Looney Tunes are where you find them, whether Hollywood in California, or Florida and New Mexico.

Another perspective is the one posed decades ago in the financial realm by the British-American inventor of the discipline of security analysis, Benjamin Graham: “In the short run the market is a voting machine; in the long run it is a weighing machine.” For the last decade the vast majority of paleoanthropologists, science writers, and bloggers have been voting for “Homo floresiensis” as a new species with wondrous attributes. The weight of rejection will come as more of the initially credulous onlookers join us as sceptics. In contrast with a more credible assessment (presented in our published papers and put into broader interpretive perspective in the several essays on http://www.LiangBuaCav.org), Dean Falk for years has retailed the myth that the battle to defend “Homo floresiensis” is one in which a tiny band of courageous scientists, not surprisingly, rally ‘round Dean Falk as sort of a modern day Joan of Arc among them, bravely holding aloft not the Lily Banner of France but the Flores hobbit hankie, handy for knowing which way the breeze of media fashion is blowing. These warriors must hold out against vast armies of reactionary human evolutionary biologists who are irrationally defending the status quo (which really is ineffably more complicated, but who needs complex reality when a stirring – and self promoting — simplistic tale can be told?). Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of the matter knows that precisely the opposite is true. Despite the easy verifiability of the real situation, the myth has Dr. Falk shedding her woman’s weeds not for chain mail and a charger but for a lab coat and the trusty Mallinkrodt Institute magic scanner. Thus attired and armed, she assumes the mantle (over or under her lab coat, I’m not sure) of Raymond Dart, who on behalf of Australopithecus africanus really did, largely alone at first, then subsequently with the help of Robert Broom and a very few others, meet massed opposition from the field for about thirty years during the enduringly specious but widely accepted reign of one misleading individual British skull. Dart’s is an exemplary story that is true; Dr. Falk’s is a distorted facsimile; Gucci it ain’t, but street vendors are legion and sell on the cheap.

Raymond Dart worked in an environment shaped by the highly popular find at Piltdown that was endorsed as a valid stem human species, Eoanthropus dawsoni. A majority of anatomists and physical anthropologists (some of them, such as Sir Arthur Keith, highly influential) believed in it. Piltdown was doubted by only a few respected comparative anatomists such as William King Gregory, and by other more marginalized but still highly original morphologists such as Franz Weidenreich. Dart’s support for the hominid status of Australopithecus africanus de facto put him in the position of being against the contrasting pattern represented by Piltdown.

In obsessively defending the validity of “Homo floresiensis” and attacking all unbelievers, Dean Falk publicly represents herself as the present counterpart of Raymond Dart during his years of struggle on behalf of Australopithecus africanus as a valid, primitive hominin species. But… Professor Falk, I knew Raymond Dart. Raymond Dart was a colleague of mine. Professor Falk, you’re no Raymond Dart.

I knew Raymond Dart only to a modest degree but wish intensely that it had been more. During the early to mid 1970s, he offered me advice when I was challenging, at great professional cost, the evolutionary status of Ramapithecus as the earliest hominid. Now Ramapithecus is no more than another of paleoanthropology’s sequential embarrassments that are forgotten as fresh ones are being engendered. Our contact occurred during the period when Dart consulted regularly at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, work made possible because Dart was not only a superb comparative anatomist, but also a medical doctor with interest in diagnosing and helping children believed to have developmentally abnormal brains. Later I also met him in South Africa and was surprised but pleased that he remembered me after nearly a decade. Like many truly great scientists, he was magnanimous in creating and sharing knowledge rather than building and protecting personal status.

Among other members of our research group, Maciej Henneberg has a connection of an indirect sort with Raymond Dart. Dart was for many years Head of the Anatomy Department at Wits (University of the Witwatersrand) in Johannesburg, South Africa. After a long tenure in the position, Dart was succeeded as Wits Anatomy Department Head for more than thirty years by Philip Tobias (who, incidentally, was a reader/referee of our 2006 PNAS paper on the Flores skeletons, endorsing our steadfast views – then as now — that LB1 was not a valid type specimen for a new hominin species, instead being a developmentally abnormal individual). In turn, after a stint in a Communist prison for his activity as a Solidarity leader at Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, and prior to his present appointment as the Wood Jones Professor of Anthropological and Comparative Anatomy at Adelaide, Maciej Henneberg, too, was Wits Anatomy Department Head for a period following Philip Tobias.

It also is worth mentioning briefly here Dr. Kenneth Hsü, the other senior member of our team. According to another journalist, an anthropologist named William Jungers, who is based in Long Island, New York and a common collaborator with Dean Falk, is reported to have said that Dr. Hsü committed “an abuse of the PNAS review process, because Dr. Hsu is a hydrologist and a member of the National Academy (foreign member)….” Compartmentalizing Dr. Hsü as a hydrologist is comparable to describing Michelangelo as a ceiling painter; as with some other things that Dr. Jungers has said when faced with views that he finds challenging intellectually, his recent ad hominem characterization of Dr. Hsü is a faint simulacrum of the truth. Dr. Hsü’s pertinent involvement in our three papers published in PNAS (one in 2006, two in 2014) derives, among other things, from his knowledge of factors influencing the dynamics of sea level change, a matter of great importance to understanding the probabilities and routes of contact between populations on Flores and elsewhere in the region. Among a great many other attainments and distinctions, Dr. Hsü has received the Twenhofel Medal (the highest award from the Society for Sedimentary Geology); the Penrose Medal (the highest honor of the Geological Society of America); and the Wollaston Medal (considered the highest honor in Geology, with previous recipients including Charles Lyell, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Charles Darwin). If questioning some aspect or application of evolutionary theory (as Dr. Hsü has done several times) makes one an anti-evolutionist, then all four of these gentlemen perhaps have earned the epithet of “anti-evolutionist” along with most others in the field who think at all critically. But academics who attack the reputations of others who disagree with them, do so in the hope that some of the diversionary tactics will work by deflecting attention from substantive research findings. Unfortunately, they sometimes do, at least for a time. So what?

Make no mistake. Before writing and publishing our two recent papers in PNAS, we knew that there would be an attempt to exact a reputational penalty for what is at its core not only a challenge to the interpretation of “Homo floresiensis” as such, but also is an attempt to shine a spotlight onto the central dogma of paleoanthropology: mophological difference = species distinctiveness; this assumed identity statement then usually is framed within a Kiplingesque Just-So Story, the more exotic the better. If one visualizes the challenge to “H. floresiensis” as a valid species and the challenge to paleoanthropology’s central dogma as circles in a Venn diagram, they overlap quite extensively, since the first very largely is a subset of the second. A third circle overlapping these two is the scientific refereeing system as it now exists in a very imperfect form (to be generous); abuse of the supposedly impartial refereeing system is an increasingly serious problem in all of science, but nowhere more than in paleoanthropology. There is neither time not space here to address, as it should be more fully, this larger matter of rigged refereeing. However, there should be no doubt that the cries of outrage on the part of Dean Falk, Chris Stringer, William Jungers, and a few others, are not raised legitimately over our referees’ abilities or suitability, but because somehow we managed to get our ideas about the Liang Bua Cave specimens out into the open where the expanded body of evidence can be considered and the resultant new hypotheses tested. We hope that many evolutionary biologists will be willing actually to read our two recent papers (which are available free on PNAS Open Access). After studying the papers, as well as the previous literature on the Liang Bua Cave skeletons, readers who have a sense of academic integrity might think about the contents and implications of the papers before posting comments or writing replies, something that I have not seen much evidence of so far. To comment without reading what we have written represents the best (that is to say, the worst) tradition of attacking the messenger so as not to have to deal with the message, and also thereby giving others – particularly science writers and other journalists — an excuse for also not reading the papers.

What about Dean Falk’s statement that “The paper failed to include any comparisons between people with Down’s [sic] syndrome and the fossil [sic]… ‘If it had, you would see clearly that they look nothing like the Flores specimen. The idea is nonsense.’”

Dr. Falk’s statement is untrue on its face. It does not acknowledge that “comparisons” legitimately and conventionally can be verbal as well as visual (as well as auditory, olfactory, and tactile, not applicable here). This specially restricted usage is not original with Dr. Falk, however. In it she echoes the sentiments of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

In science “mastery” properly refers to level of understanding of the subject matter, not as here, the power to restrict expression about it.

The broader misrepresentations attributed to Dr. Falk in the brief quote range from disingenuous to deceptive.

  1. The Liang Bua Cave remains are not fossils in any sense other than the Latin literal meaning of “something dug up from beneath the surface of the ground.” They are rather soft and fragile unfossilised bones (to such an extent that in 2005 I would not handle many of them for fear of causing damage); thus applying the term fossil to these bones from Flores implies a false antiquity. This misleading aura also pervades the first two papers that appeared late 2004 in Nature on “Homo floresiensis” as well as many of the largely descriptive pieces published on them in the Journal of Human Evolution. All of those papers, with their rhetorical but anatomically equivocal comparisons with Homo erectus and earlier hominins, could have used some critical referees; but of course unlike our papers in PNAS, whose readers are acknowledged freely and thus exposed to criticism, referees of the Nature and JHE papers remain covert and cannot be called to responsible account.
  2. There is not one paper recently published by us in PNAS. There are two. The first presents the evidence that LB1, the type specimen of “Homo floresiensis,” is developmentally abnormal. This condition necessarily bars it from being accepted as the type specimen of a valid, unique species. In that first paper we make the point that regardless of any particular diagnosis, “Homo floresiensis” is fatally flawed as a valid taxon. The Falks of the world will, by sidestepping the logic, ignore that inconvenient impediment to their views, continuing their practice of years past. The second paper then builds on that critique of species status to outline the basis for a diagnosis of LB1 (and as far as we can tell from the sparse evidence, only LB1), as presenting a strikingly good match for an individual with Down syndrome. Again, counter to Dr. Falk’s deceptive statement that we failed “to include any comparisons between people with Down’s [sic] syndrome,” these comparisons are made in our Table 1 and extensively in one of the online supplements, where we provided five pages of detailed descriptive comparisons between LB1 and individuals with Down syndrome. The matches in facial asymmetry, pelvic morphology, and inter-limb proportions are particularly apposite.
  3. What of visual comparisons? In their attacks on previously attempted specific diagnoses for the anomalies seen in LB1 (e.g. Laron syndrome, endemic cretinism – neither of which was ours), a key tactic used by the Hobbiteers was presentation of one or a few visual examples (such as radiographs) that were said not to match. In the case of Down syndrome this inherently typological strategy will not work except as allowed by credulous or complicit journal editors. If past is prologue, the extremely great range and diversity of syndromic expressions (here, in Down syndrome) will be denied, misrepresented, or not represented at all. This is not to say that our hypothesis cannot be tested, but rather that we doubt most seriously that Dr. Falk and her collaborators have the inclination and ability to do this adequately and objectively, or that sympathetic journal editors will oblige them to do so.
  4. From previous observations of the papers that we have seen from the supporters of “Homo floresiensis” we anticipate that regional variation in human populations will be ignored. Typical of this stratagem is the repeated comparison of the LB1 skull with that of some strikingly contrasting specimen of an unidentified extant Homo sapiens individual (the image having been used persistently on the web sites of Nature and National Geographic, among others), almost certainly from a European population. The visual effect of such a comparison is to have scale effects swamp other points of visual comparison. In our first paper, “Rare events…,” Fig. S2 takes regional anatomical features into account, comparing the LB1 skull with that of Liang Momer E, a later human burial on Flores, also using a more comparable anatomical orientation. Among recent humans – a sample that includes the individuals represented by bones from the Liang Bua Cave as well as those on Palau – geographic regional population resemblance is critically important. And overall, variation within and between populations is far more extensive – and patterned — than has been acknowledged by many paleoanthropologists.

What about the potential comparative evidence from the Liang Bua Cave itself?

Part of the framework of casuistry propping up “H. floresiensis” is that the species is represented in the form of a fairly large number of individual specimens. Numbers such as 9, 11, 13, 14 often are mentioned as comprising the sample. The resultant impression is incredibly misleading. The LB1 specimen has the only skull, along with about a third or half of the rest of the skeleton (most long bones, incomplete clavicle, most foot bones, a few carpals, etc.). But the tally of bones per individual falls off sharply from there. Probably next is LB6, with a mandible, partial scapula, several carpals, etc. From there the tally of bones per each individual skeleton decreases steadiy, finally dropping to a scatter of fragments. Maciej Henneberg and I know that this is the case because we are among the very few people outside of the selected group of “H. floresiensis” supporters to have seen all of the bones in Indonesia. We have been trying — not only without success but completely without any acknowledgment that the matter is of any interest — to have Peter Brown and the Indonesian curators publish photographs of the set of bones assigned to each of the individuals enumerated (but so far not systematically illustrated). There exist published photos of LB1 (repeated everywhere), but not any comparable photos for any of the remaining individuals. For the most part, only photographs of selected bones have been published. So now let’s have them: LB6, LB2,…LB14, etc. Then there should be, I think, one last photo that shows all of the unassigned bits; these will be small, indeterminate, and fairly numerous. Assembling each of the sets of individual bones would not require much time (the sorting and enumeration must have been done already, else whence the notional numbers of individuals?); nor would taking the photographs be difficult. Any one of several journals would publish such a set of photographs without demur or delay. If this were done, then everyone would have a more realistic visual image of the amount of evidence that actually exists for the material recovered from Liang Bua Cave. Until then, they don’t. And it is particularly baffling that almost no one seems to care. It seems that we have faith-based paleoanthropology. Because I’m not long on faith, I’ll offer a hypothesis: photographs for each separate individual in the total sample of bones, as called for here, will not be published. That hypothesis easily could be tested, but it will not be because to do so would shatter the carefully built impression of numerous individuals showing high phenotypic uniformity.

As a well-regarded journalist you occupy an important position in this scientific standoff. One small step would be to clarify in print that you merely were repeating, not endorsing, Dr. Falk’s biased characterization of our work. Beyond that, we hope that you will take another step that should be considered as entirely neutral, but potentially of enormous benefit to the study of human evolutionary biology in raising the level of discourse about the Liang Bua Cave bones: helping to catalyze release of the requested full set of photographs, one per individual, of all of the supposedly numerous skeletons from the cave.

In your longer article that preceded the paragraph cloned from the Guardian Observer, you noted that the taxon Hallucinigenia had been said to be part of a radiation but itself left no descendants. Part of the genius of the recent insightful discovery is that, despite the organism’s apparent oddities, by using a different perspective (turning it upside down) scientists could connect the organism to some extant populations. Our approach has been to look at the LB1 specimen not upside down but from the outside in. We purposefully have removed discussion of the Liang Bua Cave bones from the exclusively insiders’ perspective that had been used so far by some narrowly trained paleoanthropologists, to broader comparison with biomedical evidence as well, all within in a geological and biogeographic framework. As a result, our group’s research points in the same direction as the findings about Hallucinigenia: despite their diversely unusual aspects, the inhabitants of Liang Bua Cave are related to surviving extant human populations of the region, and are transformed by this broadening of perspective from being a misrepresented, inexplicable alien to a developmentally different person of a very human minority who still walk among us hoping individually for acceptance rather than stigmatization as being so alien as not to be accepted as part of our own species.

 

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

– George Orwell

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