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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Human evolution: Hype, tripe, trumpets, and (lagging some way after, way out of breath) truth and realism

In the flailing New York Times, we read

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Six years after their discovery, the extinct little people nicknamed hobbits who once occupied the Indonesian island of Flores remain mystifying anomalies in human evolution, out of place in time and geography, their ancestry unknown. Recent research has only widened their challenge to conventional thinking about the origins, transformations and migrations of the early human family.
Indeed, the more scientists study the specimens and their implications, the more they are drawn to heretical speculation.
A friend comments, "I sure am drawn to heretical speculation."

While we are here, a reader wrote me to ask,

Do you think that finds like the recent Messil Pit (Lemur) fossil and the Flores "Hobbit" find work against a case for Intelligent Design?
I replied,

It’s unclear to me that Flores man is really a separate species, but even if they were, they lived exactly like other ancient humans.

This recent Messil Pit find bolsters the case of the lemur supporters against the previously dominant tarsier supporters.

That only creates more confusion about origins, it seems to me, rather than resolving anything.

Where you have opposing histories, evidence that strengthens one history must weaken the other.

It does not necessarily add up to a gain in information.

What if the tarsier advocates find a fossil that bolsters their case in, say, 2012?

And who’s to say that won’t happen - as it has happened already?
One science writer, Ed Yong, seems to have got free of the hype.

Yesterday, the entire world changed noticeably as the media, accompanied by some scientists, unveiled a stunning fossilised primate. The creature has been named Darwinius masillae, but also goes by Ida, the Link, the Chosen One and She Who Will Save Us All...
Heck, even Google bit the farm. And here are some more links to the media meltdown.

I can but hope that many colleagues join Yong. We can't know what really happened until we establish what really didn't happen. There has not been a lot of that in this area.

Amid the media meltdown, here's an appropriately skeptical article from a source I would not have expected, New Scientist, (Chris Beard, "Why Ida fossil is not the missing link", May 21, 2009),

Apart from anything else, the actual history of the fossil would suggest approaching it with extreme caution rather than treating it as another occasion for ridiculous Darwin worship.

But too much is at stake for most pop science media; they can't stop now.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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