A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Words of Wisdom

"Immediate rest is the best remedy for a bad idea insisting to be blogged."

What I Meant to Say Was ...

I was doing some research online this week... Okay, I was Googling my own name. Like you haven't done that. Anyway, I ran across some quotations from one of my reviews in a very unexpected place: a couple of Web sites devoted to "intelligent design."

Now, I happen to think that the intelligent-design argument is hokum, an attempt to undermine the credibility of what seems to me perfectly credible: the scientific evidence for human evolution. I'm certainly no scientist, but it seems to me perfectly evident that evolution is established science and that human beings, being biological creatures, are as subject to evolutionary process as any other biological creatures.

What continually amazes me is that perfectly sane people, here in America, seem to have doubts about evolution -- at least according to pollsters (whose scientific methods I don't entirely trust).

This is the review, written some time ago for the Mercury News, that the intelligent-design hucksters seized upon. The key passages that they quoted from it are

THE FIRST HUMAN: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors
By Ann Gibbons
Anchor, 336 pp., $14.95 paperback

According to a Gallup poll taken in 2004, 45 percent of Americans believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago." More than 50 years after the Scopes trial, and 135 years after Darwin published "The Descent of Man," lots of people still find it hard to believe in human evolution.

But though the fuss over "intelligent design" and other anti-evolutionary arguments has made a lot of headlines lately, it barely surfaces in Ann Gibbons' colorful and readable book about the search for human origins. In "The First Human," Gibbons, who reports on human evolution for Science magazine, gives a lucid account of the science involved in finding fossils, establishing how old they are, and ascertaining whether they in fact belong to the ancestors of humankind. She also shows how difficult and sometimes dangerous the work of hunting for 7 million-year-old fossils can be. And that, like most humans, anthropologists are subject to such emotions as ambition and jealousy, especially when they're Indiana Jonesing for the next big find.

Not even the most charismatic anthropologist swashbuckles like Harrison Ford, but some of them do have touches of glamour. "With his complex character and dark humor he could have sprung from a Hemingway novel," Gibbons says of Tim White, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. In 1993 White and his team were flown from San Francisco to Ethiopia in billionaire Gordon Getty's private jet, because Getty's wife, Ann, was studying anthropology at UC-Berkeley and was a field worker in the expedition.

But White is also a no-nonsense type who likes to demonstrate the harsh reality of fossil-hunting for lecture audiences. He tells them that to re-create the conditions in the Afar rift of Ethiopia, he would have to heat the auditorium to 100 degrees, "blow in dust and sand, and bring in two dump trucks filled with scorpions, snakes, and malarial mosquitoes." In the course of his research, White has contracted malaria, Gibbons reports, as well as giardia, dysentery, hepatitis and pneumonia.

White is not the only fossil-hunter who has suffered. Richard Leakey lost both legs when he crashed his plane in Kenya, and field workers have been killed by bandits and warring tribes. Teams are often threatened by the volatile politics of post-colonial Africa, where virtually all field research into human ancestry is conducted. One researcher was expelled from Ethiopia because of suspicions that he was working for the CIA. During the political turmoil of the 1980s, all fossil research in Ethiopia was halted by the country's government for eight years.

And sometimes competing research teams are a threat to one another. Leakey virtually sewed up paleontology research in Kenya by cutting a deal with the government, and rival researcher Martin Pickford was arrested when he tried to make an end run around that arrangement. But Pickford could be equally protective of what he considered to be his turf. He once charged a Yale University team with raiding and corrupting a fossil site he laid claim to. When a Yale researcher returned to the site, she was met by a man who challenged the validity of her permits and added to the intimidation by flashing a gun tucked into his waistband.

These tensions and turf wars arise because the rewards for discoveries – foundation grants, academic tenure, awards, prizes and public acclaim – have escalated since Donald Johanson's celebrated discovery of Australopithecus afarensis, a 3.1 million-year-old hominid popularly known as "Lucy," in 1974. Lucy's reign as the oldest known human ancestor lasted for nearly 20 years. Then in 1992 a team including White and Japanese paleoanthropologist Gen Suwa discovered Ardipithecus ramidus, which has been dated at 4.4 million years old, and a string of other discoveries followed over the next decade. The latest of them, by Michel Brunet in Chad in 2002, potentially pushes back known human ancestry to 6 or 7 million years ago.

Nothing that old is in good shape, of course. We're not talking about complete skeletons but about teeth, the occasional jawbone or skull or thighbone, sometimes on the verge of crumbling into chalky dust. But in every case there's just enough to convince researchers, and their peers that review their research, that a hominid, and not an ancestor of an ape, has been found. But usually there's also little enough to provoke ongoing controversy.

Which is why the layperson asks, as a journalist did at a symposium that brought together some of the eminent discoverers: "Why do you scientists always argue about your fossils? Why don't you share the fossils?" Gibbons points out that one reason is that the fossils don't belong to the researchers, they're "the priceless property of the nations where they were found." But she also explains that consensus would be hard to reach even if the hominid scraps were gathered in one place. "Together, the fossils collected in the 1990s and early 2000s would cover a large desk and would represent a few dozen individuals at least," she notes. But too many pieces are still missing from the puzzle – including fossils of the ancestors of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas – to allow for a clear picture of the evolutionary lineage.

So in the end, "The First Human" is a bit like a detective story without a conclusion, or like a detective story that puts Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, V.I. Warshawski, Easy Rawlins and Gil Grissom all in the same room, gives them a handful of clues, and lets them argue endlessly about the solution. The characters in Gibbons' book are almost as colorful and cantankerous as those fictional sleuths. Science writing is rarely this entertaining.


It's easy to see what the intelligent designers are up to: snatching from the context of the review sentences that suggest anthropologists are scrabbling and competitive types, some of whom are not very nice, and that their evidence doesn't amount to much.

Okay, granted that that's sort of what I meant, it was hardly my intent to undermine their credibility. On the contrary, I meant to admire the persistence and the diligence with which anthropologists conduct their work, their ability to discern evolutionary change from fossils that most laypersons would casually crush under their feet. And that although tempers flare, grudges are held, and important finds are not readily shared, those are human failings, not signs that the science is fundamentally flawed.

Anyone who knows scientists, or academics of any stripe, knows that they can be petty and jealous people. But the truth will out, and the truth, as I see it, is that human evolution is a well-established fact, and that intelligent design is just an ad hoc, unscientific theory cooked up by ideologues whose earlier theory, "creationism," has imploded.

But the real lesson learned here is that I need to be more careful about tone in my reviews.