Newsweek on Human Evolution

Allow me to direct your attention to the cover story from the current issue of Newsweek. It provides a useful summary of recent developments in human evolution.

It’s a decent article, and I recommend reading it through to the end. There are, however, a few irritating points:

The science of human evolution is undergoing its own revolution. Although we tend to see the march of species down through time as a single-file parade, with descendant succeeding ancestor in a neat line, the emerging science shows that the story of our species is far more complicated than Biblical literalists would have it–but also more complex than secular science suspected.

Secular science? Oh, brother. There is, of course, only one kind of science.

And who, exactly, is the “we” that tends to see the march of species down through time as a single-file parade? Certainly not scientists, who haven’t held so simplistic a view of things for decades. Sadly, one of the tropes of science coverage in mainstream media outlets is that everything has to be presented as a revolution. That often requires oversimplifying the way people “used” to look at things. Alas, this trope comes up several times in the article.

Mostly the article discusses how genetic analyses and paleoneurology (roughly, using the impressions on the insides of skulls to draw inferences about the kinds of brains they housed) are supplementing fossils as a way of resolving details of human evolution. I found the following example especially interesting:

Head lice live in the hair on the head. But body lice, a larger variety, are misnamed: they live in clothing. Head lice, as a species, go back millions of years, while body lice are a more recent arrival. [Mark] Stoneking, an evolutionary anthropologist, had a hunch that he could calculate when body lice evolved from head lice by comparing the two varieties’ DNA, which accumulates changes at a regular rate. (It’s like calculating how long it took a typist to produce a document if you know he makes six typos per minute.) That fork in the louse’s family tree, he and colleagues at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology concluded, occurred no more than 114,000 years ago. Since new kinds of creatures tend to appear when a new habitat does, that’s when human ancestors must have lost their body hair for good–and made up for it with clothing that, besides keeping them warm, provided a home for the newly evolved louse.

114,000 years ago is certainly a plausible estimate, based on other evidence, for when hominids started losing their hair. I like this, since it is yet another small example of the way numerous tiny pieces of evidence dovetail into a coherent picture of our evolutionary history. What Stoneking did here, applying evolutionary theory to a small question that hadn’t previously been investigated, and being rewarded with a satisfactory answer, is precisely what the ID folks never do.

At any rate, go read the whole thing. Just take the more dramatic claims of revolution with a grain of salt.

Comments

  1. #1 David D.G.
    March 14, 2007

    Thanks for the input. You really should send that first paragraph of yours, or a variation on it, to Newsweek in a letter to the editor; they really need the feedback (more than they know, I’m sure!), and with your credentials they might even take your point of critique seriously.

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 realpc
    March 14, 2007

    “For decades the reigning view had been that hunting prowess and the ability to vanquish competitors was the key to our ancestors’ evolutionary success (an idea fostered, critics now say, by the male domination of anthropology during most of the 20th century). But prey species do not owe their survival to anything of the sort, argues Sussman. Instead, they rely on their wits and, especially, social skills to survive. Being hunted brought evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to cooperate and live in cohesive groups. That, more than aggression and warfare, is our evolutionary legacy.”

    That’s really silly — obviously more a political than scientific statement. Prey animals are not generally more intelligent than preditors. And non-human apes are highly social, even if they do not have predators.

    Science has only speculation to explain the tendency for evolution to create increasing intelligence. And this theory makes no sense at all. It sounds more like feminist progressive ideology than science. Our ancestors were sweet helpless little victims, which caused them to become very clever and lovable.

  3. #3 Changcho
    March 14, 2007

    I’ll try to look up the article. The truth of the matter w.r.t. the evolution of intelligence is that we have a few educated guesses, but nothing more significant than that (please correct me if I am wrong). I don’t think anyone has a solid explanation of why our particular branch of hominids developed such intelligence (if you could call it that), and all that that implies, i.e., culture, technology etc.

  4. #4 MarkP
    March 14, 2007

    Science has only speculation to explain the tendency for evolution to create increasing intelligence.

    There are hundreds of thousands of species of beetles alone. How many species qualify as intelligent, even with the most liberal of definitions? 20? If that’s a tendency to you, I can see why you perceive design in so many places others don’t.

  5. #5 Henry
    March 15, 2007

    I thought this article provides a pretty good update to some recent development on the fascinating tale of human evolution (see my blog). I must confess though, that I did hold a more simplistic “single file parade” – and I blame on the textbooks back in my days.

    I see that the education system has failed the teaching of evolution – to this day, people are still mistaken about evolution being a random-mutation process, that why we have not replaced monkeys… etc – the list goes on.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    Henry:

    I must confess though, that I did hold a more simplistic “single file parade” – and I blame on the textbooks back in my days.

    Stephen Jay Gould had some good essays on this topic. I think they’re in his book Full House (among probably other places).

    I see that the education system has failed the teaching of evolution – to this day, people are still mistaken about evolution being a random-mutation process, that why we have not replaced monkeys… etc – the list goes on.

    Yes, unfortunate, isn’t it?

  7. #7 Ginger Yellow
    March 15, 2007

    It’s like calculating how long it took a typist to produce a document if you know he makes six typos per minute.

    It’s a minor point, but this is an unnecessarily poor analogy. Surely this would be more accurate and clearer: “It’s like calculating how many times a document has been copied and recopied if each copy results in six typos.”

  8. #8 Norman Doering
    March 15, 2007

    realpc wrote:

    Science has only speculation to explain the tendency for evolution to create increasing intelligence.

    Goodness gracious, man, whatever gave you the idea you had any real intelligence much less an increasing one?

  9. #9 windy
    March 15, 2007

    114,000 years ago is certainly a plausible estimate, based on other evidence, for when hominids started losing their hair.

    ??? Isn’t that a rather late estimate? Granting that there is not much evidence one way or another, that would make early modern sapiens and mitochondrial Eve fully hairy.

    And the other evidence points to earlier hair loss:
    1) Getting pubic lice from gorillas 3-4 million years ago suggests that ‘down there’ was already a distinct habitat (although the rest wasn’t necessarily completely bare)
    2) Human MRC1 gene indicates dark skin had evolved by 1.2 mya, indicating that they needed extra protection from the sun

    Who’s to say that humans started wearing clothes right after they lost their hair, anyway?

  10. #10 Larry Fafarman
    March 16, 2007

    Jason Rosenhouse said in the opening post,

    Secular science? Oh, brother. There is, of course, only one kind of science.

    Oh brother — that is really a nitpicking criticism of the article. The adjective “secular” here contrasts the secularism of science to the religiosity of the “Biblical literalists” who were mentioned in the same sentence. The author may have also been distinguishing “secular” science from “creation” science, which is at least secular in its approach because it is based only on scientific (pseudoscientific to some) observation and reasoning and does not refer to religious sources.

    What Stoneking did here, applying evolutionary theory to a small question that hadn’t previously been investigated, and being rewarded with a satisfactory answer, is precisely what the ID folks never do.

    So the ID folks never apply ID to a small question that hasn’t previously been investigated or are never rewarded with a satisfactory answer? Come on!

  11. #11 Brando
    March 16, 2007

    I can’t wait to pick-up the follow issue to read all of the nasty Creationist comments :)

  12. #12 windy
    March 16, 2007

    OK, I realize this subject may not be as interesting as the religion wars :) but what was that other evidence on human hair loss you referred to, Jason?

  13. #13 MarkP
    March 17, 2007

    The adjective “secular” here contrasts the secularism of science to the religiosity of the “Biblical literalists” who were mentioned in the same sentence.

    Bullshit. The “secular” adjective is in there as a pejorative, as in “secular progressive” and as “liberal”. It is also to imply there is another kind of science, as your response reveals, namely creation “science”, which is of course complete nonsense. Creationism is not science because it begins with the conclusion it wants, derived from a religious source, and cherry picks, or flat ignores, the data from there.

    So the ID folks never apply ID to a small question that hasn’t previously been investigated or are never rewarded with a satisfactory answer?

    No, they don’t. They merely sit back while others do the science and pompously declare they knew it all along. They do not think it would be “fruitful” to attempt collecting that “pathetic level of detail”. It’s a common failing of those convinced by faith that they know The Truth ™.

  14. #14 bmkmd
    March 17, 2007

    Unitelligent “Design”

    What struck me most about the article in Newsweek, “Beyond Stones and Bones” on March 19, 2007 was the matter of fact presentation of the natural selection of hominid variations.

    This presentation of mutiple dead ends, alive at the same time we, homo sapiens, were separating from other apes was a powerful demonstration of unintelligent “design”, i.e. evolution by natural selction. No straight line to humanity, but variety from which the fittest survived. No indetifiable intelligence. No design, but for the natural process of survival of some, dead ends for other species.

    Despite its faults, it might well be part of biology teachers’ presntation of evolution by natural selection and a counter-example for ID-trained hecklers trying to sneek (un)intelligent design into science classes.

  15. #15 Pieter B
    March 18, 2007

    If you click the link just below the title of Ms. Begley’s article called Transcript: Sharon Begley on the new science of evolution, you go to the transcript of a “live chat” about the article in which she does a pretty good job of fielding questions on the fly, IMHO. A number of the questions were from ID/creationist types, such as this one:

    Hobbs, NM: Why wouldn’t you credit some superior being with the unexplained jumps in human evolution?

    Sharon Begley: You’re certainly free to do that (see previous answer). But to me, that’s not too interesting, because it stops the conversation dead. In other words, if you ask a question about the natural world — be it where lightning comes from, or why volcanoes erupt, or how planets were formed or how humans evolved — and assert that the answer is (basically) “God did it,” that puts an end to inquiry. You just have no reason to go out and discover electrical phenomena in the atmosphere, or magma and the Earth’s mantle, or the fossil record of human evolution. So, as I say, not a very interesting way of proceeding.

    It’s unfortunate that the theme of the feature is “Scientists were WRONG,” but I’m leaning toward the view that that was an editorial decision.

  16. #16 Joan Ledford
    March 20, 2007

    “God did it” satisfies our children (age 5-23 years) plus it gives us time to explore the world we live in rather than sit and write about it. If all the money going toward research were put in the pockets of those who feed us (many brown/dark skinned friends of mine) we/they would be a lot better off.
    This same answer, “God did it” has been just fine for all of us (me, my husband and our children mentioned above) after the recent death of our son (Dec. 2004.)

    Evolution becomes an even greater dead end when you ‘lose’ a child to death. He loved living—-and not a one of his doctors could offer any hope though they studied all the genetic and DNA stuff.

    Grow up folks. There’s more to life than a good read. Check out the stars tonite. They have been awesome here in Michigan.

  17. #17 Larry Fafarman
    March 22, 2007

    MarkP said,

    The adjective “secular” here contrasts the secularism of science to the religiosity of the “Biblical literalists” who were mentioned in the same sentence.
    Bullshit. The “secular” adjective is in there as a pejorative, as in “secular progressive” and as “liberal”. It is also to imply there is another kind of science, as your response reveals, namely creation “science”, which is of course complete nonsense.

    IMO you are really paranoid to read that much into the meaning of the word “secular” in this context. As I showed, the word can be interpreted as having a neutral meaning in this context, and I feel that the author is entitled to the benefit of the doubt as to whether the intended meaning was neutral.

    So the ID folks never apply ID to a small question that hasn’t previously been investigated or are never rewarded with a satisfactory answer?

    No, they don’t. They merely sit back while others do the science and pompously declare they knew it all along.

    Baloney. In books about ID, the authors often apply the concept of ID and interpret the results.

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