The Loom

Return to Hobbit Limbo

hobbit head-lo.jpg
So let’s recap: It’s been almost eight months now since scientists announced the discovery of Homo floresiensis, the diminutive people that some claim belong to a new branch of hominid evolution and skeptics claim were just small humans. We seem to have entered a lull in the flow of new scientific information about Homo floresiensis. The last thing we heard from its discoverers came in March, when they published scans of the Homo floresiensis braincase, which bolstered their case that the skull they found didn’t happen to belong to someone with a birth defect. The skeptics have made various noises about evidence that the fossils are indeed pathological, and thus can’t be the basis for recognizing a new species. They have told reporters about their visits to pygmies who live near the fossil site on the Indonesian island of Flores. But they have yet to publish any of this in a scientific journal, where their claims could be put to some serious scrutiny. For example, you can’t refute the claim that the fossils are a separate hominid species by showing that living pygmies on Flores are very short. You also have to deal with the odd body proportions of Homo floresiensis, such as its long arms. Perhaps these are pathological too, but no one has gone on the scientific record yet.

For now Homo floresiensis junkies like myself have to content ourselves with scraps: the various details of the nasty battles between the discoverers of the fossils and their foe, Teuku Jacob, grand old man of Indonesian anthrolopology and lead skeptic. An article in today’s Los Angeles Times, offers the latest overview of the squabbles. If you are new these misadventures, it’s pretty good way to catch up. For those who keep up on this stuff, I see a couple interesting new tidbits.

1. A lot of Teuku Jacob’s arguments against this being a new species seem wacky to me, at least as they’ve been presented in the press. In the LA Times, he “argues that evolution cannot ‘go backward’ and produce a human with a smaller brain.” Perhaps Jacob will eventually make this case at length in a scientific paper, but for now I’d just say that there’s no Law of the Perpetually Increasing Brain that I’m familiar with. In fact, the mammal brain is surprisingly malleable over the course of evolution. This afternoon I will try to write up a post on a new study that makes this clear. UPDATE 6/16: Read it here.

2. Teuku Jacob took possession over the bones for a few months, and when he returned them, their discoverers claimed the delicate fossils were damaged. The damages included what appeared to be an attempt to reconstruct the jaw.

In the LA Times piece, one of the co-authors of the original Homo floresiensis report accused Jacob of trying to make the skull look more like a member of our own species (the other hominid species that lived in Indonesia, Homo erectus, had a weaker jaw).

For the first time that I’m aware of, Jacob admits that he was trying to “improve” the skull. “We tried to improve some of the things,” he acknowledged. “We didn’t damage any bones. Actually, we improved some.” Improve, or match your preconceptions?

3. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the controversy has now resulted in a complete halt to digging in the cave where the original fossils were found. Apparently the team that discovered the fossils didn’t get the proper permits from the Indonesian Institute of Science, although they believed they had. Now the Institute has decided that digging should stop, so that the dispute won’t get worse. While I can only judge this decision from a brief summary in a news article, the logic behind it baffles me. I doubt that forcing scientists to cool their heels while clues to what could be one of the most important discoveries in human evolution wait to be found on Flores will put them in a more pleasant mood. What’s more, digging in the cave could yield evidence that can settle this dispute once and for all—such as DNA, the odds of finding may have gone up thanks to the invention of new methods for culling it from the environment.

It’s frustrating to know that we could be enjoying a scientific feast, when all that’s on the menu for the foreseeable future are scraps like these.

Comments

  1. #1 William Dyson
    June 15, 2005

    Neanderthals had a larger brain than modern humans, yet they did not survive. This may be another case of “backward” evolution.

  2. #2 Tom Kimmerer
    June 15, 2005

    Indonesians are quite sensitive about foreign scientists studying ‘their’ culture. In addition, Islam is generally anti-evolution, at least in its more fundamentalist forms. Prof. Jacob clearly drew his conclusions before seeing the specimens, and has since been defending his preconceived classification of the specimens as H. sapiens. It is no surprise to me that he is strongly backed by the Indonesian government, academia and press. Pak Jacob is a revered figure in Indonesian academic circles, and it is no surprise that academia and government institutions would rally around him. Indonesian culture is much more respectful toward academics and elders than is western culture. The permit denial by LIPI is not at all surprising.

  3. #3 Linguist
    June 15, 2005

    I’d like to hear thoughts on Jacob’s motivations in this dispute. Political? Religious? Ego? I don’t know enough about the man to judge…but I’m surprised to see a “grand old man of Indonesian anthrolopology” seemingly impeding science in such a way.

  4. #4 Jason Malloy
    June 15, 2005

    Oh my god, this Jacob guy is a lunatic. Almost the entire animal kingdom has been “backward evolving”, for 200,000, as body sizes and brain cases have been shriking in a global pattern. The whole concept of “backward evolving” is scientific junk. The Flores “pathological” argument, if really continuing, reminds me of Creationists who say neanderthals were just humans with arthritis. The pictures of the microcephalic skull and brain compared with the Flores skull and brain and an Erectus skull and brain are publically available. The Flores skull has huge, angular and robust erectine brows and jaw (unlike the microcephalic). The microcephalic brain is smooth and pathological, the Flores brain cast looks nothing like the pathological brain and shares all the distinctive but normal features of the larger erectus brain cast.

  5. #5 Jason Malloy
    June 15, 2005

    Tom and Linguist,

    It has nothing to do with Islamic Creationism on Dr. Jacob’s part. If you are looking for the motive, Dr. Jacob is a multiregionalist.

  6. #6 Milo Johnson
    June 15, 2005

    What is truly frightening is that someone who seems to get granted at least a modicum of credibility as a scientist clings to the notion that “evolution” means “improvement” (measured only by his own subjective opinion) rather than “adaptation” to environment.

    (That’s why, for example, the ID crowd has such tiny brains. Their environment doesn’t require that particular adaptation to be viable and successful in their ecological niche…)

  7. #7 Jacqui
    June 15, 2005

    The gossip I’ve heard about the odd behaviour of the Indonesians (seizing of skeleton, denying digging permits etc.) largely centres around strong political influence coming from other camps in Australia (there’s quite a turf war, both intellectual and geographical, going on over this). Sad when people’s egos and determination to be ‘right’ impede science.

  8. #8 John Wilkins
    June 15, 2005

    Jacob’s team, more reprehensibly, damaged the pelvis beyound repair. This affects the ability of researchers to reconstruct the stance of the Hobbit (I really hate that name), and also to determine if the birth canal matches the head morphology. [According to Colin Groves, a primatologist and specialist in human evolution.]

  9. #9 Tom Kimmerer
    June 15, 2005

    I wasn’t suggesting that Pak Jacob himself is an Islamic creationist, but that the structure of Indonesian science institutions including LIPI has an anti-evolutionary bias.

  10. #10 Jim
    June 16, 2005

    The whole situation sounds a bit like the three stooges tackling paleoanthropology to me. One wonders if its worth all the trouble? Can an unfossilized deformed skull possibly live up to the crown of “missing link”?
    Another skeptic who may have better credentials than Jacob, Professor Maciej Henneberg points out emphatically that among the remains, there is only a single skull. This leaves open the possibility of a pathological explanation. This short debate on Australia’s Lateline is entertaining and a little informative. Its also amusing when “hobbit” team member Professor Richard Roberts breaks down towards the end as he defends his position. The entire scenario illustrates a major problem in the field of human evolution. Researchers often seem to lose their objectivity to “protect” their evolutionary niche. Rather than cooperation to find the ultimate truth they resort to selfish and petty tactics to be the first to publish. Its the yellow journalism of science.

  11. #11 snaxalotl
    June 16, 2005

    yew darwinianists har all gonna BURN IN HELL dontchew know there are no proof dinosuars cos “dinosuar” fossils har all unfotunate peoples with bad case of dinosuarism, arthritis and hooping cough

  12. #12 Jason Malloy
    June 16, 2005

    “Can an unfossilized deformed skull possibly live up to the crown of “missing link”?”

    This is misleading. The question isn’t about “the missing link” but if the bones are human or hominid. There is only 1 skull but there are other bones from 6 separate specimens. The skull isn’t the only part of the skeleton with pertinent information. The brain cast is nearly identical to the erectus brain cast, and the non-skull bones are distinctly erectine:

    ” . . . It has a suite of clearly archaic traits which are replicated in a variety of early hominids and these archaic traits are not found in any abnormal humans which have ever been recorded. We now have the remains of 5 or 6 other individuals from the site, so it’s not just one. There’s a population of these things now and they all share the same features.”

    A pathology explanation appears highly in doubt.

    Further the issue goes beyond this scientific debate to the issues of hording and damaging rare and priceless specimens, and abusing governmental authority to effectively cut-off further exploration.

  13. #14 Tom Metcalfe
    June 16, 2005

    I think the Australian research team might have been more cautious with their claims until more evidence was in. They have extensively pumped the television and news coverage of their discoveries, and long before we had the brain case scans (which themselves are open to some interpretation) we had the discoverers and their buddies at Discovery and Nature telling tales of a heroic hobbit race sailing the Pacific on rafts and hunting pygmy elephants, forming the basis for local legends, finding and destroying the Ring of Power, etc — all this on the grounds of one skull. The science has been hidden by spin.

  14. #15 Torfinn Ørmen
    June 16, 2005

    Something is very odd. If quoted correctly Jacob is now saying that the damage to the bones happened on the way to Yogyakarta (when the bones were in Jacob’s custody), while he earlier said that it was the original researchers who were careless and damaged the bones themselves. Prof. Henneberg saw the bones in Jacob’s lab before they were returned and when asked (on a mailing list) he stated that the bones were not damaged when he saw them. Jacob has also denied that his people made casts, but one working in his lab has admitted to making a cast of the LB1 mandible. It looks like someone is not telling the whole truth about what happened.

  15. #16 Kyra
    June 16, 2005

    “argues that evolution cannot ‘go backward’ and produce a human with a smaller brain.”

    It isn’t a question of evolution going forward or backward, because evolution has no direction except towards better adaptation to the current environment.

    People sometimes think evolution means everything is evolving with some concrete goal in mind–that organisms change only to become smarter, faster, stronger, or what have you. This is obviously what Teuku Jacob thinks, and he fits perfectly Ambrose Bierce’s definition of positive: mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

    A being with a smaller, less complex brain requires a smaller amount of resources to support it than one with a larger, more complex brain. In an environment where resources are limited, a being that needs less will be more likely to survive. Thus, what Jacob calls “backward” is, in such an environment, actually going “forward” toward better adaptation to the environment.

    Natural selection provides for survival of the species, not for how “advanced” a species can get before it goes extinct.

  16. #17 david
    June 18, 2005

    These remains are now the center of a substantial international controversy. Indonesia’s Professor Teuku Jacob, who had allegedly agreed to return the bones (to the Australian team which made the discovery) by 1 January this year, finally returned them on 23 February.

    However, while the bones were in his custody, he permitted two other Australian scientists to study them in detail—Dr Alan Thorne of the Australian National University, and Professor Maciej Henneberg, of the Department of Anatomical Sciences at the University of Adelaide. The discoverers have protested loudly at the alleged impropriety of this pair studying ‘stolen remains’.

    Following their three-day examination of the most complete specimen, Professor Henneberg said it confirmed his previous opinion, gained from studying the reports, that this was a modern human who had a brain-shrinking disorder called microcephaly. He is reported as saying that there is now ‘absolutely no doubt that this person had a growth disorder.’

    http://smh.com.au/news/Science/Hobbit-just-a-little-man-with-small-brain/2005/02/18/1108709439138.html

    Whether the tiny people of Flores were indeed microcephalic modern types, or whether they represent a pygmy version of so-called Homo erectus, the point is really the same. Namely, that there is no reason not to classify them all—the Flores inhabitants as well as H. erectus—as Homo sapiens—part of the range of variation found within a single species (see also Skull wars: new ‘Homo erectus’ skull in Ethiopia).

    In fact, evolutionist Alan Thorne is one of those who, along with the University of Michigan’s Milford Wolpoff, has been saying for years to his paleoanthropological colleagues that, even though they believe that H. erectus evolved into modern humans, it is wrong to assign a separate species name to it. Thorne and Henneberg are natural allies in this; Henneberg has recently published his findings that if you bunch all the ‘apemen’ in together, they exhibit the range of variation one would normally find within a single species!

    Henneberg M., de Miguel C., Hominins are a single lineage: brain and body size variability does not reflect postulated taxonomic diversity of hominins, Homo. 55(1–2):21–37, 2004.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15553266

  17. #18 Peter Klevius
    June 25, 2005

    A stunning photo that really makes one think abt M130 and brain qualities (regardless of size)!

    OK that put aside this is all about protecting Islam and yes, Teuku Jacob is a crypto-creationist in line with the usual balancing between fundamentalism and an Islam that pretends being modern (By the way, Australia has already a law making it impossible to critisize Islam!).

    Take a look at Out of Africa as Pygmies and back as global “Mongoloids”. Maybe the Hobbit represents the first OOA-delivey of a more wrinkled brain that later replaced all the other?

  18. #19 Jason Malloy
    June 25, 2005

    “OK that put aside this is all about protecting Islam and yes, Teuku Jacob is a crypto-creationist in line with the usual balancing between fundamentalism and an Islam that pretends being modern”

    At least try to have an ounce of real evidence beyond someone’s ethnicity if you are going to make wild accusations like this. If he was a Creationist he would’ve arranged for Duane Gish or William Dembski to analyze the bones, not Alan Thorne and Maciej Henneberg*.

    *http://www.corante.com/loom/archives/2005/02/24/return_of_the_prodigal_bones.php

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