Pharyngula

Zana's granddaughter

Zana’s granddaughter

Does the London Times routinely publish crackpot pseudoscience with no fact checking at all? I’ve just read their latest piece on the notorious Bryan Sykes, Bigfoot Hunter, and it’s the kind of gullible tosh I’d expect from a Murdoch tabloid. It’s got one paragraph that mentions that other scientists doubt his findings, but otherwise it’s a fluff piece for Sykes’ new book about an ape-woman…which is not only inane, but distressingly racist.

Here’s the whole article.

disgracefullondontimes

It’s total crap. Right from the beginning: Now an academic geneticist claims to have found the most promising evidence yet that Homo sapiens may not be entirely alone in its genus. That sentence is a marvel. It’s literally true: Sykes is an academic geneticist, and he does make those claims, but the question we have to ask, that a journalist ought to ask, is whether those claims are valid. Our brave reporter does not. He swallows Sykes’ PR and regurgitates it in a reportedly prestigious medium.

Look at what he’s claiming. An African woman was enslaved by 19th century racists, and she left some descendants. Sykes has analyzed DNA from people in that region and found evidence of an infusion of West African DNA into the population: you should be feeling zero surprise. A person lived, had children, died, and her descendants carry traces of her genome. That’s basic biology.

But then it goes off the rails. Sykes unquestioningly accepts the accounts of 19th century racists who regarded this woman as an animal to say that the evidence of West African ancestry somehow supports his contention that she was an ‘ape woman’ who was descended from some relic population of a Homo sub-species that had been hiding in the Caucasus Mountains for millennia, giving rise to legends of yetis and bigfoot and other beast-men in the wilderness.

That makes no sense. His own DNA analysis says she was 100 per cent African. You know “African” is not a synonym for “pre-human”, right? But he has written a whole book titled The Nature of the Beast (horrid title that also manages to suggest that an enslaved African woman was less than human), in which he advances this ludicrous theory, and the Times has obligingly fluffed it for him. At least it’ll appeal to all the UKIP voters.

I’m not even going to accept his genetic analysis. Here are a couple of papers by Gutiérrez and Pine and Edwards and Barnett that show that Sykes can’t do molecular genetics at all — his analysis of a purported Himalayan yeti hair that claimed it was a Himalayan polar bear wasn’t competently done, and is almost certainly a hair from a more reasonable species of bear.

But then, what else can you expect from someone who deplores…math? Take a look at the prominent pull quote.

Professor Sykes criticized modern genetics for its lack of ambition and its fixation on mathematics. I’m afraid the golden years are over, he said. It is a field now dominated by the arrogance of bioinformatics and, as such, has lost it’s way.

That is utterly baffling. He doesn’t like that genetics is fixated on mathematics? But genetics has relied heavily on math since Mendel! If he actually analyzed Zana’s descendants and compared them to extant human populations, he was using the principles of bioinformatics! What he seems to be saying is that he wants to ignore the data to give greater credence to the bigoted legends of Zana, the Russian ape-woman.

It is also dismaying that the London Times and their reporter, Oliver Moody, have given this garbage so much space and so little critical analysis — it’s looking a lot like The Daily Mail. Is this the state of science reporting in the south of England nowadays?

Comments

  1. #1 W Terblanche
    South Africa, Pretoria
    April 6, 2015

    6 April 2015

    I think that this type of nonfactual findings is only in the times to attract the readers attention and not to inform the readers of factual information.

    u15013953

  2. #2 jane
    April 6, 2015

    The odds are that you’re right – though it’s not fair to term the “ape-woman” description of Zana “racist”. She’s described as abnormally large and strong, at first behaving wildly, and covered with auburn hair. This surely is at least as relevant as her skin cover. Had she been lily-white under all that hair, in America at the same time, she’d probably have wound up exhibited in a circus. The Russians had ended slavery in Abkhazia in the 1850s a couple of decades before Zana was found (and there were plenty of white serfs in Russia). Zana was locked up upon her capture primarily because she was considered “a wild woman”, not because her skin (under the fur) was dark.

    Some slaves of Ottoman origin freed in the 1850s were surely African, but the number of Africans existing in remote areas of Abkhazia decades later must have been small (otherwise, they’d have been familiar to the locals, and there’d be more evidence of their presence in local genes and culture). The odds that one of them would be found who was very large, mentally disabled, and hairy must have been much smaller still. So small, in fact, that it might be worth considering alternative hypotheses.

    It is fact that multiple other human species existed in Eurasia when Homo sapiens showed up, and that at least two of these, Neanderthals and Denisovans, interbred with us successfully enough to contribute significant DNA to some current ethnic groups, before being directly or indirectly exterminated. The most recent possible divergence date for the Denisovans vs. H. sapiens was reported to be 170,000 years b.p., though that’s probably a great underestimate. If Sykes is as ignorant as you say, might he incorrectly describe such early-diverging DNA sequences (“more than 100,000 years old”) as African because he just assumes, as we were all told at some point, that the basal lineages in humans’ [anastomosing] tree of genetic variation must be African?

    So it does not seem totally impossible to me that, as Sykes apparently would like to believe, Zana belonged to another human species. Online accounts claim that one of the anthropologists who has seen a skull of one of Zana’s sons called it abnormal for the region and archaic, and that there are other modern sightings of hairy people in the region, including, allegedly, a naked hairy man captured and shot as a possible spy during World War 2. Of course we are instructed to believe that the Denisovans and so forth were successfully exterminated long ago, but it’s a big continent, and humans are very intelligent and persistent animals. You have convinced me that Sykes’ genetic work is not to be relied upon too heavily, but not that that means the work is not worth repeating in a more competent laboratory.

  3. #3 jane
    April 6, 2015

    bleh – “skin color”

  4. #4 Craig Thomas
    April 6, 2015

    It’s not just Maths that Sykes has thrown away:
    ” has lost it’s way.”
    He can’t do English, either.

  5. #5 GregH
    April 6, 2015

    Here’s an “evolutionary” analysis of UKIP. Come for the laughs, stay for the skewering!

  6. #6 Yuko Tabei
    Pretoria, South Africa
    April 7, 2015

    Based on logical reasoning, I believe that Professor Sykes claims are fallacious. It is clear that he had not undergone any tests of empiricism, falsifiability or even simply exposing his claims to rational thoughts.

  7. #7 Yuko Tabei
    Pretoria, South Africa
    April 7, 2015

    Based on logical reasoning, I believe that Professor Sykes claims are fallacious. It is clear that he had not undergone any tests of empiricism, falsifiability or even simply exposing his claims to rational thoughts.
    15066810

  8. #8 Michel Robbertse (15017037)
    Pretoria ,South Africa
    April 7, 2015

    It is true that Professor Sykes should have conducted more research before conducting an interview with the press and it is obvious that he does not appreciate the modern advances in his field.

  9. #9 de Bruyn, C.N. (12008274)
    eMpangeni, South Africa
    April 7, 2015

    I understand why one might disregard Zana as “human” by definition: she was covered in hair, was able to outrun horses and swim across a river, which I presume to be large, during high tide. However, I think the author of the article as well as Sykes should have used a more objective and less derogatory approach. For example, if one looks at her children, they look perfectly normal to me. Perhaps, she was a lady with a few genetic mutations that occurred sometime in her life. Who is to say she was born like that. I do, however, disagree with the way Sykes opinion about Maths is being misconstrued. I think Genetics is more closely related to Biology and Biochemistry than Mathematics and Statistics, and I think what he meant was that inferences are being made on samples that are inadequate, and bold conclusions are being made on these findings. I believe he wants more sampling and experimentation to take place, which could result in the possibility of more observation-based conclusions than inference-based conclusions.

  10. #10 u14121485
    April 7, 2015

    Sykes has an incompetent analysis of a strand of hair, opinions from the public – who, at the time, were at least race conscious, if not totally racist – and a sensational title. Surely this isn’t enough to convince people into believing there is another whole species of Homo Sapiens still alive among us!

    If he feels confident enough to go against confirmed methods of genetics and mathematics he needs legitimate data and evidence so support himself. The opinions and stories that have been told since those times could have been manipulated and are not reliable sources of information.

  11. #11 u14121485
    April 7, 2015

    de Bruyn, C.N. (12008274)

    I disagree with your comment on the relationship between genetics and mathematics. Mathematics in genetics isn’t only about numbers and statistics. Genetics relies on mathematics to form equations and relationships as well as maintaining order during experimentation.

    Without Mathematics there won’t be more sampling or experimentation. The sampling Sykes has done is inadequate because there is no evidence behind his theory. The conclusions Sykes has drawn from his observations can be explained with sensible thinking and data from reliable genetic analysis.

  12. #12 jane
    April 7, 2015

    u14121485 – Thirty to fifty thousand years ago, there were at least three other species of Homo still living in Eurasia and Indonesia. The evidence that any survived to modern times in Central Asia as Almas, or that Homo floresiensis was still alive recently enough to explain its persistence in folk memory as the “orang pedek”, is indeed weak. However, it’s no weaker than the evidence that the gorilla existed, before the gorilla was “discovered” by white experts; there hadn’t even been late-Pleistocene gorilla fossils from the region to prove that it had existed in the past. Just in the last few years, three fairly large new mammal species were discovered in Viet Nam. I don’t know if any of the cryptid hominins that have been repeatedly reported in various parts of the world are really extant species, or whether we will ever get to know about it before they are extinct if so. But I’m not willing to assume that anyone who reported encountering a primate species not known to science just must’ve been stupid or lying.

  13. #13 Steve
    Boston MA
    April 8, 2015

    Look, in that part of the world there are literally hundreds of stories about hairy wild people living in the hills and woods; these stories date back hundreds of years. Given that early forms of h. erectus were discovered in Georgia, and that these remains apparently date back to around 2 million years ago, it might not be totally surprising that given the right circumstances a small relict population continued to exist.
    I suspect that if we were able to sequence h. erectus DNA we’d find some commonality between them and us, and depending on the matching sequences it might not even be a misnomer to claim it was African in origin.

    I suspect Sykes’ real problem may be with the English language and how he’s describing his results and not with his results proper.

  14. #14 Craig Thomas
    April 8, 2015

    Sykes’ vague and unconvincing evidence would be much more interesting if it were one among many such cases instead of a single isolated tall story.

  15. #15 James
    San Diego
    April 8, 2015

    I know it gets lonely on the Georgian/Russian border in the winter, but for her (“covered in thick Auburn hair”) to have had 4 children from local men doesn’t indicate a very discriminating male populace when it comes to mating. Unless she forced them of course.

  16. #16 harriet
    April 8, 2015

    So with her having children I’m assuming the guy that tamed her Had sex with her?

  17. #17 Martin Watt
    United Kingdom
    April 8, 2015

    I find it amazing how much this story has changed from the TV series Sykes did about bigfoot.

    His views seem to have changed radically since then, presumably because that is what his publishers want, because they think it will be a bigger revenue earner.

    The Daily Mail also covered the story. I initially though it was just their point on a slack news day. But Sykes really does seem to have lost his objectivity.

  18. #18 u14121485
    April 8, 2015

    Jane – I may not have expressed myself quite clearly in my comment, I didn’t mean that the people who reported encountering a primate species were stupid or lying, I meant that somewhere along the line the story might have been misunderstood or misconveyed. Just because the evidence is weak, I don’t think it should be completely disregarded. From a scientific point of view, I would have expected concrete evidence so support such a bold statement.

  19. #19 Joerg Hensiek
    April 8, 2015

    “I find it amazing how much this story has changed from the TV series Sykes did about bigfoot.

    This is called scientific progress. Simple as that. One year ago he simply did not have the evidence he seems to have now (at that time he probably still had to examine the possibility that Zana was just a descendant of an African slave.) I find it astonishing how people here comment on the work of one of the best geneticists on human DNA on this planet BEFORE they have read the paper!!! They base their claims and opinions on an article and two statements in the Daily Mail!! Congratulations for such intellectual honesty!!! 😉 And yes, : an Oxford prof, who will publish a scientific paper on the Zana case in the near future, will of course make wrong claims in order to sell a popular book, most certainly!!! :-))

  20. #20 Joerg Hensiek
    April 8, 2015

    for a more balanced view on Sykes`s Zana results (if this, like any opinion, is possible before we know the paper) see here:
    http://patagoniamonsters.blogspot.de/2015/04/on-african-of-ape-woman-zana.html

  21. #21 Craig Thomas
    April 9, 2015

    Let me get this straight, Joerg:
    Sykes writes a book *before* publishing any scientific paper, but nobody is allowed to comment on his book *until* Sykes’ paper is published?

    Is that your idea of how things work in von-Daniken-Land?

  22. #22 chris y
    April 11, 2015

    The Times (the London paper, to differentiate it from the New York Times) *is* a Murdoch tabloid. Previously it was a Murdoch broadsheet and before that it was a reputable newspaper. But that was a long time ago.

    Because of its long history, some people who would give Murdoch’s other titles a wide berth still associate themselves with it, but as a source it should be treated with considerable circumspection.

  23. #23 Igor Burtsev
    Moscow, Russia
    April 11, 2015

    1. Don’t accuse Dr. Sykes too strong, it was just a newsparers’ writing, not himself’s. I wrote him a letter to ask, if it was his opinion. His response was: “Not true I am afraid. I am trying to establish this from the DNA of Zana’s descendants, but it is proving difficult… and if it results, in a a paper you and your colleagues will certainly be invited to be authors… ”
    2. According to the new classification in anthropology, humans are apes too. And if to say strictly, we are animals too, though intelligent ones 🙂 And let’s to be such ones 🙂
    3. Anyway, I can’t defend Sykes’ conclusions, because:
    a) he didn’t analyze DNA of descendants on MATERNAL line: all descendants were of Zana’s sons, not daughters;
    b) in his disposal there was a tooth from the woman’s skull, buried by the Khwit’s grave. In NYUniv. Dr. Todd Dissotel determined, they were close relatives – i.e. she could be Zana. The same result was determined in AL institute. But Dr. Sykes conciedered they were not relatives. And he didn’t srudy that sample more deep. It’s now under study in two other institutions, we shall see what will be result.

  24. #24 izen
    April 15, 2015

    @-jane
    “– Thirty to fifty thousand years ago, there were at least three other species of Homo still living in Eurasia and Indonesia. The evidence that any survived to modern times in Central Asia as Almas, or that Homo floresiensis was still alive recently enough to explain its persistence in folk memory as the “orang pedek”, is indeed weak….
    @-Steve
    “Look, in that part of the world there are literally hundreds of stories about hairy wild people living in the hills and woods; these stories date back hundreds of years. Given that early forms of h. erectus were discovered in Georgia, and that these remains apparently date back to around 2 million years ago,”

    The claim that the stories of yeti, bigfoot, elves, trolls and ogres, represents some sort of ‘folk’ memory of encounters with other hominids in recent times is grossly underestimating the fecund creativity of the Human imagination. Most folk tales of wild hairy hominids exist in a context of stories that also including shape-changing magical creatures, Olympian Deities, Asgardian Gods and fire-breathing dragons. Adducing stories that anthropomorphise human fears of the unknown and the other as evidence of recent interaction with a surviving hominid species is about as credible as invoking Bram Stoker as evidence for the existence of immortal blood-sucking vampire zombies.

  25. #25 Katlego Ntshudisane
    Pretoria
    April 16, 2015

    The level of mediocrity that is depicted in the article clearly highlights the very incompetent Professor Sykes. The article about the Zana the apewoman is rather disappointing and that an Academic would support his ideas from non existent evidence. Such ideologies coming from individuals such as Professor Sykes makes one question the validity of science in general.

  26. #26 Katlego Ntshudisane
    Pretoria
    April 16, 2015

    (u14018676)

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