23 October 2011


Dean Falk. The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution. University of California Press, 2011.

The interest in this book for Magonia readers will be in the discussion of how science deals with dramatic anomalies, in this case in the field of human evolution. The examples given are the discovery of Australopithecus africanus by Raymond Dart in 1924, and the discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "The Hobbit" in 2004.
At the time of Dart's discovery the vision of human evolution was conditioned by the Piltdown hoax, which led anthropologists to believe that brain expansion preceded the humanisation of the rest of the body, so they imagined a human like head on an ape like body. Australopithecus showed that bipedalism developed long before major brain expansion. Dart's discovery was essentially side lined by the British establishment for many years.

Falk, who was involved with studies of the brain cast of the Hobbit , shows that similar resistance developed over that discovery, with groups who come who probably come as close to the notorious "debunkers" as has arisen in mainstream science.

The debunkers argue that the Hobbit was not an ancient hominid but a modern human with some kind of pathology, possibly microcephaly. These views tend to held against the evidence, and in at least one case by what looks like false citation. Falk argues that similar resistance greeted the discovery of Neanderthal man in the 1850s and Homo Erectus in the 1890s.

However, I rather think times have changed, it took nearly forty years for Australopithecus to be regarded as a possible human ancestor, with the Hobbit however, the debunkers are actually in a small minority, and it has been featured as a new species in virtually all the books written on human evolution in recent years. 

This is despite the fact that the Hobbit is probably the most radical scientific anomaly for many years, the presence of a creature with a chimp sized brain, walking upright and apparently making tool, as recently as 18,000 years ago was totally outside anyone's vision of human evolution, and as Falk shows, as time goes on the species gets more anomalistic, yet the majority view is not to suppress or debunk anomalies.

Rather, as with the recent case of neutrinos apparently travelling faster than light, there are at least respectful hearings, and even the sceptics rather hope they are wrong. The difference between these types of radical anomaly and those associated with the paranormal and Fortean topics, is that the former actually have evidence, whether in the form of hard physical evidence, as in the case of the Hobbit, or analysable and potentially replicable scientific results and procedures.

It should be noted that contrary to what is often thought today the reaction to the claims of parapsychologists was not one of instant and immediate dismissal, but attempts at replication. It was only when the most impressive apparent replication, that of Samuel Soal, was discredited, that parapsychology slid dramatically downhill. - Peter Rogerson.

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