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Saga of ‘the Hobbit’ highlights a science in crisis

Monday, 11 February 2013
by Darren Curnoe

The discovery of the skeleton of the Homo floresiensis has sparked significant debate among evolutionary scientists. Homo floresiensis. Photo credit

To state the obvious: human evolution is not without its drama – and the latest salvo in the ongoing Hobbit, or Homo floresiensis, battle confirms this yet again.

The 2004 announcement of Homo floresiensis – dubbed “the Hobbit” – marked the beginning of a saga all too frequent in the rarefied field of human evolution.

Immediately upon its announcement, anthropologists divided along long-entrenched party lines to support or oppose the find as something novel to science.

Is it a highly unusual new species? Or just a diseased modern human?

Last year saw articles clashing over whether the Liang Bua Cave specimens were simply modern human cretins: neither side gave any ground.

The latest cannonade from the “pro” camp marks the beginning of the 2013 battle: the highly unusual anatomy of the wrist bones of a second Hobbit individual.

The findings themselves are important, but the debate about Homo floresiensis is also fundamental because of what it tells us about the science of human evolution – a discipline in deep conceptual crisis.

A peculiar science

The science of human evolution – known as palaeoanthropology, the study of ancient humans – is a rather odd field. It combines a mix of elements seldom seen in other disciplines.

The subject – human fossils – are exceedingly rare and difficult to find, and specimens are often incomplete or damaged. Sample sizes are usually very small, often too small to do any meaningful statistics.

And, a single find can offer a major challenge, effectively sweeping away long-entrenched ideas.

The field has a disproportionately high public and media profile: just type “human evolution” into Google and it brings up 131 million results.

It attracts researchers from diverse fields such as anthropology, archaeology, anatomy, genetics and geology, among others, with sometimes very different standards about what constitutes scientific evidence.

There are more opinions about various aspects of human evolution then there are fossils to test them on.