Monday morning notes

27 08 2007

This weekend has been a bit slow, probably because Saturday kicked my butt. My wife and I headed out to the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water, hiked up to Sunfish Pond and then back down, about 10 miles over glacial till and scree all the way up and down. While the first few miles up are pretty bland, we did see plenty of fungi, toads, frogs, and a few three-lined skink that I will have pictures of later today (as well as pictures from the last time I was petsitting, including deer, cedar waxwings, turkey vultures, and eastern goldfinch). I also found a fossil cast of some bivalves, although I have no idea what genera/species and can’t say where it came from being that the surface is a random assortment a rock deposited by glaciers.

On the reading front, I didn’t get as much done as I wanted but I still was able to get a good bit down. I finished Where Darwin Meets the Bible and I wasn’t very impressed by it. It can be a good source of information if you’re already familiar with the debate, but the style of writing (resembling a newspaper article) and the fact that creationists and evolutionary biologists carry equal weight didn’t do much to win me over. While the book tries hard to take sides, being objective glosses over some important information, i.e. Jonathan Wells is presented at least once as being some sort of authority on textbooks and evolution, even though it’s been conclusively shown that his criteria were biased and inaccurate. While some of the comments on the back cover (like the one from David Raup) commed the author for this “even handed” approach, in the end I think it does a disservice to the reader. Indeed, it seems that the author merely asked each of the people mentioned/interviewed what happened or what they think and printed it without much further investigation, leaving the reader to figure things out (and therefore to agree with whatever side one is already aligned with/leaning towards). It wasn’t all bad, however, and the last section had a few good bits in it. The very last point, that both sides view themselves as the honorable underdogs, is especially accurate, and I have little doubt that I won’t see the end of debate on this issue. (And once again, if you want to read a good, fair book about creationists and how they operate, pick up Toumey’s God’s Own Scientists)

I also finished Bowler’s Theories of Human Evolution: A Century of Debate 1844-1944, and it turned out to be a very useful book. While there are some notable omissions (like the work of Buffon), it is an excellent resource and provides a good overview about how thoughts involving human evolution (and evolution in general) have changed during the century covered in the book. I was definitely surprised to see how widespread the idea of convergence in human evolution was, a popular notion being that people in Asia had evolved from orangutans and those in Europe from Gorillas, leading to different races being different “species” of human. It was also interesting to note that many scientists recognized Eoanthropus (or “Piltdown Man”) as being a fraud from the beginning, although it did not finally resign it’s status in the literature until about 1950. Discussions of Dart’s Taung child and the idea of a vital force driving human evolution are also highlights, and I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in how our ideas of evolution have evolved in and of themselves.

I’ve also read most of Morgan’s Scars of Evolution (it’s only about 175 pages long), and so far I’m not very impressed with it. I only have about 50 pages left to read, and Morgan has yet to fully lay out her case for an Aquatic Ape stage in human evolution, and she instead tries to refute competing hypotheses and win by default. No references are given in the text for claims that she makes, making it nearly impossible to fact check what she’s saying, and overall the case seems pretty weak. Indeed, the whole hypothesis seems to have the problem of starting with humans and trying to explain each part of our current anatomy within an aquatic framework, the evidence being possible convergences in a handful of aquatic species. Taphonomy is also misunderstood or ignored, Morgan claiming that because “Lucy” was found in a deposit that suggested a proximity to water Australopithecus should be shown wading in swamps/lakes and not crossing plains. The fact that rivers, lakes, streams, and other habitats near water would preserve dead creatures better than more terrestrial habitats is ignored. If such arguments are the best that the AAH camp can come up with, the hypothesis is on pretty shaky ground at best. Still, I’m open to hearing the arguments, and I’ll breeze through Morgan’s Descent of the Child later tonight, the book attempting to apply the AAH to human babies.

Outside of all that, I’m trying to squeeze as much enjoyment as possible out of this last week of summer (I start classes on September 5th). Even so, this morning while driving to work the air was cool and had just a hint of an almost imperceptible scent of fall, and I know that I’ll soon be counting the days until May comes back around again. I definitely don’t think that I made the most of my summer (I didn’t even take a vacation or any days off), but then again I always lament the waning of summer, and I definitely wish I could migrate south for the coming fall and winter.


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5 responses

27 08 2007
Will Baird

I’ve interacted with Ms Morgan back in the day on the paleo anthro usenet group. I have to say that I was not terribly impressed with her then and her work has gotten more and more irrelevant as time as gone on. The discoveries have all but wiped out the possible window of a aquatic ape phase. I don’t think you ought to waste your time with the Soggy Monkey Theory anymore.

27 08 2007
Bora Zivkovic

Will is right. 80 years ago…heck, even 25 years ago, Aquatic Ape could have been treated as an alternative hypothesis and tested (it failed on every point). Today, it is just crackpottery. I did have fun reading Morgan some dozen years ago as an excercise for a new grad student, finding as much wrong with it as possible.

BTW, your long history of the ideas of what is human has been submitted for the anthology. Please enter some other posts as well….soon.

27 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the comments/suggestions guys. I actually don’t believe in the AAH at all, but I figured that I might as well see what Morgan has to say so I can better combat people who bring the idea up. I’ve approached it in much the same way as I did Feduccia’s book on bird evolution; I think it’s important for me to know in terms of the history and impacts of science (especially in the public realm), even if I know it’s wrong. The Descent of the Child is exceptionally boring and The Scars of Evolution was unimpressive, at best (there is little to no positive evidence for the AAH given within its scant pages), so when I finish The Descent of Woman tomorrow I’ll write something up about the ideas and how they fit into ideas of human evolution. I know that Jim has already done a great job of refuting it on his webpage, but I figured that I’d throw in my two cents as well.

And thanks for letting me know about my post being submitted, Bora! I’m really quite proud to even know it’d be considered, and even though I’d have some editing to do, I’m glad it will be considered. I’m cooking up some substantial posts on marine mammal evolution, evolutionary convergence, and the history of what we think about dinosaurs, so hopefully I’ll have some more high-quality stuff ready in the near future! Just being able to have my posts considered for the inclusion in the anthology has made me want to be a better science blogger, so thanks for getting it going in the first place.

28 08 2007
archaeozoo

The ‘Theories of Human Evolution’ sound interesting. I’ll have to keep an eye open for that one.

15 09 2011
Placida

Good morning!? your internetsite is absolute interesting. I am pretty sure I am coming back to see more entries.

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