JRR Tolkien described hobbits as short, large footed and about a meter high. It is almost like he’d seen one, because apparently they were real and living on the island of Flores in Indonesia. In 2003 archeologists discovered the bones of a hominid that stood about a meter high. It had large feet. They also lived in caves, or holes in the Earth. Not nasty, dirty, wet holes, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet dry, bare, sandy holes with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a Homo floresiensis-hole, and that means comfort. They lived from about 17,000 to 95,000 years ago. They hunted, used stone tools, made fire, but their brains were small, almost 1000 cm smaller than a human brain. Clearly, they overlapped in time with humans (anatomically modern humans show up about 200,000 years ago). And they might have even been humans, a debate still rages.
In fact, it’s the debate I want to focus on, because it gives a paradigmatically beautiful example of science in action. It shines a light on what science is and what it is not. And sketches out how science is credentialed and who gets to play in the science game. For now, I’ll set aside my personal theory—that these bones represent real hobbits who dressed in greens and yellows and liked nothing more than a pint of ale from the Green Dragon. I personally feel that in time, we will find the fossil remains of elves, dwarves and perhaps even a dragon or two. But for now I’ll just let my theory slide and allow evidence to accumulate until my view becomes mainstream. In what follows below I draw on Kenneth W. Krouse’s recent, very detailed write-up of the debates in the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. Also, all of the quotes I provide are grossly misrepresented caricatures of what they really said. I had to do that to shorten it down to its essence, which I think is fairly done.
The discoverers, two paleoarcheologists, Brown and Morwood, quickly published in Nature a paper detailing this unique creature and pointed out that it seemed a bizarre mix of human and early hominid features. They also had a nearly complete skull and argued that it most resembled a Homo erectus but that its legs seemed to be more like the Australopithecines, which lived 3.5 million years ago (Lucy being the most famous). Many species of animals get smaller as they evolve in small island ecosystems. It’s called ‘island dwarfism’. This is what happened with this hominid, they argued.
‘Not so,’ claimed two biological anthropologists, Henneberg and Thorne, ‘Tis, but a case of microcephaly, a human malady that causes such aberrations in human populations.’ But Hanneberg and Thornes rebuttal had not been published in a peer reviewed journal, and Brown and Morwood, shot back with something like, “Idiots that would never pass peer review!”
Then it does. In a National Academy of Science (FYI, very prestigious) paper Jacob makes a detailed comparison of the hobbit bones with the skeletal features of regional humans and declares, “Looks like microcephaly to me.”
University of Chicago, expert of growth, weighs in in Science, with “Ain’t never seen a case of Island Dwarfism that extreme. I’m going with microcephaly.”
Then Richards, an expert on human evolution, says, “You know to get this kind of creature so human-like would take massive parallel evolution. Too much.”
But the debate isn’t over. Falk a brain evolution expert, does casts of the brain using CT scans and resins and gets a look at what the brain actually looked like. He compares it to humans, apes, australopithecines, H. erectus, pigmies, and microcephalics. He argued, “Ain’t human. Ain’t microcephalic. Ain’t ape. Closest is H. erectus, but looks even more like something we ain’t seen before.”
More hobbits are found, hard to argue multiple cases of microcephaly.
Weber says, “It has some features of microcephalics.”
Martin weighs in again, “Yeah, and these tools are human not H. erectus.
But now the tide starts to turn.
Brumm, disagrees, “These tools are so H. erectus.”
Tocheri, in the journal Science looks carefully at the wrists, “This is closer to apes and australopithecines.”
Jungers in Nature weighs in on foot bone structure, “These feet are not human, more australopithecine.”
Two British paleontologists, Weston and Lister, “Say we see this level of island dwarfism in hippos.”
Right now, this six-year-old debate seems to be swinging toward hobbits being non-human representatives of an extinct species of hominid.
What is interesting about this and why I brought it up. Is that it illustrates how science works. Qualified people were given access to the data. The debate was argued in the open with transparent access so that others could see and evaluate what had been done and even reproduce it if necessary. The debate was carried out under the auspices of peer review, meaning that it had to meet certain rigorous standards. All were trained experts in their field. The debate was vigorous, there was (and this is a real quote from Krause’s overview), “name-calling, side-taking, and wagon-circling.” Real reputations were at stake. But through it all, the evidence was used, reviewed, dissected and argued over. New measurements were introduced. New comparisons were made. Digging for more fossils continued and still continues so larger and better samples could be made available. In only one case was a non-peer reviewed appeal to the public made and that was quickly corrected. This is science in action. This is the kind of dogfight I write about in my first post. I encourage you to look at this debate. It’s wonderful, assessable and carried out in some of the best journals we have.
Quickly compare this to Discovery Institute’s, so called, Intelligent Design. No peer-review article ever. No evidence used. No engagement with those working in the field of evolution. Only appeals to the public. Science? Not even close.
Krause, K. W. 2009. Pathology or Paradigm Shift? Human Evolution, Ad Hominem Science, and the Anomalous Hobbits of Flores. Skeptical Inquirer. 33(4): 31-39.